January 5, 1996
And nothing gainst time's scythe can make defence,
Save breed to brave him when he takes thee hence.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Death is a good subject to avoid, which is what we do for most of our lives. It's a good subject to avoid because it's unpleasant and there's damn little that we can do about it. Yet, there comes a time in most of our lives when it has to be dealt with. Some deal with it directly and some avoid dealing with it --which is also a way of dealing with it. Like it or not, we do have to deal with death; either our own death or the death of someone dear to us.
I know people who believe in an after life and people who didn't. I haven't noticed much difference in the reactions of these two types of people with regard to death and dying -almost everyone fears it.
The subject of death has been much on my mind lately. With every year that passes, I am reminded that, if I'm lucky, I can expect 20 more years of life. I have no idea how many of them will be good years. What makes it worse is the fact that those precious years seem to be slipping away a hellofalot faster than they used to. In short, that feeling of immortality that I had for most of my life, has deserted me.
When someone with incurable cancer seems well, the medicos say that he is in remission. That word, remission, implies that the patient is doomed and has a temporary reprieve from death. It also implies that his doctor isn't doomed. That this isn't so, should be obvious. Even the doctor was merely in remission on the day that he was born. I knew a man who got leukemia in his sixties. He went into a long remission and outlived the doctor who pronounced this verdict of doom.
Some time ago, I read a book by comedienne Gilda Radner about her experience with cancer. She died less than a year after the book was written. It was an honest and well written account of her experience with cancer. While the account was honest, the story was one of deception after deception; by herself, her doctors and the people around her. She never did come to terms with her mortality. If she had, her few remaining years might have been filled with living instead of dying -she also might not have written a book. She spent some good years fighting a fight that was unwinable from the start. Few were willing to tell her that her condition was incurable and the few people who tried to tell her were made to feel as if they were being cruel. She surrounded herself with people who supported her delusion that she was curing herself with the help of her fellow patients and chemotherapists. She ignored the fact that chemotherapy may buy time; but it rarely cures. Presidential candidate Paul Tsongas also seemed unaware of that fact.
I have known a number of people who have died of cancer. The fighters have been miserable -but busy- for much of the time. Those who accepted whatever the realities were seemed to me to do better. The end, of course, was death for both; as it is for all of us. Several people I've known who have dealt with their impending death by accepting it told me, before they died, that the last years had been some of the best that they had known. They had gotten a lot closer to the people they loved and who loved them. It also made it a lot easier on those left behind.
When I say acceptance, I don't mean curling up into a fetal position and dying. Acceptance is one thing; despair is another. Despair can lead to suicide, while acceptance leads to a measure of tranquility.
In contrast, the fighters I've known have been too busy to get very close to anyone. They, of course, went down fighting; died with their boots on etc.
Dylan Thomas wrote a poem to his father in which the main line was, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Thomas was a fine poet, but he didn't know very much about dying -or living!
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