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D, Dying, not yet Dead

D, Dying, not yet Dead

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I’m wondering if the path on the other side will be much like the path encountered during the process of dying. Like a mirror. Easy in, easy out.

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No one told me, and feel free to disagree, but it strikes me as I sit with Dad in the waiting room of the Wesley Cancer Center, that Dying and Dead are antonyms, as different from each other as Living and Dead.

We are alive until we’re not. Until the very millisecond we’re not.

It’s not clear why I haven’t seen dying this way before. I worked as a Physical Therapist in the HIV wards in San Francisco in the early nineties, I lost a patient or two during my hospital rotations on the Gold Coast, Australia. “I just don’t know how they get through it,” I’d think of the bedside visitors. I don’t remember a lot of laughter or light in those situations. Mostly I felt burdened by the deterioration and sometimes shocking decline of the human body. It was, I admit, kind of depressing.

And yet, here in the waiting room is my smoochable dad, dying, I guess, thanks to the whole Small Cell Lung Carcinoma thing; and that giggling lady in the scarf who remembers all manner of jokes and limericks, and that man who loves Downton Abbey almost as much as me; and many more who get up each morning, read the paper and decide what to wear. Despite their pallor, they are colorful characters, all very much living. There is, I’ll admit, that fellow with his son. He sleeps his way through his chemo and declines the food the volunteers bring through. We smile at each other. His son stays with him in silent loving companionship until he is taken through. Loved, living.

As is the way, I’ve read many times recently what I’ve been thinking a lot recently – that we are taught how to live, but not how to die. Dying ‘well’, whatever that means to you and me, is clearly easier on the die-er as well as the friends and family. See San Francisco’s Zen Hospice, possibly a model for future end-of-life facilities.

 And then the onward path, as long and lush as the path I’ve just travelled.

I guess we’ll never know, but I wonder with my brand of weird wondering, if preparing to ‘die well’ assists us on the other side of death. It’s probably a loaded topic that I should avoid, but this day, as Dad jokes with the nurse who searches for a decent vein, I’m wondering if the path on the other side will be much like the path encountered during the process of dying. Like a mirror. Easy in, easy out.

If dying is the road to the moment of death with it’s downward gradient, impending darkness, degradation, what might the path look like, immediately on the other side? Black then grey then the great White Light? A staircase leading skyward? A meadow of blooming flowers? When I think of a quick or instantaneous death, I imagine a narrow path, a bridge or waterslide that shunts us into a new realm. But what about the considered kind of dying? The six-month-to-live kind? I close my eyes. Here is what I see:

I see a river scattered with stepping stones. There are many ways to cross, many ways to prepare and many opportunities to sit and dangle feet in the water. I’m sitting on a rock in that river, toes rippling the surface. I’m a visitor, an observer. It’s up to me – dress for it and stay dry, charge through and arrive soaked and exuberant; step with certainty, graceful and poise. On the other side, I see another set of stepping stones, many choices of how to proceed, resting places to take in the beauty. And then the onward path, as long and lush as the path I’ve just travelled.

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Dying, you say, aren’t we all dying? Are we ‘dying’ from the moment we stop growing? Or are we dying once we get the diagnosis, see the semitrailer swerve?

What is your definition of dying?

Do you think preparation and contemplation can smooth out the ride?

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© Robyn T. Murphy

2 Comments

  1. Wow. Insightful. I lost my dad when i was 38. As the oldest, I was responsible for his services. Making these arrangements when you’re still in the throes of moderately young child rearing activities is difficult to process. 10 years later looking back I’m much more aware of the process of dying. Youre not dead until your dead. And I”m happy for it.

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