Meeting My Son...Plus The Alex and Ronni Show
INTERESTING STUFF – 17 November 2018

“At Death's Door, Shedding Light On How To Live”

EDITORIAL NOTE FROM RONNI: Last Friday, I published a link to a news story by Judith Graham about my terminal cancer diagnosis. She interviewed me for a long time, interviewed some people who know me and wrote a terrific piece.

We covered a lot of territory in our conversation and I would like more people to read it than followed that link last week.

Unlike almost every other news organization I know of, Kaiser Health News (KHN), which publishes Graham's columns, not only allows others to republish their stories in their entirety, they even supply the html. So, here it is on TGB today.

The original can be found here and the archive of Judith's columns is here.

* * *

By Judith Graham, at Kaiser Health News

Nothing so alters a person as learning you have a terminal illness.

Ronni Bennett, who writes a popular blog about aging, discovered that recently when she heard that cancer had metastasized to her lungs and her peritoneum (a membrane that lines the cavity of the abdomen).

There is no cure for your condition, Bennett was told by doctors, who estimated she might have six to eight months of good health before symptoms began to appear.

Right then and there, this 77-year-old resolved to start doing things differently — something many people might be inclined to do in a similar situation.

No more extended exercise routines every morning, a try-to-stay-healthy activity that Bennett had forced herself to adopt but disliked intensely.

No more watching her diet, which had allowed her to shed 40 pounds several years ago and keep the weight off, with considerable effort.

No more worrying about whether memory lapses were normal or an early sign of dementia — an irrelevant issue now.

No more pretending that the cliché “we’re all terminal” (since death awaits all of us) is especially insightful. This abstraction has nothing to do with the reality of knowing, in your gut, that your own death is imminent, Bennett realized.

“It colors everything,” she told me in a long and wide-ranging conversation recently. “I’ve always lived tentatively, but I’m not anymore because the worst has happened — I’ve been told I’m going to die.”

No more listening to medical advice from friends and acquaintances, however well-intentioned. Bennett has complete trust in her medical team at Oregon Health & Science University, which has treated her since diagnosing pancreatic cancer last year. She’s done with responding politely to people who think they know better, she said.

And no more worrying, even for a minute, what anyone thinks of her. As Bennett wrote in a recent blog post, “All kinds of things … fall away at just about the exact moment the doctor says, ‘There is no treatment.’”

Four or five times a day, a wave of crushing fear washes through her, Bennett told me. She breathes deeply and lets it pass. And no, psychotherapy isn’t something she wants to consider.

Instead, she’ll feel whatever it is she needs to feel — and learn from it. This is how she wants to approach death, Bennett said: alert, aware, lucid. “Dying is the last great adventure we have — the last bit of life — and I want to experience it as it happens,” she said.

Writing is, for Bennett, a necessity, the thing she wants to do more than anything during this last stage of her life. For decades, it’s been her way of understanding the world — and herself.

In a notebook, Bennett has been jotting down thoughts and feelings as they come to her. Some she already has shared in a series of blog posts about her illness. Some she’s saving for the future.

There are questions she hasn’t figured out how to answer yet.

“Can I still watch trashy TV shows?”

“How do I choose what books to read, given that my time is finite?

“What do I think about rationale suicide?” (Physician-assisted death is an option in Oregon, where Bennett lives.)

Along with her “I’m done with that” list, Bennett has a list of what she wants to embrace.

Ice cream and cheese, her favorite foods.

Walks in the park near her home.

Get-togethers with her public affairs discussion group.

A romp with kittens or puppies licking her and making her laugh.

A sense of normalcy, for as long as possible. “What I want is my life, very close to what it is,” she explained.

Deep conversations with friends. “What has been most helpful and touched me most are the friends who are willing to let me talk about this,” she said.

On her blog, she has invited readers to “ask any questions at all” and made it clear she welcomes frank communication.

“I’m new to this — this dying thing — and there’s no instruction book. I’m kind of fascinated by what you do with yourself during this period, and questions help me figure out what I think,” she told me.

Recently, a reader asked Bennett if she was angry about her cancer. No, Bennett answered. “Early on, I read about some cancer patients who get hung up on ‘why me?’ My response was ‘why not me?’ Most of my family died of cancer and, 40 percent of all Americans will have some form of cancer during their lives.”

Dozens of readers have responded with shock, sadness and gratitude for Bennett’s honesty about subjects that usually aren’t discussed in public.

“Because she’s writing about her own experiences in detail and telling people how she feels, people are opening up and relaying their experiences — things that maybe they’ve never said to anyone before,” Millie Garfield, 93, a devoted reader and friend of Bennett’s, told me in a phone conversation.

Garfield’s parents never talked about illness and death the way Bennett is doing. “I didn’t have this close communication with them, and they never opened up to me about all the things Ronni is talking about,” she said.

For the last year, Bennett and her former husband, Alex Bennett, have broadcast video conversations every few weeks over YouTube. (He lives across the country in New York City.) “What you’ve written will be valuable as a document of somebody’s life and how to leave it,” he told her recently as they talked about her condition with poignancy and laughter.

Other people may have very different perspectives as they take stock of their lives upon learning they have a terminal illness. Some may not want to share their innermost thoughts and feelings; others may do so willingly or if they feel other people really want to listen.

During the past 15 years, Bennett chose to live her life out loud through her blog. For the moment, she’s as committed as ever to doing that.

“There’s very little about dying from the point of view of someone who’s living that experience,” she said. “This is one of the very big deals of aging and, absolutely, I’ll keep writing about this as long as I want to or can.”



Comments

Ms Graham did you proud, Ronni. She caught your essence.

I was very close to both my big brothers, who died 8 years ago within 6 months of each other. When one of them was dying of lung cancer, I visited him in the hospice. Amazingly, he hadn't lost his often macabre sense of humor. When I told him I was glad to be there, he laughed and said, "I am too."

Then he told me that one of his sons had asked him how it felt to die. Shocked, I asked how he had answered. He said, "I told him I didn't know -- I've never died before." I've regretted ever since that I didn't say, "Fred, are you afraid?" He died not long after that, and I'll never know how he would have answered.

Great article. Thanks for posting it. Much food for thought.

Sometimes, when I'm feeling this or that pain or disability I think how nice it might be to just check out of the struggle. Then I think of all the good things in my life and resolve to soldier on enjoying what parts there are to enjoy which really are many.

You inspire me. Thank you.

Read this today and thought of you... lots of love from over the pond xx

She was powerful, not because she wasn’t scared, but because she went on so strongly despite the fear. #atticuspoetry

I too am so inspired by your honesty and willingness to share your experience.

Fifty years ago when I was in my twenties I lost a dear friend, my age, to anorexia. She was smart, pretty, charming, and a really good person- and she should not have died so young. It got me thinking about life and death, perhaps sooner than most people do- and it had a lot to do with my subsequent values and decisions. One does try to figure out what's important, and as you say, that is not always obvious.

One thing that strikes me each time I read this interview is when you make the comment that you will no more listen to medical advice from friends, however well intentioned.

I find it so easy to give what I think is well-meaning advice and I know intellectually that I can never possibly know what is best for someone else. I can only know what I feel is right for me. Even then I do not take my own advice because I often find it to be impractical.

I think most of us just muddle through each day doing the best we can with the circumstances that fate has given us.

Great recap, written with love and compassion. Thanks for sharing it here.

After reading your “Making Dying Part of Living” post, a fascinating Phil Donahue show I hadn’t seen since the 80s came to mind, I Googled Phil Donahue show DNEs and watched it again. He interviewed 5 people who had a near-death experience and also 2 medical doctors who know of over a thousand people with similar experiences.

Some people in the audience on the show made the comment that it could have been hallucinations. If that is all it was, I want those kinds of hallucinations when it’s my time to die! It was so comforting to me to hear what they saw and felt while going through it and how they feel about death now. Because it was so interesting, it was well worth the approximately 46 minutes to watch.

I started reading your blog about 2 years ago and was immediately drawn in by your down-to-earth insights, honesty, and your strength of spirit that shines through even in the darkest of times. I want to thank you for all you do. You are greatly appreciated.

I look forward to your future posts and warmly wish you comfort, love, many happy moments, and continued wonderful conversations and connections in the here and now and always.

Marilyn B.

That should have been NDEs (not DNEs) in my post.

I, too, thought the writer described well the person I’ve perceived over the past decade or so. Life is for feeling — the emotional ups and downs — since the contrasts can aid us in appreciating each more I, too, came to believe years ago. Expect sharing that view with you is partly why your writing has often resonated with me. Also. your respect for the words used and nuances of language has certainly enhanced my pleasure in reading your documented research, thoughts and views. While you may forgo those researched articles in the future to focus your time and energies otherwise, the issues you will continue writing about will continue to be of interest about this process of living, aging and dying.


I can say this for certain, following along with this entire process--as long as it may continue--it has really captured my attention and I anticipate and read these posts with great interest. It will impact my life forever (I am absolutely positive) and will probably help me get through my last days should I not go unexpectedly. I just hope you are one of those people that outlast the prognosis, by far--just maybe; where there is life there is hope. John

I've been thinking of you often since you told us of your last diagnosis with mixed feelings of sadness and admiration. I am so grateful for your honesty and openness as you continue to keep us informed how you're dealing with this "final adventure".

Count me aboard your ship of friends and may all the love we bring be of some comfort on your journey.

~Steady as she goes....

Lola

I look forward to heaven, to be present with my savior Jesus and all my family before that walked with God and that Jesus was their savior.

While reading this just now, for the first time since hearing of Ronni's last diagnosis, I thought, "But what if the docs aren't right? What if she, by some quirk of fate, lives another fifteen years?" Has that ever happened? Haven't I heard of things like that happening? Perhaps that's a cruel offering, I don't know, and like Ronni, I would certainly stop all detested activities and eat more ice cream. Here's my crazy hope of the moment, that Ronnie gets fifteen more years of eating ice cream, kittens and puppies, long walks, and no more exercising.

I'm in, Salinda...

That's been my crazy hope too, but I didn't quite have the nerve to say it out loud. So thanks.

How about if we focus all our good thoughts and feelings to one specific time -- say Sunday afternoon? We know thousands follow this blog -- that's a lot of power.

Hello Roni,

May I suggest visits to your local Animal Shelter/Humane Society where you can give and receive joy , snuggles and silliness from all the kittens and puppies in need. You all can happily wallow in kitten, puppy and human love . A win for all!


As follower for years I have learn ed and will continue to learn so much from you and your insightful followers/friends.

With gratitude and whatever the blog-world -term- is- for - affection -towards -someone-you-know-and-don't-know ,
Linda

Ronni I stumbled on your blog quite by accident a few years ago. I loved your witty writing and biting political comments.....and then we Both got diagnosed with cancer. 2017 was filled with treatment, surgery, medication and chemo for us both. All the fun articles about Broadway shows, fashion and your friends changed.....our lives changed because of cancer. As I have commented before my father passed away of pancreatic cancer and was not a candidate for the surgery… But I was SO happy when I heard that you were and that it had been successful and I so wish you were still well because I am sure you were explained the odds of how many people are actual candidate for this surgery and actually make it through the surgery and you did. Ronni I want to thank you for helping me through a rough year through your positivity and even your sense of humor in the face of so much true emotional and physical pain. I volunteer at my cancer clinic now that I am in remission and this past year I had the please of meeting 3 young women that fought like hell...but unfortunately did not make it to the end of this year. I am hoping that I stay cancer free but my form of cancer has a high rate current rate in the first three years. I have a new grandson who is four weeks old today and I hope to be able to see him at least start kindergarten. Again I thank you. I have enjoyed all your articles and podcasts and I pray when the time comes, peace will be with you.

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