Today marks four weeks since the doctors told me cancer has reasserted itself and there is no treatment. That news was not a surprise. Although I had been pronounced cancer-free since last January, I knew it was more likely than not to return.
Right now my timeline is squishy. Chemotherapy begun last Wednesday is designed to slow the growth of the new tumors and thereby extend the estimated time during which I will feel healthy before cancer symptoms begin to kick in.
As you might imagine, a lot has been running through my mind, ping-ponging around as I explained in a post last week, on a wide variety of end-of-life-related thoughts and feelings.
Even so, I have found a lot to laugh about in all this. I've always had a well-developed sense of the macabre – so much so that it's been a long while since I've thought of it as black humor. To me it's just funny alongside every other kind of funny. (Unless I'm whistling past the graveyard and don't know it.)
In the interval where I live these days between the belief (shattered now, of course) that I am the one immortal and my ending, there are personal decisions to be made. An important one to work on has been about how I want to spend my final months.
The broad outline is already settled and I will write about that in time. But an issue came up Friday when I was approached about reviewing a book that, the editor wrote in an email, explains what's wrong with how we die these days and what people can do to die in a manner that is better – at least, according to the author, a medical professional who has worked with terminally ill people for some years.
If the book were a general critique of (to borrow an old phrase) “the American way of death,” I might not be as offended even if the title does read as too much a projection of the author's personal preference for end-of-life.
After 25-plus years of studying aging, death and dying I know that no one really understands growing old until they get there themselves. I have unlimited gratitude and admiration for caregivers of all sorts. They are special in ways I cannot match but they do not KNOW about old age in a real sense until it is their time.
Similarly, I have learned now that living with a death sentence cannot be imagined. No one can understand until or unless they are tagged with that verdict.
What puts me off is the evident certainty in the book title (particularly couched in its boomer-generation phrasing) and the description I received that the author knows what values and priorities should define a person's dying days.
Let me be clear about that: There is no right way to die. Equally so, there is no wrong way.
NOTE: I am not telling you the names of the book and the author for several reasons: I have read only a fairly thorough description of it in an email, it will not be published until next year and it contains information about navigating the medical establishment during one's last weeks or months that could be useful to people who have not researched this as extensively as I have.
Further, in the 15-year history of this blog, I have made it a rule to write only about books I can unequivocally recommend which is not something I want to change at this late date.
In these circumstances, it would be unfair to me to leave readers only with my personal objections. Hence, no title or author.
Making a choice about how to die - which is another way of looking at being given a medical death sentence - is highly personal, maybe the most personal act in a lifetime.
So I am going to rely on what I have come to believe from all the decades of study I've done to inform how I spend the remaining time of this last journey.
Most of all, I do not want to be influenced by anyone else's idea of what they believe is a good or right kind of death.
I am being careful to do some things - and just as careful not to do others - to ensure that my death (and the getting there in the interim) is my own. Among those things is not to read other people's advice about how to die.
Have you given this choice any thought?