”I count it as the greatest good fortune to have these few months so full of interest and instruction in the knowledge of my approaching death.”
- Alice James in a letter to her brother, William
Isn't it comforting, even thrilling sometimes, to learn that others who came before you, especially those for whom you have great respect, have thought or felt what you are thinking and feeling.
In the past, before the doctors told me my cancer is terminal, I thought the minutes surrounding the moment of death would be the last great adventure of life. I hoped to be alert and unencumbered with pain so to be able to know the experience as it happens.
As I have come to see now, my former vision of the end is puny. Too cramped. Too small. There is much more to dying than a single moment.
There is, if you are fortunate enough to be made aware of your coming demise, the entire third act of life - the one we, in much of the western world, ignore - the period of dying.
Another who came before me, the late Scottish novelist, Muriel Spark, speaks well to what I have come to believe:
”Death, when it approaches,” she wrote, “ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life.”
However short or long my remaining days may be, it is a great gift I have received, knowing my death is near. It led to what I think is the most important question in the circumstance: what do you want to do with the time that remains?
I had asked that question before but my answer then was not adequate. It has become more complex now that my sensibility about death itself has changed. (More about that soon but not today.)
What I realize now is that I like my little life just as it is. No bucket list. No great unfinished tasks to rush to complete. Just to continue what I have been doing these past few years:
• Keep up this blog for as long as I can or want (my work)
• Spend time with the people who mean the most to me (my pleasure)
• And, do what I have always done when new and interesting things turn up in my life: find out what others know about them, observe and learn (my satisfaction)
In this case, what most engages me for the moment is the question of what living is like when you know you will soon die.
One way I have been working on that is, from time to time throughout a day, to move my consciousness off to one side of myself and watch. Allow myself to do whatever I'm inclined to do without directing it and to observe how I become different, or not. To become both the observer and the observed.
What I am curious about is how does this knowledge of impending death change me and my behavior? Am I frightened? How do I help make that better? What do I believe about life and death? Does it alter my relationships with the people I know? Do I do things differently or do I do different things?
And about a hundred other questions.
Then, sometimes, when I think what I have observed is interesting enough, I will tell you about it here.
For 15 years, the subtitle in the banner at the top of this page has been the topic of Time Goes By: “what it's really like to get old.”
Without my quite noticing for awhile, that changed in the past couple of months and now I've caught up with myself: the subject of the blog has morphed into what most interests me in these days: what is it like to die - to know I am going to die relatively soon and how I am navigating that knowledge?
There is no greater mystery to mankind than death. How, finding myself in this place, can I possibly ignore it.
So I suppose we could now call Time Goes By an end-of-life blog. That may be difficult for some readers and I understand if it is. But you can believe me that I am fascinated to be in this predicament and if you want to follow along, I will be pleased to have you here and to listen to what you have to say about it.
One more who came before me, the second secretary-general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld:
”Do not seek death. Death will find you. But seek the road which makes death a fulfillment.”
I'm working on it.