A TGB READER STORY: My Season of “Not Quite”
Some Satisfactory Health News

What It's Like to be Dying

A friend emailed about his grandson. “What's it like,” the nine-year-old asked, “to be dying?”

(Dear god, is this what happens when kids are done with dinosaurs? I would have guessed that at least a couple more years would go by before this kind of serious question comes up.)

The short answer is that it's not much different from living. I eat and sleep and read and watch TV or movies, see friends, write this blog as I have done for years along with cleaning house, grocery shopping, cooking, the laundry, etc. You know, the everyday necessities and pleasures of life.

The longer answer is that each one of those ordinary tasks takes longer now than before the cancer diagnosis and the surgery that took several months of recovery.

Now, since the additional diagnosis of COPD, they all take even longer and require more rest periods while I'm doing each one.

Getting that stuff done has become the framework of my life – the measure of my days – so that I can be free to spend time on whatever catches my fancy and, regularly, what it means to stop living. To die.

That weighs on my shoulders, it's there all the time although not always at the forefront.

Simple pleasures are greater now. For several weeks, I've been carrying on about this year's fall colors to anyone who will listen. I don't recall them lasting so long or so stunningly in the past.

On Monday, driving a road through a woods to a doctor appointment, the brilliant yellows of last week had become a deep, burnt orange. I've never seen that. Or, rather, not so much of it. It makes me happy.

Sometimes I read what others have written about being terminally ill. They are all more erudite and thoughtful than I although they usually are nearer to death than I am yet (well, one doesn't really know that). Maybe I will magically become more wise as my time gets shorter. Hmmmph.

Other times I hope that when it is my turn, I will have let go enough of earthly life so to be eager for (or at least, accepting of) what comes – or doesn't come – next.

I watched this happen to my mother and to my great aunt. They gradually lost interest in the world around them. I believe I've noticed hints of this phenomenon in me recently. Just a few days ago, I deleted saved videos of two television shows I have watched regularly for many years. That evening, they just seemed dumb. They offered nothing that engaged my mind.

Although my “trip” last December with magic mushrooms (psilocybin) went a long way toward easing my bone-chilling fear of death, it is not a total relief.

Facing oblivion, the wiping away of one's unique self doesn't stop being unimaginable, and when those thoughts come to mind (they have a habit of creeping up from behind me when I'm not expecting them), I purposely dwell on them. I breathe deeply and try to make myself believe it will be all right.

You could say at this point that death and I are dating. I think we've made it to the holding hands stage. We're open to each other. We want to know more although if I'm going to anthropomorphize death, it's probably a good idea to assume that he/she already knows me well enough.

So living while dying is not all that different from living without a deadline (so to speak) which is how I think I like it. I can't be sure because I've never done this before and – damn, there are no rehearsals.

My god, this blog post is so much less than I wanted it to be. Maybe I'll give it another try down the road.



Comments

I'm not sure how you could improve on this. You've certainly captured my thoughts well enough. I think a level of apprehension is absolutely to be expected. For all our beliefs on the subject, none of us can know what's on the other side of the veil, but we can accept that we must go there regardless.

I like your description of most of us, most of the time, as "living without a deadline." A fictitious consciousness, but there it is ... Be well.

What a beautiful description of your perceptions. I thank you for them. May G-d bless you and keep you.

Luci

My brother, when he was in a hospice dying from lung cancer, told me his grown son had asked him the same thing: "How does it feel to be dying?" My brother said he answered, "I don't know; I've never died before." He was trying to be funny, I think. At the time, I thought my nephew's question was heartless and cruel. Later I wondered if maybe it was an attempt to understand. I've wondered ever since.

This post is more than enough to explain the feeling of facing the unknowable. A relative just died, a woman who found joy in everything and was full of life and ideas. But at 100 years a series of tia's made speech nearly impossible. She still enjoyed life and card games and laughter. Finally she had enough and told us she was ready to go. I wonder how that feels. I hope we all reach that stage of fearless readiness when our time comes.

You are handling this part of your life with such grace and dignity. Of course it’s an individual thing. For myself, I really enjoyed the video in the most recent "Interesting Stuff ", "Dying isn’t as bad as you think".

Thank you for your courage and honesty. I can see also that the things of this world fade in importance as we age.

What timing. An hour ago I was at a training for changes to the election software used in my city. As an election judge, I have to stay current on these. While talking with a man there, who I haven't seen in months I discovered that was because of his brush with death earlier this year. I don't know exactly how old old he is, but I would guess in his mid-seventies; I know he's a veteran of the Vietnam War.

Pneumonia, then a bad flu double-teamed him last January. He was apparently sleeping about 22 hours a day, and unable to eat or drink anything. He says he had made his peace with death and was just waiting to go, when he was visited by a presence that told him it didn't want him yet and to "get up and get busy." He reports that bit by bit he was able to eat again -- broth, mashed potatoes, and so on. Same thing with staying awake -- he began to be able to force himself at first additional minutes daily, then hours. Seeing him today I would never have guessed that he had been through all of that and had come so close to the end. Even when we think we're on that road, sometimes we're not. Such a mystery.

Keep on keeping on Ronni!

Ronnie,
I think your note was on time and wonderful. I’m not dying but I’ve taken to talking (trying to) about death out of curiosity. Nobody wants to hear about it. You are a leader in this and you should be satisfied because there is nobody else to compare yourself to.

Good on ya, mate.

I love Jill's comment about "fearless readiness."
My father expressed "fearless readiness" when he used medical aid in dying in June. His attitude was a great comfort to me and my siblings.
I also like Ronni's phrase "death and I are dating." I am very glad you are able to enjoy nature's gifts this year. It's better than a box of chocolates.

Cathy J...

That's a fascinating story.

Thanks for sharing it.

None of us know when it will happen (death), but we all know it will happen. Your journey is always interesting and enlightening to read. I attempted at 16 to kill myself. I was living in Boise, Id., and supporting myself. Then my car blew up. I had nothing to eat. I wrote that final letter and mailed it (which letter I now have somewhere), took a bunch of stolen pills, and went to bed thinking certainly that I would not awake. I woke up and had to go to school and work anyway. When I returned home to Seattle in 1966, I was under a cloud of death; being told by the family "doctor" that my future was finite --- I would be dead at 25. I lived life to the fullest finally until realizing I wasn't going to die immediately after all, as had been prophesied. I am now almost 72 and savor each day. A day is a gift, enjoy each one as it is special.

So I did wake up this morning. Not definitely sure if I would have. It's one of those days where each breath is something to be grateful for. I'm glad you wrote about living with your death. For me, she's a dark cloud that sits just out of sight on my shoulder...invisible but always there. She is someone I try to be friends with, but sometimes have fear of her power over me. If I remember I'm just walking around with her there then I can relax and just live each moment.

Ronni, your words are appreciated. I’ve read them several times over. When my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer in June 2004, the doctor said she probably had 6 months. My mom, sister & myself were all in disbelief; Mom said “I can’t believe that, I feel fine.” The doctor asserted it was aggressive and she’d succumb soon enough. (He was pretty accurate, she passed around 7 months after that awful diagnosis.)

A couple weeks later, I drove down to visit my mom, who was sitting quietly on her back porch. It was a gorgeous day, the sky was bright blue and the trees in her backyard were full of leaves & birds. I asked how she was feeling, she said fine. We sat there in silence, and I said “It’s a beautiful day isn’t it…” and she lowered her head a little and nodded yes, but didn’t say anything. To this day I’ve felt guilt over that remark about the weather. Surely that must’ve been the last thing on her mind… but maybe it wasn’t such a terrible thing to say after all. She loved being outside, her little house in the country, her flower garden… maybe she still appreciated these things near the end. Your words help me think she did.

With many here, I've been enjoying & learning from your blog for years. Are you, or is someone else, preparing a book of selected columns?

I figure we’re all terminal and courting death and oblivion...so we have a lot of company....we are all in this together.

The way the world is heading, I don’t think I’ll mind it too much for I was lucky to be born in the timeframe I was (1947), in the US of yesterday pre trump, wonderful parents, good friends, good husband who is now gone, a good bit of travel, adorable pets, wonderful homes and gardens and the ever present beauty of nature and the earth...

What more could one want....

When my Dad died, my nephew who was almost 10, asked me about it. He knew I'd been there and he wanted to know what happened - how it happened. It was a "what is it like to die?" question. He was very serious and trying to understand what death meant. I forget what my answer was, but I think I tried to explain, truthfully, that it had been very simple, very gentle, and both devastating and wonderful. That was 35 years ago. I'm not sure if he remembers.

A few hours before my Mom died, she asked to get out of bed and look out the window. She'd had no interest in doing this before. Again, very peaceful.

I have no fear of death - only curiosity.

I was reminded of these moments from your opening line Ronni. Thankyou.

"Other times I hope that when it is my turn, I will have let go enough of earthly life so to be eager for (or at least, accepting of) what comes – or doesn't come – next." -- So well put; I think that is how my mother felt at the end. That is my goal, and I think likely that of many of us.

And. . .maybe you could use a mushroom reboot!

Beautiful text Roni!
We know we are already dying, but we choose not to think about it! We don't know when or where, or how, but we ARE dying. Every day is precious but so often wasted. We should live as fully as possible until that unavoidable day. Like you do Roni, an example for us all.

Can't express how much I love you. And my level of gratitude for your voice. And, yes, your wisdom.

Dearest Ronni, this column did not fall short in any way, it captured beautifully something very ineffable. I suspect you have no real idea just how many people enjoy spending time with you here and how many people do now and will for many many years learn from you.

I've always subscribed to the belief that death is a process and not an event, and death is not complete until you are fully forgotten -- and I'm confident that you will be remembered and revered for this little project for a long, long time, which means you may not fully die for a long time -- you just won't have to put up with the annoying bits during the last phase.

I don't know what to say but Thank You.

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