Getting Ready


A week or so ago, Diana was talking to a friend, and suddenly burst out "I'm not ready to die!"  A couple of days later, this phrase came back to me and has been bouncing around my brain ever since.

The syllogistic part of me suggests that it goes like this:

There is a part of me that is deeply repelled by the first alternative.  Perhaps because my father, despite advanced lung cancer, never got ready to die.  And my first wife, also dying of cancer, remained in denial until the very end.  It seems like a poor way to go, like cattle in the slaughterhouse, shuffling up the ramp unaware of the mallet and knives waiting at the top.  Perhaps because I have come to believe that death is the puzzle we are put here to solve, and the manner of our dying illuminates our lives and life purpose.

But the other alternative is daunting--getting ready to die.  Perhaps if I had a terminal illness, six weeks to live, I could focus a bit more clearly on what getting ready to die really means.  But is it something I could learn in six weeks?  I think not.  The course is in session, and the final exam can come at any moment.  I don't think last-minute cramming is a good strategy.

Of course, I have tasted the death of my parents, and my first wife, as well as too many friends, co-workers, church members, and neighbors.  In many cases, the death was sudden--an auto accident, a stroke, a heart attack.  In too many cases, it was slow and lingering and horrible--Alzheimer's, painful cancer, Parkinson's, M.S., A.L.S.

Some of those who died suddenly had prepared well--insurance policies paid up and sufficient for the family, cemetery plot chosen, even notes for the funeral.  A couple of people I know had written their obituaries.  Others, even those with lingering diseases, left a mess--co-executors who couldn't stand each other, financial muddles, their business in ruins, no wills.  But I realize also that getting ready to die isn't just about "setting your affairs in order" or providing for your dependents.  That's almost easier than I have in mind.

I guess the fear of death is pretty strong.  Those who are ready to die seem to have faced that fear, and taken those steps that seemed appropriate to them.  Sometimes they were internal steps, sometimes external, according to their personal style.  And, like all courage, it involves feeling the fear and transcending it, not letting it rule you, not running from it.

Interesting that most of those who have had near-death experiences report that they have lost their fear of death.  This group, perhaps more than any other, is ready to die.  Their attitude seems to be "been there, done that!"  At the same time, they may feel blessed to be alive, and feel that they have a purpose for being saved, some work they must carry out here.  Can we learn how to live this way without having had their experiences?  I think so.

I have read accounts of people with terminal illness who, I felt, had become ready to die.  They fell in love all over again with life, and felt blessed to have each day, each pain-free hour, each contact with a loved one.  And their message--live each day as if it is your last.  Tell loved ones that you love them.  Forgive those who trespassed upon you.  Take joy in the small things--a flower, a child's smile, the beauty of eating an apple.

I spent so much of my first several decades stuffing my emotions, being the scientist.  I never reached an emotional equilibrium with my parents before they died.  Neither I, nor they, had the courage to break the silence, to talk about things that really mattered.  I don't want that experience again, ever, with anyone close to myself.  So I do try to live each day as if it is my last.  I don't always succeed, but it does get easier with practice.  And I do feel blessed by the people and the experiences that rain down on me.  How beautiful!  And I feel gratitude to you, random readers of this journal, for connecting with me and inspiring me to write.  And that's why I always end each entry:

Thank you for reading.

Copyright © 2001-2003 Pete Stevens. All rights reserved.