“Come to terms with death. Thereafter, anything is possible.” —Albert Camus
First, I did. Then, I didn’t. Now I am back thinking about dying. Blame it on COVID…and my men’s group.
In a bygone era — say February or March — the word was people like me, 72 with asthma, were dying in greater numbers than others. Yet, some were going on ventilators and surviving. I told my wife at the time, “If I get COVID, try me on a ventilator for a while.” Then I updated my end-of-life paperwork and wrote a letter to my family about the disposition of my journals. Life got back to normal.… or what now passes for normal.
The news and I have shifted. Though you still hear stories of old people getting off vents and surviving, many do not. Some get off and face years of disability. There actually is some good news in the news, too. Docs are finding less aggressive ways to treat respiratory failure with some success. My new instructions — “No CPR and no vent for me.”
So, I am back to thinking about dying.
It really could happen in short order if I get COVID. And the men’s group? I have been in this group for 28 years. We meet every Thursday at 6AM Eastern time. We have decided to let each guy take a week and retell his life story. Revisiting my story has encouraged me to think like a hospice patient.
I’m going big this time thinking about dying — I’m in life review. Where have I been? What has been the meaning of my life? What is the purpose of human life? What are my regrets? I ask myself the question I have posed as a hospice chaplain to many dying souls: “If you were to die today is there anything that would be left undone?”
In 1585, Michel de Montaigne took his family and fled Bordeaux, France, where he was mayor, to avoid the bubonic plague. (How many mayors around the world today would like a vacation in the country right now?) His term in office was about to end and he had one last official duty in town, attending the transition ceremony. A recent piece in the New York Times continued, “He rode his horse to the city’s edge and wrote to the municipal council to ask whether his life was worth a transition ceremony. He did not seem to receive a reply and returned to his chateau. By the time the plague subsided, more than 14,000 people — about a third of the city’s population — had died horrible deaths. As for the former mayor, he returned to a far more pressing task: the writing of essays.”
He is now regarded as the originator of the modern form of literature we call “the essay.” Like any philosopher worth his salt, Montaigne contemplated death. Early on in my work with the dying, I kept finding him quoted in the literature on death and dying. He titled one piece, “To philosophize it to learn how to die.” Here’s an excerpt:
Knowing how to die gives us freedom
“To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness; let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death. At every instant let us evoke it in our imagination under all its aspects.… To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die gives us freedom from subjection and constraint. Life has no evil for him who has thoroughly understood that loss of life is not an evil.” Michel de Montaigne, c. 1533-1595
Even before the plague, like anyone in the 16th century, he was quite familiar with death. Besides disease taking lives, Protestants and Catholics were killing each other periodically. It is curious to me that he even felt the need to encourage his readers to contemplate death. How could you NOT in a world surrounded by death? The human capacity to ignore or put off contemplation of death is huge.
I am convinced that I will never fully face my own death until I have a terminal diagnosis. Not only being given the diagnosis, but also having the felt sense in my body that I am checking out. But still, I am trying. COVID has helped move the process forward. I could die. I must be ready. I have decided not to let a good plague go to waste.