I have been preparing to die for five years now. Not literally, exactly. I have no terminal disease that I know of—except for the fact that I’m breathing, which is at first gasp a death sentence—and I rarely get sick. But death and loss, and the grief that always comes with it, have been informing my life and teaching me how to live since I first started thinking deep thoughts about God and eternity and the why of the universe when I was just a girl. So, five years ago, I decided I needed to learn how to die. I had been practicing on a meditation cushion for many years at that point, but I wanted to face death in a different way.
One of my students told me of the One Year to Live course at the Village Zendo (with Enkyo Roshi, Koshin and Chodo) and then three more students became interested in taking it, so I decided to become a student again along with my students. The text for the class was Stephen Levine’s A Year to Live (which, after all this time I still haven’t finished reading, but more about that later) and our year long koan was: how would you live your life today if you knew you only had one year left to live?
During the course of that year I wrote my advance directives, visited a funeral home and cemetery, and thought about, talked about, and wrote about what sort of ending I would like to experience. Well, never being very good with endings, when the year to live class ended, the five of us who took the course together decided to give ourselves another year to live and have been meeting every month since then to talk about dying. (Perhaps we were the first death café?) And, to steal from Raymond Carver: what we talk about when we talk about dying is living. And fear and worry and getting old and change and business and wonder and joy and love and loss and what’s next. In a word: impermanence.
Some in the group of five have still not completed their directives, I have still not finished reading Stephen Levine’s book, some have all their paperwork done and stored in their freezer but haven’t figured out what to do with their life. There is always something left undone as there will be when I take my last breath. But as of this moment, my directives are complete, my funeral and memorial plans close to being complete, although those seem to change regularly and will continue to, I know where I want my ashes to be scattered and buried, my will is nearly ready for my signature, and I hold a healthy curiosity about how I will handle my time of death when it comes. What I wrote in my journal five years ago about how I would like to die and where still holds true today:
I would like to die slowly, gently, softly without too much pain, listening to the sound of the ocean or a gentle breeze through the trees. Or on a mountain. In nature. Or quietly at home (and why couldn’t that be at the beach or on a mountain?) in my own bed, holding Michael’s hand. Is that selfish of me? Wanting to die before him?
I want to experience my death, my dying, so sudden death would not be my choice. I want it to be my final meditation. I want time to say goodbye. I want to feel what it is to die, the actual physical passing away. I hope I have the courage for that. Sudden death seems too easy for me and harsh on loved ones.
My mother-in-law died a sudden tragic death a year after I wrote that. It was excruciating.
Now, five years later, the group of five is talking about the inevitable death of the group. It feels like it’s time. And we will give it a proper funeral and memorial service as it transitions into its next life, whatever that may be. Perhaps this is why I took the Foundations course, to bookend my visit and conversation with death and dying, with Chodo and Koshin as my guides. And as I face the end of this course I look ahead to what might come next. What if I only had a year to live, how would I live it?
Here are a few notes from my journal five years ago:
There is so much I still want to do. Write a poem. Learn to swim, to dance.
“To fulfill my birth!” one chapter of the book at a time feels just right. In the stillness and quiet of morning, alone but for the chirping birds. How do they stay warm? Why haven’t they flown south? If I were a bird I’d be somewhere down there. Maybe Michael and I can take a long weekend in the sun before spring arrives here.
I’d like to take a poetry class and a dance class with Michael. I would like to get back to come creative writing—maybe the novel—but I’m afraid. I don’t have that inner fire to do it—the judgment (I suck!) and the fear (I’m a horrible, stupid writer) keep me from it.
I spend most of my time alone in the quiet. For the first time in a long while I want to put more music in my life.
Since then I wrote a novel, took a dance class, listened to more music, spent more time with friends and family, and took a vacation each winter to a warm and sunny place. So, as I’ve been dying, I’ve also been living. My self-talk about my skill as a writer is much less harsh these days, I am happy to report, so progress has been made on many fronts.
So, what’s left to do? Take a poetry class. That’s next I think. Maybe an art class. Continue doing what I’m doing. For the moment Clinical Pastoral Education is not in my future, but that could change. I’m thinking of volunteering in hospice. I wish I could continue the meditation/relaxation class in the Psych ward in the hospital. That has challenged and stretched me more than anything this past year. And sitting with other patients, perhaps I’ve been a comfort here and there. I wrote this note recently about how I’d like to be with the sick and suffering:
I would like to comfort them in time of worry, anxiety and fear. During the waiting and uncertainty. Help them to linger in the moments between the worry and sadness, the moments that hold love and grace and delight. All the breaths between and in and around this amazing life.