Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 084 Being Prepared – for Death

A couple of years ago a young high school senior got out of a car on Grandville Street in downtown Vancouver . It was in the spring; April or May. He had decided to join a different group of friends. He was riding in the back seat on the driver’s side. They were in the right lane. Grandville is a one way street downtown and when he exited the door a city bus slammed right into him.. He had been a star athlete and a superior scholar. His future was bright and lying directly ahead; all over in an instant.  He didn’t have time to prepare.

This is retirement talk. I’m Del Lowery.

When things like that happen, it gives us all pause for thought. That’s not the way it is suppose to be. That’s not the way it is with most of us. Most of us have time to consider dying, especially we retired people. We have managed to the retirement phase of life. We have seen some of our friends die. We have read about others like the young man described above who died much too soon. Many of us have seen our parents through their last days. We know that death awaits. Why is it then that we hesitate or refuse to plan for this definite moment?

Just this past week a good friend of mine called to inform us that he was headed to a convalescent center. He had experienced a very painful night and could no longer manage at home. He takes many drugs to alleviate pain. One of them is morphine. He has advanced to the stage where he must carry a morphine pump. He gets a steady dose. The drug also plays with his mind. He needs assistance.

He has mesolethioma – asbestosis. He was given six months to live two years ago. Hospice has been a weekly companion ever since. The nurse has become a “friend” in a way. The six month time frame has stretched, but not broken. It has been a continual decline. His life has changed ever so slowly. He continued to go to the gym – he lifted lighter weights and did fewer routines. He still went for walks; slower and shorter. He sat in front of a coffee shop and read. The rest of his life was spent in his small, darkened, silent apartment. This is as it has been for many years. Even though given this death sentence two years past, he continued in his normal routine for the most part.

After his diagnosis, I asked if he had prepared his affairs: a will, a power of attorney, a health directive concerning end of life medical treatment, etc. “Not yet” came the same reply over the entire two years. After inquiring and encouraging that this be done periodically, I gave up. He just didn’t prepare. And I’ll tell you, my friend has always been well prepared for whatever might happen next. That is why he led such a regimented life; and low key. He has never liked change and he has never liked surprises.

Yesterday we took him back to his apartment to pick up a few things. He told us that a couple of nights ago he would have ended it all if he could have. He described facing the wall and rubbing his hands and face against it just to get some physical contact - a sad story. He had no way to take his own life, but he had sought it that particular night. Later the same night he told me he had prepared a will, a health directive, and an end of life request. It was on his computer; unsigned and thus invalid. The following day we had him sign all the papers. It was the last day he was capable of doing such a thing.

Now he lies in a convalescent center. The smell of urine and excrement met us as we turned down the hall to find his room. He shares the dimly lit room with another man. The beds are narrow and minimal. There is one chair next to the bed. The closets are small enough that one can’t even think of bringing much with you. He is on a five day trial period. That’s what the hospice nurse called it. After that they will reconsider. If the pain abates; if it doesn’t…

We don’t know how to die. It is something that is left out of our education, our culture, and our technological world. We have a ‘can do’ attitude about everything. We have coined all sorts of clichés to cement this attitude into our very soul. Though one sits on the brink of death, it is a taboo subject. “Something may happen. Sometimes miracles happen.” We refuse to face the abyss. We even have organizations to help us with this end of life: Hospice and Death with Dignity groups, and of course, organized religion.

My mind goes to considering death as I understand it in Ancient Rome. Death was not something to be feared. Death just happened. The soldier would fall on his sword rather than be humiliated in defeat. Life for most of us, including my friend, can be very bad as we near the end. There are many ways to die that might be better.

We all have on own thoughts on this topic. The difficulty seems to be in sharing them. We rarely talk about it. We rarely think about it. We rarely face it. I guess 'good ol’ American know-how' can solve lots of problems, but, on this one, we always fall far short.

This is retirement talk.




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