Ten days… From his diagnosis to his death… Ten days.
It gives one pause.
Many people have asked. Did he see this coming? Was he prescient? If not, then why did he spend months last fall, while he was presumably healthy, preparing to die – educating himself about death and dying like it was another doctoral thesis? He examined the subject thoroughly from every possible perspective. He contemplated it from a deeply spiritual view in his Buddhist tradition. He became knowledgeable in a practical sense about getting all his affairs in order. He even left signs around his house. “If you find me dead, call these people. Everything is in my briefcase.” He learned about end of life care and hospice services. He went on a road trip, healing old relationships and taking care of unfinished business. “We never know when impermanence will strike,” he used to stay. “You breathe out and then you don’t breathe in again. It can happen any time.” As he wrote, and personally took to heart:
“Most of us live our lives and make plans to live forever. That is normal, yet it is also wise to set aside a little time to make plans just in case we die in the next month. What would be left undone if you died today? Do you have any regrets that need to be remedied? Do you have important unfinished business in relationships haunting you? Have you created a life that was meaningful to you? How can you live most fully in whatever time is left? Do you have your estate documents in order? Do you know what to expect physically and emotionally in the weeks, days and hour preceding your death? What do you want your final days to look like? Are you prepared for the after-life (if you believe in it)? Who do you want around you, and what are they doing? These questions are important to those who know and have accepted that they are dying.”
His death was sudden and shocking, and took place in an intensive care room. Yet, it was a “good death.” Never have I seen anyone, anywhere, die so calmly, be so clear, so prepared, and remain in control until he passed. He was not in pain and did not struggle. He was absolutely not afraid, but he did not roll over, asking the doctors to do everything they could to save him. In the midst of craziness he continuously expressed his gratitude to the staff for their care, maintaining a grace and dignity that most of us do not have even when we are not suffering. I could tell that, even in a place where death is commonplace, he had touched all of them deeply.
It has been three weeks since he has died. I sit on my deck this warm spring evening at twilight, feeling the tender ache that seems to have taken up residence in my heart. In the stillness I quietly contemplate the questions I think he would want me to be asking right now: Am I ready to die today? What is unfinished for me? Do I have regrets? Are my affairs in order so that my loved ones will not have to tangle unnecessarily with the messiness of closing my life? Has my life had meaning and purpose? Is the world a better place because of what I was able to offer in return?
I have returned to my work as a hospice nurse. However, it is not the same. I feel I am vibrating on a different frequency. I am listening more deeply. I can quietly relate. I have been there. We will all someday be there… Every morning when I wake, I ask, “Am I good to go? What do I want my last day to look like?”
In addition to his personal notes on teachings from his Buddhist teacher, he found these books very helpful:
- Sogyal Rinpoche, Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
- Bonnie Ware, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.
- Ira Byock, M.D., Dying Well
- Maggie Callanan, Final Journeys
- Christine Longaker, Facing Death and Finding Hope: A Guide to the Emotional and Spiritual Care of the Dying
- Anyen Rinpoche, Dying with Confidence. A Tibetan Buddhist Guide to Preparing for Death.