Retirement Talk

WHAT to do with the rest of your life?


Episode 383 (084) Being Prepared – for Death

A couple of years ago a young high school senior got out of a car on Granville Street in downtown Vancouver. It was spring; April or May. Granville is a one way street downtown and when he exited on the traffic side a city bus slammed right into him. He had been a star athlete and a top scholar. His future was bright and lying directly ahead. All over in an instant. 

This is retirement talk. I’m Del Lowery.

Being run over by a bus in not the way it is suppose to be.  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. 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 destiny?

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 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 ago he continued in his normal routine.

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 which was out of character for him. My friend has always been well prepared for whatever might happen next. That is why he led such a regimented and low keyed life. 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 sort of physical contact. 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 meet 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 very  small. 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. 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 organized religion. The latest organization brought to my attention is called The Death Cafe. This group hosts open discussion meetings across the country. People come and talk about death and dying. It can be found on the Internet.

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. Perhaps the Death Cafe is the answer. And once again, you can find it on the Internet.

ps As I finish writing this I just heard that a bike shop owner was shot and killed right next to where we had lunch yesterday. The shooter rode away on a bike on a trail we ride frequently. If our elevator had not been out of order we would have been on that trail at about the same time. Luck.

This is retirement talk.




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