It’s been 18 months since we last met, but Ms. J. (to whom I wrote many letters, search ‘Dear Ms. J.’ should you care to read) decided several weeks ago that we needed to ‘get together.’ Historically, she’s always set the date, then changes the date, followed by a final cancellation. Two weeks ago, we agreed to meet February 21. Claiming a client desperately needed her, Ms. J. canceled last Tuesday and rescheduled for February 23. And true to form last Thursday, claiming another business opportunity, she withdrew from the rescheduled February 23 dinner. “Can you find a time that’s convenient for us both?” she requested. I said I would, but never did, nor will. Yeah, I get it. I do. It’s not that she doesn’t want to spend time with me. Instead, when one is dying, even a prolonged death, the dying is the last person in the room you want to be with. And, suddenly, when something else arises in the ‘living’ (i.e., the ‘living world’), you no longer need to be with the last person in the room.

An untold language shift occurs when a patient is acknowledged as dying. Words shifts from ‘cure’ to ‘making comfortable.’ Other similar words are also noted, ‘healing’ versus ‘palliative.’ No one wants to acknowledge ‘palliative.’ To do so means surrender. Yet, should a patient/friend meeting occur, the well-meaning friend will likely delve into treatment, that there’s always something new to try, some new technique, drug, or machine. And for the 50 percent or so of those diagnosed with a terminal disease, some will experience a longer life due to that technology. However, for the other 50 percent, the technology cannot overcome the body. In the end, the body always wins.

I haven’t told many I am dying because of the hard-core truth that few listen. Friends like Ms. J. who find themselves in similar positions will ask how the person how they are doing, but the doing is usually ‘focused’ upon medical treatments and physical response. These learned responses are handed down generation to generation, and taught during the treatment phases of illness. It’s ‘body first.’ The spiritual? Well, the spiritual is for that ‘last rights’ moment when some form of clergy appears out of nowhere, proclaims you’re forgiven, throws holy water obtained from a sink across your forehead, and whispers Jesus (or whomever) will comfort you. “Fuck,” I overheard a family discussing a dying loved one’s condition in the hallway. “We can’t just stand here and do nothing,” for refusing to use every ounce of technology is equivalent to doing nothing. 

What’s hard for people is simply sitting beside the dying and staring with them into what is to be and its associated question, “Is this the end of meaning? Is this the end of me?” Yes, friends are trying their damnedest to be supportive, but their beliefs of what happens during death, and thereafter (i.e., what it does to you now and later), is not derived from anything learned. They should have learned about dying when the person was not dying but in treatment. Thus, when such friends meet people like me, they eschew feel-good tidbits from shows like Touched by an Angel or Highway to Heaven. And indeed, those tidbits make them feel good, but it does little for the dying. 

Most of those dying (including me) are living from the result of medical benefits. For others, the reason they ‘exist’ is a consequence of the same technology. Gambling for time, they willingly submit to multiple regimes of measured toxicity, side effects, and all. They are willing to bear such torture for a few more snippets of earth, to see the sunset one more time, to be at that family reunion, to live (most of the time) someone else’s dream. Waking up every day expecting to live is how people who hold life at arm’s length do it. Doing so affirms that no matter the evidence at hand or the intuitive knowledge within their body that if there is a God, this is the journey He (or she) surely wishes. It’s not.

Having sat with dying patients, minus family, friends, and tears, each in their own way say they were instructed to believe in long life and quick death. Yet, those two events rarely occur (at least in my years of walking medical corridors). They almost always have known they were dying. And that same vision is true for me. If one were to sit with me and listen, you would see that I have been dying for several years. You will experience pain. And likewise, you envision my belief that God will be there for me. 

The whole purpose of this post can be stated: I do not defend the right to die badly. You don’t have to. Most certainly, God does neither. God has no willingness to ask more of the dying person than the process of dying is already demanding. Trying to get to know something of the holy during life, and along the way, hating the way things are from time to time, is the conversation that’s required. I assure you, when the going gets tough, God will emerge. When God does, help one another accept His (Her) presence.