Winner of the
|from Wisconsin Public Radio|
Judith Strasser's Essay from A GOOD DEATH
I have known for a long time that nothing--and no one--lives forever. When I was 24, my mother died. She was only 48. A few years later, I was hiking in the Sierra Nevada through a forest of giant Douglas firs, tiny seedling firs, huge dead and rotting fir logs. I had my eye out for deer. The sun lifted the scent of humus into the air and I suddenly realized that death--the death of trees, and deer, and people, too--is simply a part of life.
When I was 37, I confronted my own mortality. I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a potentially fatal cancer. A year of intense chemotherapy and radiation saved my life--and probably also caused the stomach cancer that spread to my lungs 18 months ago. Unlike Hodgkin's disease, metastatic stomach cancer has no cure. I'm only 63. Many Americans live into their 70s and 80s. Dying before the age of 65 seems obscene-- but when my cancer spread, I was given a prognosis of nine to eighteen months. I've outlived that prognosis, but I'll be lucky to make it to 64.
Still, I'm not afraid of death. As far as I can tell, when you're dead, you're dead. It's the people who are left behind who suffer, not the dead person. The process of dying is more problematic. Of course, I'd like to avoid pain, and I really don't want friends and family to endure a death-watch that lasts endless days or weeks. But I've done what I can to ward off such miseries. I have a signed Do Not Resuscitate order and a healthcare power of attorney who knows I would refuse extreme, invasive procedures. I have a certain amount of faith in my doctors, hospice, my relatively high tolerance for pain, and the power of morphine to make the process of dying as easy as possible. And I was relieved to learn, when a good friend died recently, that a cancer death can be relatively quick.
Many people don't want to think about death--their own, especially. But for me, it's essential. Facing death is the only way I can live. It makes me grateful for every day I have. Because I know I may die soon, I try to be conscious of how I live, how I spend my time. Time is precious: it's really all we have.
Time--and the knowledge that after we die, life,
and the world, go on. No one is indispensable. We each make our small
contribution to the cycle of life. After we're gone, we live in the memories
and the actions of our friends and families. Our bodies return to earth.
But like those dead and decaying fir trees in the California mountains,
our essence remains, a whiff of immortality.
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