A Good Death
By Margaret Van Every
I’ve been thinking more about death lately. Three people I knew died in the same week, not to mention Philip Roth—as though there was a special incentive to take advantage of just that week. Two of the three died quickly before they even saw it coming, no languishing in hospital beds with tubes in their noses, praying through pain for the Angel of Mercy to hurry up. I say, good for them, their families, their bank accounts.
But for our third dear friend death did not come easily. Though he had imagined death arriving in the form of a sexy young wench in a black bikini, or a seductress in a miniskirt to tango him off to paradise—in both cases leading to some form of divine consummation—no, it was the Grim Reaper who harvested him with a scythe, prolonged, piecemeal, painfully. Such an awkward exit for such a graceful soul was inappropriate. This elegant man suffered much but through it all gave Death the finger.
Until the end he sang lustily, danced with abandon, kept smiling like he meant it, and took time to tell every last one of us we were loved. He taught by example how to make the most of whatever is handed us.
Death personified has often been seen as some form of hooded body snatcher, but sometimes we have seen it in literature as a spirit guide to the afterworld, which is about as plausible as a tango dancer in a miniskirt but more practical on the journey. The point is to choose someone you admire who knows the way. You wouldn’t want to get lost and there probably are no road signs or anyone to ask directions of along the way. Dante picked a fellow poet, Virgil, for his guide.
In an interview with Terri Gross on National Public Radio after the publication of his book Everyman, Philip Roth discussed his own ideas on death. He said he didn’t believe there are good deaths and bad deaths. There are only bad. I don’t think most of us would agree with him. Surely the best death would be, after a long and fulfilled life to leave this existence during sleep—no waiting, no struggle, no pain, no boredom, no diapers, no expense, no regrets.
You can do your part to make sure there are no regrets if you get your affairs in order and you leave on good terms with your loved ones, all rifts repaired. That’s my idea of the best death. Supposedly anywhere from 10 to 53 percent of deaths occur during sleep, a fairly wide discrepancy, but chances look good if you are an optimist.
Before the intrusion of so many medical interventions, it used to be more likely you could abscond in your sleep, and children managed to do it fairly frequently. Thus that bedtime prayer we of all faiths said while growing up, kneeling beside the bed with our hands pressed together and pointing heavenward: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray Thee Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray Thee Lord my soul to take.” The way it glibly rolled off our tongues, it may as well have been Mary had a little lamb. Never did it occur to us this could be our last recitation of this mindless request.
At this time in our village, we are fortunate to be able to avail ourselves of the best death of which we are capable, especially if we look both ways before crossing the carretera. We have palliative care, understanding and knowledgeable caregivers, and medical means to alleviate our pain. We even have a Threshold Choir to sing us to the other side. Ah, such bliss! We don’t need a memento mori like the skull Faust kept on his desk to remind him of his mortality. We’ve got the weekly obits. We need only bear in mind that death design is an art and there are many things we can do to improve the quality of the experience.