Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Journey to the West: Death and Dying

Many of you, perhaps even most of you, will not remember George Sanders, English actor, songwriter, author and bon vivant, several marriages, one to Zsa Zsa Gabor. I remember him best from the movie The Portrait of Dorian Gray,” although it was not his greatest part during his forty year career. At age 65 he reportedly said, “Life isn’t fun anymore,” imbibed several bottles of the barbiturate Nembutal, and left a brief, signed suicide note:
“Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”
I believe Sanders was a bit of a cynic, perhaps an attitude he developed from so often playing villains, perhaps from his several marriages and divorces, perhaps just from life in general. As he grew older his health began to slip away, perhaps even his mental health, and he was concerned because he did not want anyone to have to care for him. I confess that now that I am twenty-five years older than he was at the time of his death I sometimes think of death and dying. I certainly do not think of this on a daily basis. Indeed, sometimes I wonder why it does not occupy my mind much more than it does. But I would be lying if I said I never think of it.
As near as I can tell I seem not to fear death itself. I may, in a perverse way, even look forward to it. Once, in the middle of the night, in a Sydney, Australia Hospital, where I was suffering a kidney stone, I was given a shot of morphine. It was the most marvelous experience of my life, a relaxation so complete and satisfying, so blissful and pleasant, I assumed that must be what death would be like (I hope I am right).
But to say you do not fear death is not to say you do not fear dying. If I knew I would die peacefully in my sleep at a ripe old age I guess I would not fear dying. Unfortunately, that is not the way most people die.
As I do not know how I might die I am concerned about it. Having seen friends slowly die, sometimes over months of suffering, sometimes from cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and such, I’m sure a heart attack would be preferable, but certainly not a stroke, strokes can be fairly quick, but most often they are not and the aftermath is not at all pleasant. These are grim thoughts to be sure, but unavoidable.
During the course of my life I have lost five friends to suicide, two by self inflicted gunshots, one by carbon monoxide, one by hanging, and one (uncle) by slitting his wrists. I believe alcohol played a part in two of these cases but in no case do I really or truly understand why they decided to end their lives as they did. I do know that in every case their survivors suffered dreadfully even though they may well have had nothing to do with it. Survivors always, however erroneously, believe it was somehow partly their fault: they should have known, they should have done something, they just weren’t paying enough attention to the person, and so on. Knowing this, and having witnessed such suffering, makes one who loves others an unlikely candidate for such a deed. At the same time, strange as it may seem, I think I can understand how one might fear both life or dying strongly enough to actually commit suicide in order to avoid either of those experiences. Not death with dignity, of course, more like death from despair.
Although in a way it may be playing with words, I don’t think depression is a sufficient cause or explanation for suicide. One can overcome depression, one still can have hope. It is hopelessness, I believe, that leads to suicide, hopelessness that I suppose can follow depression, but is probably the necessary condition for suicide. I suspect this may even be true even cross-culturally.
 I do not worry about this on a daily basis. In fact I rarely worry about it at all, especially during winter, spring, and summer, as I believe when I die it will be in autumn. Autumn is the proper time to die, along with the flowers and leaves and accompanying sadness. And when it happens my journey to the west will be complete, the sun will set for the last time, and all will be well. Dying is not described as Eternal Rest or Resting in Peace for no reason. No one really knows this, of course, but it makes far more sense than believing in some continual, even eternal, struggle in another “sweet cesspool.” Anyway, as dying is so commonplace and happens so frequently I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.
So Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Peace and Goodwill for all.
Nothing, they say is more certain than death, and nothing more uncertain than the time of dying” 
Thomas Paine

1 comment:

Patricia Stigliani said...

I value your commentary on life and death....
I value you, although you never ever respond to any comment i have left. My father is 91.5, now, and your words help me consider his situation.

I wish you a healthy new year in 2014 and I hope you continue to post. Your Bellingham WA admirer, Pat Stigliani.