Good Life, Good Death

The only way to learn from the reaper is to accept he's there

| September / October 2005

No one knows exactly when, but as the old song says, everybody's gotta go sometime. Indeed, 155,000 people die on the planet every day -- from famine, illness, violence, war, neglect, accidents, bad judgment, and old age. While death is a voyage that awaits us all, not everyone gets the same noisy sendoff when they depart. Compare the frenzy earlier this year around the demise of the pope and Terri Schiavo with Americans' relative ignorance of the rising body count in Iraq. The fact is that we live in an era simultaneously obsessed with death and in denial about it -- a paradox that affects us all. We hope this section will give readers a chance to think about how to balance the fear of dying with its power to make us better at the art of living. -- The Editors

Hello, Laine?' my doctor's voice sang out cheerily from the answering machine, 'Your test results came back today and it looks like you have a growth on your pancreas. Give a call if you have any questions. Hope you have a great afternoon!'

Did I have questions? Since pancreatic cancer is medical jargon for 'goner,' I had several: What kind of growth? What would happen next? And how could I have a possibly fatal diagnosis? Dying, after all, is for the bit players in our tightly scripted lives. You and I, dear reader, the stars of the romantic comedies airing nightly in our imaginations, will never die.

On one level we know that isn't true, of course. Humans are gifted with the ability to contemplate their own demise, and this weird blessing infuses every moment of life with the inevitability of death. That said, we're remarkably good at making our date with death seem so far away we doubt we'll have to keep it. If an event pierces our defenses and makes our mortality vivid, we quickly return to living as we usually live, as if the odds against death are stacked in our favor.

To deny death, for all its initial comfort (unless you're a Russian novelist), is to deny an essential part of life. Throughout the ages, students of the human condition have suggested that reconciling ourselves to death can open a window into our deepest nature, and only by accepting death will we lead a truly fulfilling life. And what happens if we don't? The answer to that question could have special importance in an age of terror attacks and preemptive war -- the cultural equivalents of bad news from the doctor.

At 29, I've had my shot at wrestling with these issues. My parents gifted me with a genetic disorder that, according to the medical elite (except my optimistic acupuncturist), will take me down short of the normal span. I co-parented a beloved boxer dog who, within a week of being asked to write this piece (as if on some cosmic cue), died of a massive heart attack in his apparent prime. My father also died too young. By the end, holding his purple hand, I could see tumors rising up beneath his skin, an image that brings to mind what Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi reportedly said about his terminal cancer: 'Well, it wants to live, too.'

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