Monday, February 25, 2008

TTBOOK Commentary

This past week has been extraordinary in many ways. On Tuesday evening, I was part of a very successful reading by three writers (Ronnie Hess, Laura Sims, and I) of so-far-unpublished memoirs. I read a few pages from my manuscript about fear; the short section describes my worries in January 2005, when I knew something was wrong with me, but I didn't know what. (I thought I had heart problems.) The reading, like all readings these days, made me anxious, because I don't trust (or like) my voice. But audience members said it went very well, and was funny as well as moving. And that was reassuring to me, because on Wednesday, I was going into a recording studio for the first time since I retired from public radio in 1999, to record a commentary my former colleagues had requested for a To the Best of Our Knowledge (TTBOOK) program on death and dying.

I am posting the text of the commentary after these introductory paragraphs. Some of the material will be familiar to those who've read earlier blog posts of mine, but it is put together in a new way, and I thought that people who weren't able to hear the program might be interested. The recording session went very smoothly; it was wonderful to see my former colleagues, and a real gift from them to be invited to do the commentary. And they did a great job of editing the recording so listeners said I sounded quite good. I have a hard time judging; I sound quite awful to myself, because I'm always comparing the way I sound now to how I used to sound. And I confess that I used to be very proud of having a "good" speaking voice. Well, we all know what pride goes before....

The third extraordinary thing about the week has been visits by both my sons and my sister Susie. Jed has been here since last weekend, so he was able to come to the memoir reading, to my delight. Nate and Susie arrived Saturday and left this afternoon. Aside from the fact that the three of them spent an awful lot of time talking about their iPhones and their Macs, and I'm a PC/Windows person--and that I lost to them all at Scrabble last night--it was a great visit! Jed and I will both be leaving Madison on Wednesday this week--he to return home, and I to spend a long weekend in Arizona, at an equine retreat for cancer survivors at a retreat center outside Tucson, called Sunstone. (The weather, I'm happy to say, is expected to be in the mid-70s while I'm there. Right now in Madison, we're awaiting another predicted ice/snow storm.) I'll report on the retreat next week, but because of my travel schedule, I'll post the next entry on Tuesday, March 5, instead of the usual Monday.

Here's the TTBOOK commentary text:

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.


Teresa Bernardez said...

Dear Judith,

I read your comments in disbelief because of your alive sense of yourself and your clarity in speaking about your own death. It has taken me many years to be half as clear about my own anxieties about death. I am a physician and a psychoanalyst and neither profession is as helpful as you are in having us think of our own death without so much fear and prejudice. I am at present in good health and I treasure my life but I know that one day I will also face the time of my death and I hope that I will be half as courageous as you are. You are inspiring. Thank you.

zoe said...

Judy --

I have always been grateful for my family's attitude toward death. We attended all of our relatives’ funerals from the time we were born, the children running and plating outside in a pack during the warm months. Death was part of life.

My parents were deeply affected by the deaths of their own parents. It took my mother years to recover from her own mother's death when I was five; it totally changed her personality, although I always knew she was the same loving person somewhere inside. My father would cry at times, regretting that his own father died of TB when he was four, far away from the family, so that he had no opportunity to know him and learn from him as he grew up.

And cemeteries have always been places of peace for me. My mother used to take us to the little cemetery on the side of a steep hill facing the Baraboo hills where her family and friends were buried. We would read the old stones and play games and roll down the hill while my mother tended the graves. And she would talk to us about the people who had died. She kept them with her, and with us. I think it was as important to her to tell us about them as it was to us to listen.

I sometimes stop at the cemetery in Elgin, where I grew up, to put stones on the markers of the graves of parents of my friends who now live far away. Then I write or call to let them know.

In my adolescence I wrote this poem about death:

I cannot die in the midst of living.
I must have life with its loving and giving
and lusting and laughing and joy.
I need the sorrows, I need the grieving.
Death is forgetting. Life is believing.
A life lived cannot be destroyed.

When all my passionate living is finished
my joy in living will not have diminished
for I will have tasted and tried.
And when I have finished the tasting and trying
my final adventure will be the dying.
With fullness of life I’ll have died.

--With love, z