A Tale of Different Deaths

Death hovers nearby always, and in all ways.

The body keeps working, proving over and over again that it is nearly always impervious to perturbation, until it doesn’t, and then it simply let’s go — let’s go of the spark, acquiesces into hardness, entropies its perhaps-not-so-merry way toward the cold: lights out, thoughts no more.

Death has been closer than usual this year. Age makes it so, yes, but also circumstance.


* * *

February brought the murder of Paul Rogers. Of all deaths, none can be appreciably worse than that of a father and mother being bludgeoned and knifed to death in the middle of the night by a deranged breaking-and-entering brother-of-the-mother, with two of the three murdered couple’s children there to witness the foulity. Or at least so it is told and so it is alleged.

More recently come stories of the death of two people close to my family, both in their 80s. One, after dancing the oncological dance that many dance at life’s end, died willfully and designedly, at home, surrounded by family and friends, echoing the death of her mother, stopping weeks and probably many months short of a run-in with her ultimate onco day. It is my time. Extending my time will not add to my life in a meaningful way. The party must end. This party ends now.

This was a proactive death, a righteous death, a beautiful pirouette at the end a beautiful life.

The other was a reactive death. The body screams out once, saying Now is the time, you have a few days at most. Body gets transported to hospital. Hospital staff gets mobilized. People rush in from far reaches. Schedules get changed. Classes get missed. Tubes get inserted into noses and run down throats. The body habitates near other sick bodies within a structure that many bodies only leave after their body-hardening and body-colding has occurred.

Good-byes get said, but memories of tubes and beeps and readouts, and of doctors who can’t help but qualify and jargonize everything said, loom large for long days to come. It’s Visions of Jonah and Johanna when Jonah and Johanna were not at all beaming.


* * *

No blame here. Many of us will never have choices about this. Paul did not. Luck, both good and bad, plays a role.

But we play a role here too. Many of us will get to decide some things some of the time about some of our final days. A lucky few will get to decide considerably more than that. Many will get rooked and have no choices at all. But most of us will get to have a say about something.


* * *

Decades is what it took for me to learn the beauty of the cut-off. The cut-off, once learned, adds to the quality of life, whether it be applied to a conversation with an attractive stranger, a relationship that isn’t what it once was (or, unfortunately, never reached the hoped-for place), the sugar/alcohol/TV/drug-of-choice that over-occupies at least some of us some of the time, and, yes, the cut-off of a life that has been lived and can no longer function in an acceptable way.

May we all be so lucky as to be able to call the cut-off that is our last call to call.


* * *

A distant acquaintance tells me of her mother-in-law’s oncoming death. Inoperable cancer on top of heart disease, the acquaintance and her husband, abetted by the mother-in-law’s doctors and nurses and undoubtedly a whole host of players, decide that the mother-in-law is not to know of her prognosis. It could kill her to know, the acquaintance says, so we’ve decided that she will not know.One reaction denies the other proaction. Your cut-off, they seem to say, is my decision.And here I step out from behind my death-poetry platform, from third to first person and, looking you squarely in the eye, announce: not for me. Never deny me this right. Ever the information absolutist me, I will detest anyone who denies me information that is so uniquely mine. Is that clear enough?


* * *

Another death lately, via accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. Sleep followed by death. All’s well that ends well — kinda. Better than tubes and antiseptic smell, yes? But not as righteous as a beautifully designed departure, no?

And oh the sorrowful sorrying sorry of a life lost so young and so accidentally, as the young body succumbs to an always-insurmountable perturbation, to a natural-born killer: if x, then y.


* * *

And the first death that taught me, as an adult, about cut-offs, that of the kitty (yes, my adult life has been pretty free from direct experience of nearby death). Now I lay me down to sleep. This time, for all times this time.

* * *

Again, I come out from behind the death-poetry platform, now for the rest of the piece:

So what does all this have to do with financial health? Clearly, planning for death plays a big role in financial health, especially when our financial health includes people other than ourselves (e.g., kids, spouses, etc.). Because when we die our financial health, in a very real sense, becomes their financial health, as they, in a very real sense, inherit our financial health from us. Our ultimate financial health success, then, is theirs.

But does the circumstance of death have anything to do with financial health?

Of that I am not sure. But this much I might know some time: the odds that you will have a righteous death increase with increasing financial health. The first two deaths mentioned above all involved presumably very financially healthy people. One got lucky and had the opportunity for a righteous death, the other did not get lucky and did not.

But what of the odds of having a righteous death if you are financially unhealthy? It takes yet again more luck, I suspect, for a financially unhealthy person to have a righteous death and maybe, quite possibly, there is a certain level of financial ill health at which no amount of luck can jimmy the financially unhealthy person’s way into a righteous death.

After all, people who are financially healthy have, generally speaking, a greater number of options in just about every facet of their life than those who are not, don’t they? So mightn’t it be possible that financially healthy people have more options when it comes to their life’s cut-out as well?

May we all, then, have the good luck and enough financial health to be able to design a beautiful cut-out from the mortal plane we so cherish, and may we all be wise enough to know that our cut-out will just about never be the one we would choose if it were entirely up to us. Because that death would involve living to be, say, 123, with nary a physical or mental deficit in sight, and to then come to know, one day, with certainty and calmness, that a given sunset would be our last sunset, that the following sunrise would be out last sunrise, and that our dance following that sunrise following that sunset would be our last dance, as with a kiss and a hug to all, we smile and say, It’s time for me to go . . .



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  1. Posted by Susan on Thursday, August 24, 2006 at 10pm
    John, I'm just dipping into your blog and this is a poignant piece. The phrase "righteous death" will stick with me and the ideas that go with it. There are so few discussions of what a beautiful death looks like; you conveyed it with the sunrise sendoff.