It has been a week of being confronted with mortality. Not so much mine, although being with others who are having more immediate health challenges, certainly causes self-reflection.
Coincidentally, I’ve also been listening to an audio version of Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. I probably wouldn’t have chosen this book, especially not in audio form. Listening to mystery novels in the car is one of my greatest traffic stress relievers. But the East Bay discussion grop picked it for our gathering next week and listening in the car is the fastest way for me to be prepared. Little did I know how relevant it would be.
As I said, it’s been quite a week: a member of the congregation with a sudden life-threatening medical condition, a death in other members’ family, another having to make the difficult decision to move into assisted living. Added to these is my own significant other’s surgery and possible long-term implications.
Each of these has brought a unique perspective to matters of life and death. But they all remind us of a very basic fact of our existence: just as we are all born, so will we all die. Two weeks ago, our Buddhist Pluralism Summer guest last week told a joke about the Buddhist medical examiner who was always getting into trouble because on every death certificate, after “Cause of Death,” he would write “Birth.”
That’s a good joke, but it’s also an excellent reminder of what being mortal is all about. The book Being Mortal takes this reality into the realm of modern medicine and calls on us to find better ways of facing our mortality and specifically to find better ways of dying well. My nomination for the patron saint of this has got to be former president Jimmy Carter. He is doing what can be done to treat the cancer, while also accepting whatever the outcome will be. Here is a man at peace with himself and with the birth/death cycle. Although it is touching to read that he waited two weeks before telling Rosalyn about the latest diagnosis.
All of these people – the world famous and the famous only to their loved ones – are teaching me what it means to be human. As they face their own changing bodies and life situations, I am forced to reflect on my own. I, too, have a terminal diagnosis. I’ve had it since birth; in fact it was my birth – no joke.
How am I going to live with this inevitable outcome in the time I have left? How will I deal with whatever illnesses, disabilities, limitations come my way?
And – how will I care for those who are going through these life changes? Atul Gawande’s book describes ways that have not been helpful. His is the perspective of the medical profession, but he’s challenging me also, as a spiritual caregiver.
It’s been a difficult week. But I consider the timing of the assignment of reading this book to be a gift. Even after all my years as a parish pastor and my training and years as a hospital and nursing home chaplain, I still have a lot to learn about being mortal. Maybe it’s part of my own aging process.
Hopefully I’m also becoming wiser.