Life Before Death
Kathy Day, a Certified Professional Coach, recommended that I watch www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/being-mortal. My wife and I were tending to a friend who was struggling valiantly to regain her life after heart surgery.
I’m glad that I put off looking at the video until after Carol died because, now that she is gone, I have much more objectivity. Before she died, there was always the question of how and when death would come or if life would be regained. We all face that issue every day whether we dwell on it or not. The trick is not to let concerns about death steal life but at the same time to look squarely at our eventual mortality.
I already pretty well knew my own answers. Having lost a wife, parents, a couple of too-young grand nieces, and close friends of various ages—and having faced my own imminent death seven years ago—I have had several opportunities to grapple with the life/death issue. I am now comfortable with my own mortality, but years ago, I remember sitting in an algebra class in high school and being swept up in the realization that I, a living being would someday die. It was an eerie feeling for a fifteen year old. Now, when I as an octogenarian was actually face to face with my own imminent death, I was pleased to note that I could accept my demise with equanimity.
I think it is different for a younger person who has not yet had their chance to make a difference in this world. Young people, when they face death, are asked to forfeit their whole life instead of simply complete it. When I was twenty-one, I was willing to follow Jesus’ example and forfeit my life for others. I knew that many young men, serving in the military, were patriotically putting their lives on the line, too. Our difference was that they carried guns and dropped bombs to rid the earth of our enemies while I was led to believe that there is that of God in all living creatures and to seek their friendship, unarmed.
Although willing to die for a cause, I was never called to do so. Looking back, I can see that my calling has instead been to share life and its joys, especially through country dancing. That is how I met Carol.
Carol used her life to thoughtfully and creatively support the lives of others. She faced personal physical challenges starting with a club foot and a heart valve condition at birth and then later with diabetes. She rose above those threats to her life. She did not dwell on them and lived a full life sharing her talents as a teacher, a leader, a singer, a seamstress, and a generous, supportive friend. It was all done with a joy in living, a smile, fun, and even laughter.
When she faced a second heart valve replacement at age 69, she gave the doctors her full support with amazing good humor and held out the hope that her body would have another chance, and another, and another. She bounced back again and again when her heart stopped. She did not want to die just yet. Her robust spirit and ready wit may have misled the doctors. Doctors and nurses are, after all, in the business of saving lives, not ending them. My wife and I watched the process not knowing what to do as long as there was hope. It is a difficult issue to balance hope with a hopeless struggle. There was always that 20 percent chance!
Carol retained hope to regain her life and spent twenty-two days in that valiant struggle. She knew, if given the chance, she still had much to offer. But, Carol had also quietly made preparations for death before her operation. She had faced the life/death issue with rare insight. Her affairs were in order: a living trust set up, durable power of attorney arranged, income taxes filed, a cemetery plot purchased. She even made a will through which she could continue her legacy of thoughtfully and creatively developing life for others. She left friends and family thoughtful items of encouragement. As she worked valiantly to live, she also was well prepared to die.
Carol Luer was a model for all who face death and rise above it while not denying it. As her body continued to fail, she finally said okay, accepted appropriate medication, and relaxed after the prolonged and constant effort to heal. Without machines to artificially prop up life, within five minutes, she quickly slipped into permanent peace. The peace part was welcomed—the permanent part will require adjustments from the rest of us.
Where is your balance? 80-20%, 50-50%, 20-80%? Mine is when I require more in maintenance from society than I can contribute.