Geriatrician Joanne Lynn frequently asks these two questions of the audiences of health experts she speaks to: “How many of you expect to die?” And in every audience some people do not raise their hands. Then she asks, “Would you prefer to be old when it happens?” Again not all hands are raised.
Human beings prefer living in denial about almost everything: addiction, climate change, the dangers of texting and driving, racism. But the thing we deny the most, I think, is our own mortality, even as people all around us pass through the milestone of death.
However, it becomes much more difficult to ignore thoughts about dying when our bodies fail us – no matter what age we are. Phillip Simmons was dying of ALS when he wrote the book Learning to Fall, The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. In the introduction, he jokes that “life is, after all, a terminal condition.” He goes on to say that “knowing my days are numbered has meant the chance to look at all of life’s questions. What I have learned from asking them is that a fuller consciousness of my own mortality has been my best guide to being more fully alive.”
In one chapter of the book he describes the mud season that descends on New Hampshire just before spring. The geological realities of that state have left a “meager soil, laid like a thing sponge of an unyielding granite bed. With the March thaw that sponge sops full.” It is the season of mud. He goes on, “We fear this time of year not so much for where it is taking us – the spring bloom and summer roar – but for what we have to go through to get there.”
He goes on to use mud season as a metaphor for the realities of life. “We all have our personal mud seasons. . . . We need the mud for what grows from it. Every mud season is a kind of death, with resurrection lying on the other side. . . . As I enter my various mud seasons. I’ve learned to ask: what death is this? Or what is within me that needs to die? and out of this death, what resurrection will come?”
When our bodies fail us we have the opportunity to prepare for the concept of death. We also can learn to appreciate life And to look forward to the resurrection that follows. Simmons teaches us how to do this:
The example of Jesus, and the experience of mud season, also remind me of a harsher truth: to be reborn, we first must die. The way to Jerusalem lies through mud. Dying, like mud, can take many forms, but every death, in the sense I mean, is a letting go. We let go of ambition, of pride, of ego. We let go of relationships, of perfect health, of loved ones who go before us to their own deaths. We let go of insisting that the world be a certain way. Letting go of any of these things can seem the failure of every design, loss of every cherished hope. But in letting them go, we may also let go fear, let go our white-knuckled grip on a life that never seems to meet our expectations, let go our anguished hold on smaller selves our spirits have outgrown. We may feel at times that we have let go of life itself, only to find ourselves in a new one, freer, roomier more joyful than we could have imagined.
Who am I when my body fails me? Someone who is learning to face death instead of deny it. I, for one, am grateful that the realities of illnesses or disabilities usher us in to an opportunity to face our own deaths squarely. I am glad for the chance to “let go” and find a new life that is “freer, roomier, and more joyful” than I could have imagined.
image of “letting go” by wattpad.com