“Death isn’t something to be shied away from, Booth. From an anthropological standpoint, the more openly a culture embraces death the less anxiety they associate with it.” (Bones, Season 11, Episode 3)
We (my siblings and I) aren’t really sure when our mother’s Alzheimer’s began. If you’ve ever walked this path with a loved one, perhaps you, like us, think back on various moments and events and wonder, “Was that an early warning sign we missed?” For me, the earliest wondering goes back to the Elder Hostel trip my mother and I took together. We were at a beautiful lake resort in Pennsylvania in the fall. We went on walks in the woods, took watercolor classes, and learned more about Broadway musicals than I ever imagined there was to know … it was a joyful trip.
I brought with me several crossword puzzles — two copies of each — and my mother and I had a friendly competition each day. In the past, she always beat me … by a lot. But this time I won every day … not by a lot, just enough to think maybe I had actually gotten better at this. These were the daily puzzles from the Washington Post. If you are a puzzler, you know that there are many clues that become standard and show up over and over again. So, in addition to knowing answers, there’s a bit of memory involved as well. Perhaps that was the beginning of our denial that lasted for many years, and an early warning sign of the long, slow loss of competence and autonomy on her journey towards death many years later (and the blessedly short “only” two years of sharp decline that preceded her departure).
There is a great deal of romanticizing of death that takes place in poetry and prose. Whether it’s a dignified death, a peaceful death, or a sudden death we imagine, it seems rare that death lives up to our imaginings. These imaginings may be one of the many ways we wrestle with our mortality. Many people are very uncomfortable talking about death with their loved ones, and hardly ever discuss death with children.
In my mind, the truly dignified death would be one that is faced head on with honesty, curiosity, preparation, and gratitude. Gratitude for the experience of life, preparation with loved one’s for our eventual departure from this world, curiosity for what is beyond this consciousness, and honesty in knowing that death is as much a part of life as birth.
Knowing that death is a certainty for each and every one of us, and that what is beyond is unknown, I think the best we can do is live our lives well — embrace each beautiful moment with friends, family, beauty and joy. Leave good memories with those whom you encounter, and leave a light footprint where you tread.