Monday, April 2, 2018


It's my firm believe that my sister chose to die. Not in a suicidal way, I need to add; she simply decided it was time to move on to what she called "the next great adventure."

These are the circumstances: she had been suffering for months from stomach pains, which remained undiagnosed--until the doctors finally performed an exploratory surgery and discovered an inoperable tumor. They gave her another few months to live. Ellie and I happened, by good fortune, to be in England at the time of her diagnosis and sped over to the hospital where she lay, post surgery, in considerable pain yet in surprisingly good spirits. Having done a great deal of in-depth emotional and spiritual work in the preceding years, she pronounced herself "ready to go", and quietly smiled when we told her: Not so fast! We wanted to be able to visit her at least once more, and were all ready to make the flight back across the Atlantic when the time came.

But the time never came. Not more than two weeks later, after our return back home to Los Angeles, we received the call from our niece that her mother had died. I am convinced that, seeing nothing ahead for the next few months but pain and dependency, she had seen an appealing glow of light through the open door and had chosen to step through it.

I recall this as a part of this "serious conversation" because the time has come to talk about death. No matter whether it comes soon or late, it is a good time to turn my thoughts that way. I decided many years ago that, if I had a choice in the matter--which of course I don't--I would like to die a conscious death. I remember having read about a Tibetan monk who made the passage imperceptibly from life to death in a meditation sitting pose and having thought, at the time, that this would be an enviable way to go. I have not, myself, put in the years, well, let's say the decades of deep meditation work to have earned such a noble passage--but I can still envy it. And I can still wish for a conscious death, with the ability to stand at that threshold and decide, as I think my sister did, to take that final step.

I do not wish to find myself resisting death, as my father did. Strange, I have often thought, for a man who had chosen the Christian ministry as his vocation to be so reluctant to meet his date with St. Peter--after whom he had named his son. He held on fiercely for weeks after we were first summoned to his deathbed, and finally capitulated only after we had left. I have seen one other person struggle as fiercely and die, so I thought, in fear and anger, and this is a death I would not wish to emulate. This is the death of Dylan Thomas's famous villanelle: Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light. No, I would much rather "go gentle."

As did Ellie's mother, Laurie, whose death was much more noble, to my mind. She took her time--some two weeks in all--repairing quietly to her bed and refusing either food or water while she prepared herself to leave us. We stayed with her a good part of the time. Unable, or unwilling, to communicate in words, she seemed able to hear ours and be comforted by them. At once moment, toward the end, she made her peace with Ellie, reaching up a scrawny hand to touch her daughter's cheek, even while not opening her eyes and not breathing a word. In her last hours, and then minutes, we began to count the lapse of time between her breaths, not knowing when the last one would come. And when it did, when the next breath simply never came, Ellie saw a white dove fly up from the roof of the ceramic studio where her mother had so long worked, and disappear into the sky.

Such a death is the one that I aspire to. I have no way of knowing the moment at which Laurie's mind slipped into unconsciousness. Some small gestures, such as the one that I described, suggest some remnant state of consciousness well past the loss of speech. Perhaps, not unlike my sister, she found herself standing at the threshold and making that last decision to move on. She had known her share of suffering and, with her devotion to yoga and other forms of spiritual exercise, had put in the work to ease her approach to death.

My own time is not yet--but then today is not yet done! It may even be some years before the moment comes, and it behooves me to put however much time remains to the best use. Which is the reason, after all, for this present conversation. As I keep reminding myself, there is still much work to be done, and it's important to know exactly what that work should be.

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