The child is sitting up in bed, propped against pillows. She is six years old. Her homebound teacher, Mrs. Williams, is due any minute. She is fond of Mrs. Williams—a white-haired lady with a pleasant quavery voice.
Although I live nine miles away from town, there is nothing much to slow me down on my way in. After the first two miles of tooth-rattling dirt road, it is a straight shot down state highway 17, with only one stop sign between me and the city limits.
It’s tempting to blame partisan politics for last summer’s debacle over “death panels” and the very idea of doctors and patients holding conversations about the end of life. But the truth is: these conversations are difficult. Although some people welcome them, others approach the subject of death cautiously. Many of us would rather not explore what awaits us in the final years or weeks of life. Perhaps this reluctance explains why only one in five Americans has completed an advance directive for medical care.
"When I’m gone just cremate me,” Hughey MacSwiggan told his third and final wife as she stood at his bedside while the hospice nurse fiddled with the morphine drip that hadn’t kept his pain at bay. The operative word in his directive was just. He wasn’t especially fond of fire. He hadn’t picked out a favorite urn. He saw burning not so much as an alternative to burial as an alternative to bother. He just wanted it all to be over.
Our teacher cautions us that the corpse pose is the most difficult of all yoga postures to master, but after an hour’s exertion in warrior pose, downward-facing dog and cobra, the prospect of relaxing horizontally on one’s yoga mat brings both relief and the impertinent question, “How hard can it be?” Fascinated, I report to my husband, “Every day at the conclusion of yoga class we practice dying.” “That’s interesting,” he says, trying to share my enthusiasm. “It’s kind of like Lent,” I venture. "Lent is when we’re supposed to practice dying, right?”
A year before my mother died, she heard her father call to her during the night. When I visited her in the nursing center, she said his voice was so clear that she answered and struggled to get up. This was the first sign that she would spend her final year of life in a twilight that blended past and present.
After rumors circulated that President Obama’s health-care reform would institute “death panels” for the elderly, Congress quickly abandoned any effort to address end-of-life issues in health-care legislation.
With surprising swiftness and dramatic results, a significant segment of American Christians has over the past 50 years abandoned previously established funeral customs in favor of an entirely new pattern of memorializing the dead. Generally included in the pattern is a brief, customized memorial service (instead of a funeral), a focus on the life of the deceased, an emphasis on joy rather than sadness, and a private disposition of the deceased.
At my 20-week ultrasound appointment, my husband and I learned that the baby that we are expecting has a fatal birth defect. Sometime very early in his development something went drastically wrong. His skull never formed—the whole top and back part of it simply did not exist. We will probably never find a medical answer to why he developed this way.