It was my last day at St. Benedict's Monastery in Minnesota, where I had been leading a retreat on Julian of Norwich. Since St. Benedict's is one of my favorite places in the world, I wasn't really ready to come home, and put off calling with my travel arrangements until evening.
Recently I met someone who had been to South Africa to witness the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He had all the usual admiring things to say about it, with one new piece of information. All of the members of that commission are ill in one way or another, he said. No one has survived the process with his or her health intact.
Being sick is more complicated than it used to be. Medical technologies that offer new hope also lead to a bewildering thicket of options. The complexities of being sick may account for the rising number of books telling the story of illnesses.
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.
Not long ago I went to visit my mother at a busy New York hospital where she was recovering from heart-valve surgery. The elevators were so crowded that I had to go down to the basement to claim a place for the trip up to the sixth-floor coronary care unit. At each floor the doors opened in front of identical signs: “No cell phones.
It’s Thursday morning, November 9, 2006. It’s ten after nine. I’m at my desk, working through Ecclesiastes for a book I am to write. The verse I’m working on goes like this: “Better a handful with quietness than two fistfuls with toil and a chasing after wind.”
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.