I’ve been collecting death stories for a long time.
The first is from my ancestor Jenny Murdoch. I’ve been told a story about her, I like to think of her as my mother’s mother’s mother, but it’s too late to find out now. The story is that she was on the boat from Scotland, down in steerage, and there came a big storm. She scrambled up to the deck, crying out “If I mus’ dee, let me not dee in darkness.” That’s how I remember it. That cry, in some ways, has been my guiding star: I do not want to die in darkness. I have lived most of my life in severe depression. I didn’t know, until I got on medication, that I had never had normal brain chemistry. One of the things that kept me going through nearly 60 years was the determination that I would not die depressed.
I think of my grandfather, the summer of my sister’s wedding. He was too frail to come to Maine, but my Aunt Carolyn, on her way home to San Francisco, stopped in Cincinnati to see him. She took him a piece of wedding cake. He asked several times if the wedding had happened, and Aunt Carolyn reassured him. The day after she left, he called to the nurse to bring him his glasses. So she did, and he said “Not those, I want my BEST glasses.” She brought him his best glasses, he put them on, took a deep breath, and died. It seemed to me that he knew at some level that the wedding was happening, and if he died before it happened, that would spoil it, so he was hanging on, until he was sure that his death would not disrupt anything. That was just like Gramps, to leave courteously. And I love that he wanted his best glasses. He knew he was facing an extremely important experience, and he wanted to honor it. I also want to meet death awake, with my best glasses on.
I do believe, to some extent, that we can choose our time to die. Someone who did some work for me, told me the story of his dad, who’d had lung cancer but been in remission. When the cancer recurred, he said he didn’t want any surgery, chemo, etc. In four days he was dead. I think I can also choose to die instead of hanging around for one of those long slowly disintegrating illnesses. I don’t want to do what my parents did, both of them hung on and hung on. They were both alcoholics who never got to step 1: surrender, admit that your life is unmanageable. They were afraid of death, even though their quality of life had deteriorated.
By the time my father died, he had been unconscious for a number of days. I had been home for the 4th of July (see monologue). Before I left, he was taken to the hospital. He was supposed to come home after the new treatment, so I had a plane ticket for July 23. By that time it didn’t look as though he would be getting out of the hospital, but I went home anyway. When I got home, mother told me I was the last to know. He’d died while my plane was in the air. It was pretty clear to me that, though unconscious, he somehow knew that help was on the way to my mom and it was OK for him to let go.
I also wrote, in March of that year:
My father’s health is worse. The throat cancer has recurred and there isn’t anything they can do about it this time. He will probably die by choking on his own blood. What a horrible way to go. I cried when I heard about it, thinking about that poor man facing such a death with no resources at all, no self-discipline, no spiritual faith, no courage and dignity strengthened by practice. He’s spent his whole life avoiding discomfort, now he has to face this. Unless the habit of denial allows him to avoid the knowledge of his death even at this point.
Another friend’s husband had ALS. I believe the death from that is a horrible one, the person essentially stops breathing. As John was getting closer to death, at what would be his last Thanksgiving, his five daughters all gathered for a farewell dinner with their dad and mom. That afternoon, they all went off do do things, and when they were all gone, John died. I’m sure he wanted to spare his loved ones the experience of his actual death.