A character in a Woody Allen play says, “It’s not that I am afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Until recently those were my sentiments exactly.
But I have just begun to realize how my whole life has revolved around experiencing it. Since death is the final experience, I do want to be there when it happens.
A friend of mine, Jeff, who is working on an advanced degree, interviewed me last month. After reading my online autobiography, he structured the interview around how much my life has changed — how much I have experienced. I’ve always made sure to do interesting things — maybe because I have never thought of myself as being an interesting person.
At about the same time my best friend, John, appreciated that my hiking and photography reflects a quest for beauty. When I see beauty on the trail or anywhere it deeply moves me to appreciate all life forms — everything from the beauty of the female form to that of lowly insects. Consequently, my friend recommended that I read psychologist Rollo May’s book, My Quest for Beauty.
I bought a copy and read it. What resonates the most with me is a few pages that Dr. May devotes to the connection between beauty and death.
“Only when we confront death, in some form or other,” he writes, “only when we realize that life is fragile, do we create beauty.” How profound!
Then, he quotes the poet Wallace Stevens, “Death is the mother of beauty.” I was already beginning to comprehend this idea after photographing the beauty of the Colorado aspens this fall.
Aspens Turning, Golden Gate Canyon State Park, Colorado
“The incredibly wonderful colors of autumn leaves, say in Vermont, are a species of death,” Dr. May writes. “The leaves are most beautiful as they die, and because they die.”
The connection that Dr. May makes among death, beauty, and form also moved me greatly. “Death is the mother of beauty also in the sense that death is a setting of ultimate limits,” he writes. “Death is the final and perpetual boundary. Limits are an aspect of form, and are thus one aspect of beauty.”
My best friend said that I share Dr. May’s quest for beauty. I realize that I do — but that my quest for experience is even greater. Just as my father shaped his life around his “Quest for Education,” I have shaped mine around a quest for experience.
That somehow got me to make a huge change in how I think about my own death. I had always hoped that I could go quickly, without any pain or knowledge that I was about to die. I even fantasized that lightning would kill me as I hiked along the Continental Divide, where summer afternoon lightning storms are all too common.
But that is not really me. I have come to the realization that I hope to have the experience of dying. I do want to know that I am dying when the time comes.
My wife Catherine had that experience. I remember my shock on January 18, 2007, when she called me on my cell phone. She said that she just came back from seeing her gastroenterologist. He told her, “It’s time to get your affairs in order.” Those are the dreaded code words that doctors use to break the news to their patients that there is nothing more that they can do for them to extend their lives.
Catherine told me that she wanted to have “closure” on her life and requested that I ask my best friend, who is also a retired pastor, to come from California to talk with her for a few days. He came, they talked, and she died peacefully at the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver on March 20, 2007, the day after we said goodbye.
The last year of Catherine’s life as she was dying of liver failure, probably as a result of her diabetes, was tough. But she was blessed by having closure. I hope that you and I are likewise blessed.
Death and dying is a difficult subject for you to read about. It’s difficult for me to think about — much less to write about. But we all need not only to consider it but also to discuss it with our family and friends.
That’s the point of the Engage with Grace project. The idea is to get us to share just one slide that helps them and their loved ones talk about having a purposeful end-of-life experience.
Image Credit: Engage with Grace
We need to go over five questions with your loved ones, the Engage with Grace Project says. We can start, as I did, by registering on the site, thinking about the questions, and answering them. It’s definitely worth a couple of minutes of our time.
The Engage with Grace Project complements the Five Wishes. My friend Janice told me about them when I mentioned to her that I would be writing about the Engage with Grace Project.
The Five Wishes is the first living will that talks about our personal, emotional, and spiritual needs as well as our medical wishes. It lets us say exactly how we wish people will treat us when we get seriously ill. If you live in the District of Columbia or one of 40 states, you can use the Five Wishes to legally replace a living will or a durable power of attorney for health care.
The Engage with Grace Project coupled with the Five Wishes can encourage us to confront our death in order to appreciate our life even more. If we are to be able to experience our lives fully, we need to be prepared to experience our death.
HealthCentral published an earlier version of this article.