This morning our neighborhood conducted its annual trash pickup event through all of our streets and some of us gathered at the park to receive trash bags, grabbers, and a bottle of water. As I walked towards my assigned street, I had an interesting conversation with a woman about the death of a mutual friend who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer very late in the game and had lived only a few months after learning what was causing that painful “gas” in her stomach. She had chosen to go through radiation and chemotherapy with the hope that this would at least, alleviate her suffering, if not prolong her life.
Of course, I’ll never know what decision I’d make in the same circumstances until that moment arrives, but Jean’s experience helped to confirm my own intentions not to go that route, when and if I learn about my own upcoming exit plans. My neighbor heartily agreed and we swapped a few more stories in the same vein. For instance, she knew of someone with cancer who had patiently listened to three physicians in the room giving her a rundown of all the available medical options. At last, the woman’s choice was none of the above, and the doctors broke into spontaneous applause. Legally, they couldn’t advise this, but were clearly relieved that she had come to that conclusion herself.
That helped me repair my cynical attitude about the commercialism of modern medicine, a little bit anyway. I explained that, at least in theory, I would view a terminal diagnosis as a “ticket to ride” and shared a little analogy that I’d thought up years ago to try to illustrate my attitude about death. The analogy goes like this:
Being alive in this world is like holding a ticket to enter some great place, such as….Disney World…, but having to hang out for an indefinite period in an ante room which has been outfitted with some pretty cool things to do while you are waiting. At some point, we are individually called into the real thing and can now enter Disney World because our turn has come up. By that time, however, we’ve forgotten why we came and have become so thoroughly entertained by these little time fillers that we kick and scream and hold onto the doorjambs just to stay a little longer in the waiting room to the true reality. How silly we must feel when we finally are yanked in, whether we agree to go or not.
My friend liked that little tale and then shared the true story about her own father’s death. I’ll call him Leonard. In his final days, he spent a lot of time talking to people who weren’t there. In fact, her brother would have to call him back and insist that he focus on this world whenever he would have visitors. Once, his head suddenly turned to one side and a smile lit his face. “Oh hey, guys! I wish I could come and play with you but I can’t get out of this chair. As soon as I figure out how to get out of this chair, I’ll be right there!” Then, he casually mentioned to his family that it was his old baseball team, here to get him for a game.
At his funeral, a friend suggested that his daughter telephone one of his old buddies about his passing and he provided a phone number. A woman answered and hesitatingly asked the purpose of the call. When she heard the name Leonard and that he had just died, she said, “You’ll never believe this! Hospice is here because my husband is dying as well, and he has just now told me that his old teammate, Leonard, is here to get him for a ball game.”
My friend told her that the whole team had shown up to collect her father and both women enjoyed the idea of the big game that their men would be playing somewhere on a field of dreams. The amazing timing of that suggested phone call was the best proof that either could have had that death is not the end of anything.
That sure was a neat conversation and I pondered it as I grabbered up about a billion coffin nails (cigarette butts) along the side of that neighborhood street this morning.