January 9, 2012

Preparing for Death with Continued Zest for Life

In the past week, a prominent member of my Parkinson's support group died after a long struggle with both Parkinson's and dementia. When I joined the group two years ago, he was pretty far down the road with his afflictions, yet he showed up for meetings more faithfully than any of us, insisting that his caregivers bring him each week. We all sensed that inside his slumped-over figure was a mind struggling to follow the conversations, anxious to break through the fog and contribute. When he did attempt to speak, everyone became silent and focused on every word he said. We all felt a great loss when he finally stopped coming to meetings; we knew he was being moved into a nursing home to prepare for the end.

Later in the week, I got a call from a dear friend who had been living in a home for low-income seniors for the last 20 years and was in declining health. She wanted to tell me she had been moved to a hospice and probably would be placed in their facility for people awaiting death. But she said she still retained her zest for life even as she prepared for its end.

This may sound sad and depressing, but my reaction has been just the opposite. My death is inevitable, and seeing others deal with its arrival with courage, dignity, and even a continued zest for life is reassuring.

An Agnostic's Sonnet on Dying
Recently I came across a sonnet by Hans Zinsser written in 1938. Zinsser, an agnostic like me, wrote movingly about his approaching death.

Zinsser was a German Scientist who lived in America. In 1938, he was diagnosed with leukemia, then incurable. The diagnosis prompted him to write an autobiography, written in the third person. In it, he showed an honest courage and -- like the friend I'd just visited -- a continued zest for life as death drew nearer. Zinsser finished the book and was able to see it published. The Book of the Month Club picked it as a featured title, and it became a surprise bestseller.

Zinsser wrote that the mysteries of God and afterlife were "insoluble by us; and I, for one, must be content to remain an agnostic."

He was grateful that death was coming with due warning rather than suddenness, and in his last months achieved a degree tranquility and resignation. He was thankful he had time to compose his spirit and spend time with those most dear to him.

In his last sonnet, he set down this feeling:

Now is death merciful. He calls me hence
Gently, with friendly soothing of my fears
Of ugly age and feeble impotence
And cruel disintegration of slow years.

Nor does he leap upon me unaware
Like some wild beast that hungers for its prey,
But gives me kindly warning to prepare:
Before I go, to kiss your tears away.
How sweet the summer! And the autumn shone
Late warmth within our hearts as in the sky,
Ripening rich harvests that our love has sown.
How good that ere the winter comes, I die!
Then, ageless, in your heart I’ll come to rest
Serene and proud, as when you loved me best.
Charlotte's Poem
A week ago, as she was preparing to leave her apartment home of 20-plus years to go to the hospice, my friend Charlotte wrote this poem:
Bye Bye Blackbirds 

Drinking black tea 

Almonds to chew 

Rosemary twig 

Silver green, grey and dark 

Add health with new light. 

Red claws 

Clutch tree limb. 

Rest before take off 

into space . . . 

Bye, Bye Blackbirds 



Grackles follow, 

Swoop in flight 

Gliding, turning, 

Catching rising sun. 

Gold danced 

Molting orange melts 

Plumage fires 

Arrows ping. 

Oh Great Spirit 

Day begins . . . 

  
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