A knock on Death’s door

When my first child was born in 1990, I took an alternative birthing class, which led me to write a very detailed birth plan. As a first-time mother with absolutely no experience of labor and delivery or newborns, I spent hours on that plan, listing everything from the music to be played at various stages of labor, to the quiet, dark room I wanted to be my newborn’s first view of the world.

Sometime in the midst of the actual labor, I threatened to bash my then-husband if he so much as touched his boom box or played my mix tape. By the time my fourth child was born, my plan was simpler: Give me drugs.

I remember this experience whenever I read (or write) about the need to prepare an advance directive, specifying treatment preferences and hopes, in the event that one can no longer speak up. Such directives may help avoid the catastrophic crisis-based decision making many families run into when they simply do not know (or agree) on what Mom or Dad would have wanted.

But I tend to think that directives can also give people a false sense of control. It is no use wishing for a quick and painless death when the reality is the slow dwindling of dementia or intractable cancer pain.  No use stating that we do not want to burden our families, when, in fact, we will need their help; often at their own physical, emotional, and financial expense. No use wanting to stay out of hospitals, when the care they offer is what Medicare will cover. No use wanting to avoid nursing homes, when sometimes they represent the only safe option.

At least, was what I thought. And even though for nearly 20 years, I have written about how critical it is to have an advance directive, I haven’t done much about my own. Conversations with my parents begin and end with their saying, “Pull the plug,” and my saying, “There will be no plug.”

Despite my skepticism, I agreed to a request from Ellen Goodman, founder of The Conversation Project, to host a “death with dinner” as part of an initiative the Project is promoting. Not wanting to say no to Ellen, I invited several girlfriends to brunch. I admired their brave and cheerful response to spending a Saturday morning in January talking about death.

The first to arrive teased me that she had never wanted to “knock on Death’s door.” Once assembled, after praising one another’s culinary skills, I started The Talk by lighting seven candles, one for each of us, and then the Conversation began—and we were gone.

Our Conversation was not at all what I had anticipated. We did not describe our health care treatment preferences—tube feeding or no?—but we shared life’s more difficult questions: Did we believe in an afterlife? What did we want done with our bodies? What had we experienced with our own parents? How had that affected us? We talked for nearly three hours—and although we sometimes veered into banter, we mostly stayed focused. As middle-aged women, we know our time is shortening —but no one had ever asked us what we wanted to make of that time, and talking about it was profound and moving.

Will our conversation change anything about what happens to any of us? Not likely. But it prompted me to reflect on my own life, and things I have and have not done (like write a will). I have new insights about my dear friends, and a deeper appreciation for how thoughtful, smart and kind they are. Their stories gave me other perspectives on my own.

One friend’s advice stays with me. She described what had happened when her very frail father was dying. Married more than 60 years, her mother longed to hear some reflection on their long shared life. Instead, whenever he surfaced from sleep, he would remind her to change the oil in the car. As my friend said, “That is the lesson I have: tell people you love them every day that you have them.”

And change the oil. You have nothing to lose, but time.


This piece originally appeared on Mariashriver.com


September 13th, 2014