There was a time about ten years ago when I, in my human form, came very close to not existing. Complications of a surgical procedure, compounded by my hemophilia and eventually a nearly fatal E coli infection, had resulted in multiple ER visits, almost always on weekends, holidays, and nights, of course. What procedures I went through, were incredibly painful and torturous with my crying out more than once, “Someone please help me, I’ll do anything you ask“ and “Please, just let me die.”
Over six months, I experienced a gradual decline. There were days when things seemed to be on the upswing, followed by another crisis and I would end up worse than before. Before, when I was medically challenged I always gradually recovered. Not this time. Each respite was followed by another steep decline.
I was getting worse and worse. I didn’t realize how bad until my doctor said, “I don’t know how to help you anymore, here are some names of people who might be able to.”
This was not just an average doctor. He was heralded as one of the best in the business, a university-based doctor, professor at a renowned, world class, medical center, international lecturer, one of the experts in the field. This doctor turned his back and walked out of the room. When I got home and into the foyer, I started to say something but instead a sob emerged from somewhere deep inside, followed by a boatload. Six months’ worth of sobs.
I called the doctors he had recommended, their first appointment available was in six weeks.
The next day, I started feeling very ill. Eight hours later it felt like I was dying. My wife, bless her heart, drove me yet one more time to the emergency room. On the way there I was telling her all the things I needed to tell her. Where things were. Messages of love to pass on. I was so sick with advanced symptoms of what I later learned was e-coli, I didn't believe I would survive this one.
When we arrived at the ER, the attendant quickly rushed me into an evaluation room. After a few tests a doctor came in and said, “you have an infection and we're going to give you every high level antibiotic we have, as quickly as we can because we don't have time to figure out which one of the three might work”. One of them did work. The internal bleeding was eventually controlled also.
During my week-long stay in the hospital, I had what I call a daymare; a nightmare that occurs during the day; that I couldn’t wake up from. A state in which I'm somewhere between half awake and half asleep. Just along for the ride.
I’ll spare you all the details, but that daymare involved finding myself in a torture chamber with blinding lights. Two characters I could only see the profiles of screamed at me, wanting me to believe that no matter what, no matter who, and no matter how many people love me and care about me, and no matter what I believe in, no matter how much religion (and by the way I've had a pretty heavy doses of religion), no matter how much therapy or meditation or yoga retreats, navel-gazing, philosophy, intellectualization, you name it – at the end of my life, it will just be me and death. Me alone, moving from life as I (we) know it to whatever I or you believe is behind that veil between here and there. They insisted on my admitting that I’ll be going there alone.
I valiantly fought those two characters for hours in my daymare. They screamed and they yelled. I responded each time bringing up all the evidence that I wouldn't be alone. I named the people who love me. I talked to them about the beliefs I've had and the experience that I’ve gathered over 6 1/2 decades of living.
They were not impressed. They were not moved. They were relentless. I wouldn't give in and they wouldn't give up. After what turned out to be literally two and a half hours of this pounding assault, out of pure exhaustion, I gave up. “You're right.” Suddenly, the spotlights that had been blinding me went off. Soft lighting replaced them. The two characters were now visible as normal people who appeared to be caring and concerned. I was instantly released from the chain shackles that had bound my hands to a table and each of my feet to the floor.
I asked why they had tortured me like that? Why so brutal and for so long? They simply said, “We didn't want you to be surprised.” I said sarcastically, “Well, thanks a lot. Now what am I supposed to do?” They just smiled and walked away.
At some level I knew they were right. At the end, the very end, I will have to turn away from the people who might be with me on my deathbed and move on. They can’t go with me, even if I and they wanted to. I’ve seen friends die. They had to let go of my hand.
I had no idea what I was supposed to do about what I had learned. But I intuitively knew the answer would not be found in any of the strategies that I had. A different brand of religion, or philosophic renderings, or more therapy as I knew it, more meditation, more yoga; I wouldn’t find what I was looking for with any of these. I knew what it wasn’t, I did not know what it was or how to find it.
I told my wife about what happened and I said, “Something big is going to have to change and I have no idea what that is.” It took me months of wondering and wandering. I tried talking to friends who had no idea what I was talking about. Their attempts to help served to let me see that the answer wasn’t outside of me, it was inside somewhere, yet I didn’t know how to access it.
I spent the following weeks and months turning over stones one at a time. One day it came to me. I suddenly knew what I needed to do. I needed to befriend death, my mortality. At the end of it all, it will just be the two of us.
So, I literally sat down with a journal and said to death, “I want to get to know you,” and began our conscious relationship. He and I have had countless discussions since then. About death and life and his (my image of death is that it is of a man, dressed in bib overall and his name is Fred-Mo; all of that is a story in and of itself. He started out, in my mind as the familiar to all, Grim Reaper, with black cloak and sickle and all the usual.)
I've recorded each of those conversations. Hundreds of pages. I have a chat with him when he comes close by as a loved one is confronted by him. When his presence occupies my mind. When I intentionally go visit him at one of my mortality retreats where I can share my discoveries with other people who have decided that a conscious relationship with their own mortality is something they want to develop.
It all may sound morbid and dark. After all, our culture pretty much lives and prefers to live in denial about death and our own personal mortality. Little kids who are curious (some as young as 3 years old) are quickly diverted from the subject.
Actually, it has been an amazing experience. I have found a level of personal peace I didn't know was possible. This relationship we've developed has resulted in a massively richer life. The effect of the relationship in terms of how I relate to others has been beautiful. I am nurturing important relationships in ways I never thought of before.
I now understand what a good friend of mine, Mary, told me decades ago, near the end of her life. She was weeks away from dying. She had been given a diagnosis of untreatable cancer one year before. We were close. I asked her what this last year had been like. What was it like to know her expiration date? She said, “honestly, Ted, this has been the very best year of my life.” I was shocked. I had imagined it would have been filled with sadness and grief and loss (she had a husband and babies, after all). I could not comprehend how that could possibly be true. Now I do, or at least I understand better. I also knew she was trying to tell me something that I could not understand.
This blog idea came to me as we are in the middle of a death rate that I have never experienced. Not death in some far-off foreign country. Or deaths of those who are put in positions where death is common. It’s next door. Across the street. In a phone call. A news report. And a complication that things have definitely changed in the favor of it being likely that I will be dying alone.
I guess my message, in telling this story, is that if the specter of your own or a loved one’s death is not comforted by all the things you have been taught, (mine were denial, distraction, religion, therapy, philosophy, spirituality, meditation, logic, philosophy, yoga, etc.) and you haven’t tried talking directly to your mortality, there is one more choice. It worked for me. It’s the only thing that has worked for me. It has worked for others that I know. It’s worked for others that I work with.
Obviously, I can’t tell you whether this will work or not. While I hope to be able to peacefully go, when I need to turn away from my loved ones and take those last five steps (thank you Mark Nepo) from this world to that one. I don’t know if I will go peacefully, with Fred-Mo holding one hand and my holding my innocent vulnerable self in the other.
What I do know is that the last ten years of my life, has been like Mary’s; the most rich of them all, because of my conversations with my mortality. Including more moments since then when I have sat in three different waiting rooms for news of whether the latest health challenge would be my last one. I sat in those waiting rooms, a lot differently than before.
If everything you know and believe and have done fails and you don't know what else to do, try sitting down and having a chat and beginning a conversation with him or her or it. Find someone to share it all with.
Thank you Mary. It took me 45 years, but I finally got it.