Tag Archives: death

Becoming Neil

This month, I have had the privilege of playing Neil in a community theater production of The Quality of Life, a beautifully-written, award-winning play by Jane Anderson. Neil and his wife Jeanette are living in a yurt on their property in the Berkeley Hills in Northern California after losing their house in a wild fire. Neil has cancer, and his options for treatment have run out. “Rather than suffer the kind of prolonged, humiliating and painful death that is common with this disease, he has chosen to take the more humane and dignified path of self-release.” As he says, he is “checking out before the machine starts to crash.”

The play looks at how we perceive death, grief and faith. At its heart, the play is about finding comfort and hope in the face of great loss. It is a story told with humor, compassion, pain and, above all, love. In the process of becoming Neil, I have seen that the quality of life includes grief and that grief is what makes life dear. I put myself in the shoes of a dying man, which is, of course, where I had been all along.

What is Neil’s ethical will? The concept has Biblical roots, but an ethical will may generally be described as an expression of values to be passed down from one generation to the next. Scattered through The Quality of Life, like the treasures they found in the ashes of their home, are clues that reveal Neil’s set of values and that shape his ethical will.

Neil and Jeanette are spiritual, but they are “not part of any organized religion.” Their moral guidance comes not from the Ten Commandments but from “common decency.”

Neil understands the validity of religious beliefs, but he does not believe in damnation. He does not need faith-based rules or dogma to show him what’s right and what’s wrong. It is enough for Neil to know his own heart and to know what is true.

Common decency makes kindness a virtue. Neil believes that it is important to be kind and to be thankful for the kindness of others. He believes that he has a responsibility to try to set things right whenever he finds that he has wronged another with an unkind word.

Though there is pain, there is also beauty in life. Neil delights in that beauty and expresses his joy in the gift that beauty brings. I have imagined Neil’s last words:

Your eyes are kind and your heart is generous. You have been through an unspeakable horror in your life, yet still you see the beauty of a circling hawk and the promise contained in an avocado seed. I celebrate that joy with you, for there is beauty and hopefulness in life. You only have to look for it. People move on, and I wish I knew how to take away the ache. Take care of yourself.

Neil is interested in other points of view. Though he may disagree, he is respectful of the beliefs of others. He pays attention to how his words and actions may affect other people. He is always seeking to find common truth.

We havent always seen eye-to-eye, but I like hearing from the other side! I admire your strong faith and your strong heart. I know that you are not made of stone. In the end, you and I are not so different. Everywhere you look, there is heartbreak, and people move on. But you build things. You hammer in the nails, and you fill the bird feeder. You reach out your hand. I have faith that you will work it out. Life is too precious.

Neal and Jeanette.
[Photo credit: R.S]
Neil and Jeanette toast to having “no fear” of death. His approaching death is not awful, Neil says. “We all have to die. Presidents do it, garbage men do it, lawyers and poets and certified public accountants do it.” He has chosen to end his journey, and he is thankful that he gets to design his own end and that he will die gently with his beloved Jeanette by his side. He wants to “cherish his very last breath” and sees this as “nothing but a privilege and a gift.” He says that he is not afraid of death, and yet he recognizes in himself the “terror and rage that normal people feel.” Life does not let you cheat grief.

Still, Neil loves life, and he refuses to let death make him morbid or morose. He allows himself to be playful, and at times, his personality merges with the archetypal trickster.

In the face of the loss of his own life, leaving everyone and everything he has ever known, Neil finds comfort in Jeanette with every beat of her heart. It is the love between them that he values more than anything else.

I have loved you from that moment when, standing on a boulder in Mexico, I looked down at you and I saw your smile and our eyes met. Your spirit of wild unbounded joy has kept me going through all the years. And now, I dont want to leave you, but people move on. Though my heart breaks as we share our last goodbye, my mind finds peace in a heartbeat. Please know that this less than perfect man loved you. No fear!

Unlike Neil, I do not have cancer. I am not confronted by a terminal disease with no hope of cure. I have not been put in the position of having to make decisions about the end of my journey, but I know that there will be an end. There is wisdom in Neil’s ethical will that resonates in me like a wind chime and that merges in my soul, in my “star stuff,” because I have become Neil.

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  • 85
    Convirtiendo en NeilThe English version of this post—Becoming Neil—was posted here on March 29, 2016. This Spanish translation is my own and may contain errors. I invite native speakers of the language to comment on my errors and to suggest corrections. Aquí está una traducción en español de Becoming Neil. Me gustaría…
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    In the hour of my death, would I regret that my life had no meaning? Should that be a regret, after all? It seemed that some people—often those who offered sage advice about aging—advocated a search for meaning in one’s life. It was seemingly a noble cause. If you wanted…
  • 79
    “But our machines have now been running seventy or eighty years, and we must expect that, worn as they are, here a pivot, there a wheel, now a pinion, next a spring, will be giving way; and however we may tinker them up for a while, all will at length…

Ahora Un Piñon, Siguiente Un Muelle

The English version of this post—Now a Pinion, Next a Spring—was posted here on January 28, 2015. This Spanish translation is my own and may contain errors. I invite native speakers of the language to comment on my errors and to suggest corrections. Aquí está una traducción en español de Now a Pinion, Next a Spring. Por favor, hispanohablantes quienes leen mis traducciones me permitan saber mis errores y sugieran enmiendas.

“Pero nuestras máquinas han estado corriendo por setenta o ochenta años, y tenemos que anticipar que, desgastadas como están, aquí un pivote, allí una rueda, ahora un piñon, siguiente un muelle, ellas estarán rompiendose; y no importa cómo podemos juguetear con ellas por un rato, finalmente todo va a parar moción.”– Thomas Jefferson

El más difícil libro que he leyendo recién es Cómo Morimos: Reflexiones en el Capítulo Final de la Vida (1993) [en inglés, How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter] por Sherwin B. Nuland. Es difícil para leer, no porque es escrito pobremente o es de pura palabrería excepcionalmente (el libro es ninguno de los dos), pero en vez porque el sujeto del libro es la manera en que personas mueren, un sujeto que Nuland, un cirujano y educador, describe en detalle clínica. Nuland explica lo que pasa en nuestros cuerpos cuándo tenemos un ataque al corazón o derrame cerebral, o cuándo hemos estado diagnosticado con Alzheimer, SIDA, o cáncer. Él describe vieja edad y el inexorable proceso que conduce a muerto, una realidad que Thomas Jefferson fue reconociendo en su carta a John Adams en 1814, citado arriba. He venido de leyendo el libro de Nuland con la realización que mi propia muerte probablemente no va a ser digna.

Nuland escribe:

“ ‘Muerte con dignidad’ es la expresión del deseo universal de nuestro sociedad para lograr un triunfo con gracia contra la escueta y a menudo repugnante irrevocabilidad de la última chisporroteando de vida…

“Pero el hecho es, muerte no es una confrontación. Es simplemente un evento en la secuencia de los continuados ritmos de naturaleza. No muerte pero enfermedad es el real enemigo, enfermedad es la maligna fuerza que requiere confrontación. Muerte es la cesación que viene cuando la batalla agotadora se ha perdido. Aún la confrontación con enfermedad se debe estar acercado con la realización que muchos de las enfermedades de nuestro especie son simplemente vehículos para el arduo camino por el que cada uno de nosotros es devuelto al mismo físico, y quizás espiritual, estado de inexistencia desde cual nos emergimos en el momento de la concepción. Cada triunfo sobre alguna patología grave, no importa cómo resonante es la victoria, es solomente un aplazamiento temporal de el fin inevitable.”

Como penoso que es para leer acerca de mi fin inevitable, yo acepto la premisa de Nuland que conocimiento preciso de cómo una enfermedad mata puede servir para nos protege contra nuestras propias peor imaginaciones. Sabiendo qué pasa a nosotros y el curso probable de eventos que viene nos hace mejor capaz de hacer decisiones racionales sobre tratamiento opciones que puede estar presentado a nosotros: “Un sentido razonable de qué es ser esperado sirve como una defensa contra los descontroladas imaginaciones de miedo sin fundamento y el terror que uno no está haciendo cosas bien de algún modo.”

“La final enfermedad que naturaleza impone en nosotros determinará la atmósfera en que podemos despedirnos de la vida, pero nuestros propias decisiones deben ser permitido, en tanto que es posible, ser la decisiva factor en la manera de nuestra partida.”

Nuland aborda el papel del doctor en tratando grave enfermedad. El objetivo de todos los doctores, Nuland escribe, es hacer el diagnóstico y diseñar y realizar el tratamiento específico. Él llama este objetivo “La Adivinanza” y él nota que “el objetivo impulsor del médico para resolver La Adivinanza va a estar a veces en desacuerdo con nuestros intereses al fin de vida.”

“Las fronteras de futilidad médical, no obstante, nunca han estado claras, y puede estar demasiado para esperar que ellas estarán alguna vez. Es quizás por esta razón que la convicción ha surgido entre doctores—más que una mera convicción, es sentida hoy día por muchos como una responsibilidad—que si error ocurre en tratamiento de un paciente, debe estar siempre a lado de haciendo más más que menos. Haciendo más es probable para servir las necesidades del doctor más que las del paciente. El éxito mismo de sus terapéuticos esotericos demasiado frecuentamente dirige el médico para creer que él puede hacer lo que es más allá de sus haciendo y salvar ellos quienes, dejado a su propia juicio sin trabas, elegirían no estar sometido a su salvando.”

¿Y así qué esperanza es dejado cuando morimos? Nuland ofre su respuesta, que parece a mi una percepción rica. Él concluye “La más grande dignidad ser encontrado en muerte es la dignidad de la vida que lo precede.” Esperanza, él dice, “reside en el significado de qué nuestras vidas han sido.”

“Y así, si el imagen clasico de muriendo con dignidad debe estar modificado o hasta desechado, ¿qué es ser rescatadas de nuestra esperanza para los final recuerdos que dejamos a quienes nos aman? La dignidad que buscamos en muriendo debe estar encontrado en la dignidad con que hemos vivido nuestras vidas. Ars moriendi is ars vivendi: El arte de muriendo es el arte de viviendo. La honestidad y gracia de los años de vida que son terminando es la medida real de cómo morimos. No es en las finales semanas o días cuando redactamos el mensaje que será recordado, pero en todas las décadas que los precede. Él quien ha vivido en dignidad, muere en dignidad.”

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  • 75
    Convirtiendo en NeilThe English version of this post—Becoming Neil—was posted here on March 29, 2016. This Spanish translation is my own and may contain errors. I invite native speakers of the language to comment on my errors and to suggest corrections. Aquí está una traducción en español de Becoming Neil. Me gustaría…
  • 72
    “But our machines have now been running seventy or eighty years, and we must expect that, worn as they are, here a pivot, there a wheel, now a pinion, next a spring, will be giving way; and however we may tinker them up for a while, all will at length…
  • 64
    The English version of this post is Living Longer on Purpose. The Spanish translation is my own and may contain errors. I invite native speakers of the language to comment on my errors and to suggest corrections. Aquí está una traducción en español de Living Longer on Purpose. Encontrando un…