What must it be like, to sit at a restaurant surrounded by people celebrating the arrival of the New Year, knowing that it is almost certainly your last one?

That was the question I could not ask my father last weekend, as we sat together at a family dinner on New Year’s Eve. He’s got terminal cancer, is struggling with chronic pain, and is extremely unlikely to be alive in 12 months’ time – nor does he really want to be, given his current quality of life (or lack thereof). I couldn’t help thinking how weird it must be, to be surrounded by people who expect to be around for all of 2012, knowing that for you the coming year is most likely to bring more suffering, followed by death.

Lee Heller

It’s not really a question you can ask someone: How does it feel to be dying? Or at least, it’s not something I know how to ask my dad, although maybe he’d be grateful for the chance to talk about it. He does talk about his pain and his struggle to manage it, about the things he misses doing, and about his desire to have me well provided for after he is gone. But the Big Picture of facing imminent death, not theoretically but for real — that’s a hard topic to broach.

When I was in my twenties, in grad school, one of my favorite professors was diagnosed with terminal esophageal cancer. He was strikingly forthright in talking about the experience. Although he had to give up teaching in mid-semester, he came back to give a farewell talk to his undergraduate Shakespeare class, and although I was not in it, I went to the lecture. Maybe studying literature, and in particular Shakespeare, had made him unusually capable of self-examination. But he talked movingly about that critical moment when Hamlet tells Horatio:

. . . . If it be now,

’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now;

if it be not now, yet it will come: the

readiness is all.

(Being a thorough scholar, he also invoked Edgar, in King Lear, telling his own father, “Men must endure/Their going hence, even as their coming hither;/ Ripeness is all.”) It was an incredibly powerful and helpful experience, to listen to an older adult talk openly about the prospect of death and how to face it. It must have been, since I still remember it 25 years later, and am still moved to tears by that memory.

My professor wasted away slowly, sitting in his study listening to much-loved opera and waiting for the end. He was incredibly gracious about letting us visit. As someone with no experience of death, I was deeply grateful for his generosity in sharing his experience. It used to be that death was a common feature of everyone’s lives — even young children would have exposure to dying people and deathbeds. In the 21st century, we hide death in hospitals, and we have managed to postpone it far longer than was possible before modern medicine. My professor’s openness gave me access to something that was otherwise distant and terrifying. It was his ultimate act of teaching, in my opinion

In that final lecture, he also talked about how to determine if his life had had sufficient value. The formula he came up with was elegantly simple: If more people were glad to have known him than sad, then his life had been worthwhile. It’s a lovely, manageable calculus, if you think about it. No need to have been Mother Teresa or Gandhi, or to have scaled Everest — you just need to have done more good than harm, for your life to have been worthwhile. That’s a measure that’s within reach for us all.

I don’t know how my dad will calculate the value of his life, although I am sure it matters to him to believe that it has had value. Has he been an asshole sometimes? No doubt about it. (My stepmother, who loves him and has taken amazing care of him, once said, “David, you have a shit-ass disposition” — which had everyone but him laughing hysterically.) Has he also made a significant difference through charitable giving, acts of kindness, and the example of a life well lived? Ultimately he will have to decide that for himself, but I certainly think so.

I also know I will miss him, and I wish for him a lot less pain than he’s having, and a sense of satisfaction.


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