Well, I said I would focus on my book and not write here for at least a month. However, after spending 3 hours, in my sauna, working on my book each morning, I usually go outside and work on chores. But it has been raining. The Pacific Northwest monsoons. are here. So I end up inside, thinking and . . . well writing more.
I am reading four books right now. I’ve been working on The Stones of Summer (novel) for a year and that book takes at least a year. I am working hardest on How Dante Can Save Your Life (non fiction) and am 3/4 the way through. I may write more about it when I’m done.
I am also getting ready to read a George MacDonald book (novel) and a C.S. Lewis book about George MacDonald (nonfiction).
I will say that so far How Dante Can Save Your Life will not go down as my favorite book. For one, to me the writing is plain. I say that after reading many spectacular books over the past year. It is odd for me to say that because the author, Rod Dreher is a professional writer, having a degree in journalism and spending a career in writing for newspapers and magazines. Now he has fared better than me in that he has landed book deals with major publishing houses like Simon and Schuster. His books have sold a little better than mine and his reviews have been about the same as my Ristretto Rain. As I read many of his reviews, they were mostly 5 star and the poor reviews seem to pertain to his mis-representation of Dante’s work. It has been a while since I’ve read the Divine Comedy. So my criticism of his work seems isolated to me.
My issue with him, besides the plain writing, is him being self-reproachful from a Christian perspective. To solve his personal problems he follows Dante into a deeper and deeper place of looking how horrible the sins of his life are. Very medieval. I will say more about that later when I can be fair.
But the one thing that has caught my attention is that in the story of his life, his younger sister, Ruthie, develops lung cancer (never smoked, took very good care of herself) at age 40 and died.
During the 19 months between her diagnosis and death, the author talked about how wonderful she was handling the diagnosis. No self-pity, seeming joyful, and involved with her husband and three daughters as if nothing was wrong.
But now, in a later chapter, he reveals something more about her. She was living above her cancer so well because she believed, 100%, that God had promised to heal her. Her faith was unshaken. She would not succumb. She would not die.
Now, at first glance, you would say that this was a good thing. Faith like stone in the times of trial. But she was so convinced that even when she started to go downhill, losing weight, becoming frail, her faith was not shaken. Then she suddenly died. But she was so much in denial of what was happening to her, she made no plans. She said no goodbyes. Her husband and three daughters had no post-Ruthie plans. They had no financial plans for her death.
This has awaken within me, once more, the thoughts about how we face death and dying. Personally, I hate the thoughts of death. It is often a taboo topic and to talk about it makes many people uncomfortable. I remember when I first came out of the hospital, some people would not make eye contact with me and talk around me as if I were already dead. It is because our society prepares us so poorly for relating to the topic of death and dying. Most people, and that included me before I was diagnosed, see death as abstract, with the hope that it only comes when we are 99 years old and we die peacefully in our sleep.
To me death is a tragedy. From a Christian perspective, it is part of the dark fall of the universe. It was not God’s intention. So, within that model, we have the freedom to hate death. To weep as Jesus did at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus. To the atheist, it is the failure of evolution to conquer all the ills of nature, thus there is real suffering and death without a particular meaning.
I think our approach to death is unhealthy. I doubt if any society approaches it correctly. There are extremes, like in the case of Ruthie where there is a total denial. Then there are those who think about their death all the time and it robs them of the joys of life.
I won’t go through the story again, but to summarize, I first had to confront my own death on January 11th, 2018. I was in ICU and the nephrologist told me that she was trying her best to save me (extremely high potassium 7.0 from renal failure) but she was not sure she could. The treatments were not working and I was at high risk of heart failure due to the elevated potassium. She told me that I had to come to grips with my possible immediate death. I will just say, it was profoundly painful and sad for me, but I did it. My perspective changed on a dime. Many of you have had near death experiences I am sure.
In many ways, I have not left the honest mindset of the fragility of life. For me, everything I do I have to hope for being on earth for another 20 years . . . or suddenly declining and dying in a month or so. I prepare for both.
So, I think I’ve found the balance of profoundly enjoying this world, which I see as God making, yet, knowing that I could be gone tomorrow. All of you could be gone tomorrow. Are you ready for that? It is a hard balance to keep. You don’t have to hate this world to make death more palatable either. I think too many older people are taught to live, mentally, in Heaven as a way to cope with their approaching death.
Most Christians, especially American Christians, have a concept of Heaven based on extra-Biblical traditions. This is a good summary of that false narrative.
Everyone who has a chronic cancer, and many other illnesses, are faced with the roller coaster ride of recurrent lab tests that tell you if you are living or dying. I was having the blood tests daily, then weekly, and now monthly. So the tension only comes once a month. I think I handle it well. I have to or go nuts. I don’t click on my results until I’m fully awake and have had my coffee. This past Sunday I had one lab result that could indicate my cancer is growing. I had about 6 more tests that would fully paint the picture. Those came in this morning okay. But this is typical and now routine.
I have had people suggest that I don’t have enough faith, otherwise I would be healed or that I would only be thinking about Heaven (the traditional, extra-Biblical image of Heaven). It is a shameful thing to say to anyone. Ruthie had perfect faith and died. I’ve seen others who had perfect faith and died. I think that kind of magical thinking is not healthy. But living with the knowledge that death could come, but the hope that it does not, is the balance. But death as a concept has too much power, too much stigma. No one leaves earth alive. It is time to declare the death of death as that nasty unthinkable thing.
4 responses to “Ramblings: The Death of Death, (An Observation from How Dante Can Save Your Life)”
Mike, thanks for addressing our attitudes about death. As a hospice chaplain, I encountered many different responses by individuals and their families and friends to the presence of impending death. I would say that the “Ruthie” response was one of the saddest. Denying the reality they were facing, and any conversation about it, could be particularly devastating for their loved ones, who miss out on the opportunity for all of those “final” conversations.
I had my perspective on death change the morning of December 18, 2007 when my husband died suddenly. I no longer fear dying! In fact I talk about death in such a matter of fact manner that I often have to reasure others that I’m not thinking of taking my own life. Instead I’m living life to the fullest because I know how fragile it is.
Sounds like you have reached a good place, despite the pain.