When I worked at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco, I had an 82-year-old cardiac patient named Wilson. First name Mel, but he preferred just “Wilson.” He was one of those classic crotchety old guys, wrinkled, with a scruffy white beard. He had been a Merchant Marine and could swear like it if he felt it necessary. But he also had a gentle sense of humor and was a favorite of the nurses, because he could make us laugh.
Wilson had come to hospital because of a heart attack, and he was still having frequent angina (chest) pain, requiring nitroglycerin for relief. One day, Dr. Simon, the hospital’s top cardiac surgeon, a tall distinguished looking man in a suit, not a lab coat, came in. accompanied by a secretary.
He told Wilson, “We need to talk. Your doctors have decided that we need to do coronary artery bypass surgery on you.”
“I don’t like that idea much,” Wilson replied, as flatly as if he was deciding on the lunch menu.
“Well,” said the doctor, “Here’s the thing. If you don’t have the surgery, you could die.”
Wilson immediately sat up straight. “Do you mean to tell me,” he asked with apparent excitement, “if I have this surgery, I won’t die? When did you guys come up with that? Seems like I would have read about it in the papers.”
Dr. Simon backtracked, looking somewhat embarrassed and bemused at the same time. “I’m afraid you misunderstood,” he said. “What I meant is, you won’t die from these blocked arteries.”
Wilson sighed, as if greatly disappointed. “Oh,” he said. “So we’re just talking about timing then. You had me going for a minute. In that case, get out of here. Keep your hands off my heart.”
After Dr. Simon hurriedly left, Wilson broke out in a huge smile. “I liked seeing that hot shot squirm,” he told me. “Acts like he’s doing me some big favor, wants to put me through Hell so I can live maybe another year, if I survive the operation. I don’t need to live forever. I need to enjoy myself while I’m here.”
We talked often in the two weeks he stayed on my floor. “I’m not scared of dying; I don’t mind talking about it,” he told me. “I’m glad you’re willing to listen, because most of you hospital people don’t want to hear. You’re part of the madness, wanting to live forever, whatever it costs, no matter how much it hurts.”
I asked him how he came to his acceptance of death. “That’s easy,” he said. “I’ve lived. I’ve had fun; I’ve had love. Still do sometimes. I fought some good fights. Didn’t win many of them, but I did what I thought was right, most of the time. I think when people are so afraid of death, it’s because they haven’t really lived.”
Then he went home, and lived another four years, apparently enjoying most of it. Later, I did some research and found that the great psychiatrist Irvin Yalom used Wilson’s words almost exactly in his book Staring at the Sun. Yalom says it’s natural to fear death, because it’s the unknown. It’s normal to feel sad about it, because it means loss. But the extreme, obsessive fear of death in American culture is not normal. It stems from a pervasive belief that we have not lived, at least not the way we wanted to.
So how can we get to a place of acceptance about death? I can testify that having a chronic disabling disease like MS helps, but frankly, that’s no fun. A belief in an afterlife doesn’t appear to help much. If it did, why would Christian “right to lifers” be so bent on keeping brain-dead people like Terri Schiavo on life support? Why not let her go to Heaven, if you think there is such a place?
I think a better way is to live thoroughly while you’re here. Be aware, be grateful, be brave. Live like Wilson and have some fun. Fight some good fights. You’ll be a joy to others and have less suffering for yourself.
I notice how fear of death constrains my life, and not fearing opens it up. I don’t have to worry about everything I eat or everything I do. I don’t run to the doctor for every ache and pain. Accepting death doesn’t mean forgetting about self-care, but it does mean having a more relaxed attitude about it.
More important, I don’t have to be afraid of people. I can say what I believe and do what I want. I don’t hurt others, if I can help it, but I’m not scared to wind up on a no-fly list or be arrested for speaking my mind.
Not fearing takes away some of the rulers’ power over us. Death is literally hovering over us, whether it’s through impending fascism, global warming, or normal aging. Will we live in fear of it, or enjoy the life we have and do what we can to fight back?
I’m not going out of my way to court death, and I discourage friends from doing so. Probably, I can still do more good alive than dead. It’s worth putting effort into self-care, taking care of our bodies, IF we are using them and enjoying and appreciating them. But that only works if we stand up for what is right, stay aware of our minute-to-minute blessings, and do our best to help others. Otherwise, like Wilson said, what’s the point?