Wednesday, May 2, 2012–We celebrated the life of the woman who had been our church secretary for over 35 years here on Saturday. Pepper lived fully for 80-something years–”I had a wonderful life!” she had written, and we celebrated with music and laughter and, despite her instructions, a few tears. Pepper lived well and she died “well,” as Dr. Ira Byock of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, spoke about on NPR’s “On Being” with Krista Tippett this past Sunday morning.
Dr. Byock is Director of Palliative Medicine at D-H and has been “contemplating mortality,” as the title of this show is called. He suggests that dying is one more developmental stage in life, like moving from infant to toddler, or adolescent to adult. What if we think of dying “well,” not as opposed to dying “badly,” but being “well” as we die, that is, whole, complete, fully alive in this moment, still growing and changing, still being fully who we are?
“When my place is made ready for me,” Pepper wrote on the paper she had prepared for her memorial service, “I shall walk straight ahead, I will not turn my head and look back, for I know I shall be going to be with my heavenly Father.” That’s “dying well.” When news of the death of a member of our church family came to us, Pepper would say, “Walk on, [John, or Jane]. Walk straight ahead.” Dying well.
My father-in-law is “dying well,” fading but radiant, as sure as ever of the Love that has surrounded him all his life and continues to surround him. My mother-in-law, too, died “well,” though cognitively impaired. She still radiated love and was grateful for every kindness shown to her.
All of these deaths that I’ve experienced over the past 9 months–of family and friends– have certainly sunk into my body, mind, and spirit, but it feels less like a weight and more of changing my chemistry. I have been organically changed; life seems different now, not just because these loved ones are no longer physically present, but because they are present in such a changed way, deeper, in ways that stretch and defy my imagination. The Mystery is so vast! Yet I am also convinced the Mystery is loving. I pray that “when my place is made ready for me, I [too] shall walk straight ahead…”