“I’m not afraid of death, I’m afraid of the process of dying.”
I have a friend who is dying, and this is something I’ve heard him say more than once.
In the hours that pass between one liquid morphine dose and the next, he sips Coca-Cola through a straw, nibbles on pretzels and Pringles he doesn’t have the appetite for, and tries to mitigate his anxiety about the process of dying.
None of us wants to die. It’s the final end, the final grand finale of our time on Earth in our bodies as we know them. Since none of us who is living has lived to share the experience (paranormal beliefs aside), death remains an eerie, inevitable unknown.
So we avoid it, focusing on the people we love and the things that bring us joy, like going for a bike ride on a unseasonably warm winter day, or buying an overpriced card and handwriting “I love you” on it for Valentine’s Day. We soak up those moments of adrenaline and emotion that make us feel as if we could live forever.
Until death happens to someone we love.
I’m 33, and fortunately, I can say that this is the first time in my life that I have witnessed a friend dying.
He has terminal cancer, a cruel and fast kind that seemed to appear out of nowhere when he appeared perfectly healthy, just one year ago.
He’s changed a lot in one year. His unique sense of humor and his inquisitive nature remain, but physically, he looks bare, like the weathered frame of one of those majestic Jersey Shore homes after a hurricane. His body wants to move as if everything were normal, but every time I visit him, I can see its hesitancy. For even something as small as greeting a visitor, I can see the unease in his face. I watch him wince as he struggles to shift his attention to the door. When he talks, I can hear the increasing shallowness of his breath. The pauses between his words grow longer. Sometimes, it’s difficult to hear him. But he still talks.
And the more he talks, the more determined he sounds. He has a plan.
He often talks of his three wishes for death, of which he deems “the ultimate journey.” Peaceful, pain-free, and fast.
Peaceful he describes as anxiety-free, in a place that puts him at ease, surrounded by people who do the same. He wants the windows open if it’s not raining so that he can feel the breeze and maybe a few rays of sunshine.
Pain-free is something his team of doctors and nurses is working toward, with a combination of the morphine and painkillers.
Fast is something that was difficult for me to hear, because it meant that he would be gone sooner.
At first it felt morbid, hearing him talk about how he wanted to die. I wondered, if it’s inevitably going to happen, why focus on the how? If it’s inevitably going to happen, why not just let it?
But if life is a journey, shouldn’t death be as well? If we can decide where we want to go, what we want to do, and who we want to be with during most stages of our lives, shouldn’t we be able to do the same when we’re dying?
I hope that when my time comes, I am fortunate enough to be able to do the same.