Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Slip Sliding Away

The ancient Christians had a fear of sudden death. It is even immortalized in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.


“From battle and murder, and from sudden death. Dear Lord protect us.”


Most death today is not sudden. People who would have stroked on out or died  of cardiac infarction a few years ago are often revived these days, some even come back to live normal lives. Most people today slip into death, like you would a hot bath, a little at a time until you are immersed. We often die today in stops and starts, bits and pieces. Death and its opposite, life are prolonged, often without real purpose. Sudden death in today’s culture often seems to be the preferable way of passing.


My dad is dying. He has all the signs. He has stopped eating and for the most part stopped talking. He lies in a hospital bed all day. His progressive dementia which has been with us for a decade suddenly hastened in the last few months making us unable to have a real conversation with him, other than to check his needs regarding such things as hunger and cold. My brother went to see him today and found him in a talkative mood. He looked at my brother and asked “How’s Farnsworth ?” Farnsworth had been a friend of my youth. My brother did not supply the accurate answer which would have been “Farnsworth is in jail for killing his wife a year or so ago.” Instead, my brother reported him “fine” and went on to have a conversation about a neighbor of ours whom my father said that he had recently seen at the man’s nursery. This fellow has been dead for the better part of 20 years (and was a pretty big crank when he was alive).


My father has been in a hospital, a rehabilitation unit, a nursing home and a home setting nursing home over the last few weeks. Now he is back in the hospital. He will soon go back to the home setting until he is judged ready for hospice care. This medical musical chairs is the current American way of death. We march around the chairs in a group and a chair is pulled away each time the music stops. In the end though the outcome is always the same, the final chair is pulled out from under us. For all our prolonging and perhaps even procrastinating over death, the final result is the same today as it was for the medieval monk who so feared sudden death. You cease living. In the immortal words of John Cleese in Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch, “he’s passed on, he is no more, he has ceased to be, he’s expired and gone to meet his maker, he’s a stiff, bereft of life, he rests in peace, he’s pushing up daisies, his metabolic processes are now history, he’s off the twig, he’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot. “  No matter how thin  you slice it, you are still just as dead. Nailing a  Parrot to its perch is not going to fool anybody, even John Cleese, for very long. The music is still going to stop.


I’m going to miss my dad when he’s gone, just as I have missed every piece of him, that was taken away over the last years. You’d think that by dying gradually, we could get used to it, like the hot water in the tub, as we slide in a bit at a time. I don’t know. Maybe the medieval monk was wrong. Maybe it should be:


“From battle and murder and from gradual death, Dear Lord protect us.

From emergency rooms and rehab centers and nursing homes, Dear Lord, protect us.

From the unnecessary usurpation of thy divine plan for our lives, Dear Lord protect us.

From thy gift of longevity of life without the commensurate gift of quality for that life, gracious Lord, set us free.”




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