Monday, October 17, 2005

Dealing with our Mortality

Today, the necessity of finding time to be alone has been exacerbated by our unwillingness to face up to our own mortality. Behind our extraordinary need to be connected at all times, our desire to be immersed in a culture of toxic noise, and the value we place on sheer busy-ness, lies, I am convinced, our fear of death. No topic is perhaps quite so off-limits in our culture of youth as is this ultimate and final appointment. One scholar has even gone so far as to suggest that whereas in the Victorian era the forbidden topic for discussion was sex and everyone was obsessed with death, today the obverse is true.

Thomas Lynch, in his wonderful little book, The Undertaking, sketches out the history of many of the rituals we have devised to avoid having to think too long or deeply about death. He says, “a person who has ceased to be is as compelling a prospect as it was when the Neanderthal first dug holes for his dead, shaping the questions we still shape in the face of death: ‘Is that all there is?’ ‘What does it mean?’ ‘Why is it cold?’ ‘Can it happen to me?’” (21). Lynch posits a connection between the emergence of both the toilet and the modern-day funeral home: “Just about the time we were bringing the making of water and the movement of bowels into the house, we were pushing the birthing and marriage and sickness and dying out. . . And just as bringing the crapper indoors has made feces an embarrassment, pushing the dead and dying out has made death one,” (36-37). Barbara Brown Taylor goes so far as to claim that death is God’s final defense against our idolatry, that, “when we run out of words, then and perhaps only then can God be God,” (When God is Silent, 39). As we approach death, “the breath goes out and it does not come in again. No one knows it was the last until it is gone, and the silence that follows it is like no other sound in the world,” (Taylor, 37).

I was seventeen the first time I watched a man die. By that time, I had already witnessed half a dozen autopsies. I had stood by as the coroner’s saw had done its worst—severing sinew from bone and carving thin slices of tissue from the brain, heart, lungs, liver, and various other organs in order to look for signs of disease. But those had been lifeless bodies which, while striking a certain curiosity in one so young, I had been able to depersonalize. But working with the doctor on call that night on a man younger than I am now, sending volt after volt of electricity into his non-responsive body was somehow different. Yes, a typical cardiac arrest could be construed as essentially accidental, as the author, Joan Didion, writes: it is a sudden spasm rupturing a deposit of plaque in a coronary artery, with ischemia following, and the heart, deprived of oxygen, entering into ventricular fibrillation. But to the emergency workers gathered around, it is also, as my British friends would say, “bloody hell.” For, when it was all over and the doctor had pronounced the inevitable, I looked down at my hands which, in those days before AIDS, were blood-spattered and devoid of gloves of any kind. Someone had mentioned reaching for the rib-spreader which would have meant everyone donning gloves, but it was clear that cracking the man’s chest would have been an exercise in futility.

Because this was my first time to prepare a body to take down to the morgue, the veteran nurse, Barbara Dungee, came and walked me through the entire procedure. I won’t attempt to shock you with the details; they only serve to reinforce the ignominious nature of death itself. By the time I was twenty, I had performed the routine so many times that I could almost do it in my sleep. But what never changed was the cold, antiseptic chill of death itself that pervaded the room after yet another battle with the great enemy. The monitor which had faithfully belched out its blips and alarms always stood silent sentinel next to the remains. In that brief window of time, between life and rigor mortis, the body almost miraculously retains its warmth and only gradually yields to its waxy glaze of morbidity.

In those liminal moments, I would oftentimes reflect on the conversations I had had with the deceased as I would circulate from room to room emptying catheters, supplying ice chips, carefully washing the flesh and applying lotions and ointments in an attempt to hold death and disease at bay. When a man who is used to commanding others finds himself alone in a room, draped only in a hospital gown with a pimply-faced adolescent extending a warm cloth with which to wash his privates, the conversation can oftentimes turn quite personal. I found myself, not necessarily by choice but by default, playing father confessor to more than one wayward executive. I heard confessions of sexual indiscretions, unethical behavior--all the loves and hates that make up a man’s life. There were requests for morphine, for smuggled-in pornography, for forbidden foods. One time I even had to sneak a girlfriend out the back when a wife arrived unexpectedly at the nurse’s station.

But, in the end, each person had to face death alone and prepare to meet his or her Maker. At such times it was my privilege—something I didn’t recognize at the time, but have only come to realize in hindsight—to listen to final confessions and to overhear tearful good-byes. Later, as a pastor, those death-bed experiences would come in handy when I stood guard beside loved ones with dying family members. Watching the divine breath (the ruach of life) leave a person is a holy and sanctified moment. One is tempted to turn away from beholding the face of God. The ancients developed a process called the ars moriendi, the art of facing death, and spent a lifetime preparing for the inevitable. Because death was so prevalent in their society, they learned to be prepared at any moment. We, on the other hand, go through life glibly denying its reality and so find ourselves always surprised by its inevitable knock at our door. We find ourselves reduced, as Didion reminds us in her new prize-winning book, The Year of Magical Thinking, to “the most terrifying verse I know: merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”

The best way to prepare for the event is by learning to live in the silent interstices of life, recognizing the need to be alone with God and to listen for all we’re worth. Because what deadens us most to God’s presence within us is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves. If we choose to seek the silence of the holy place, or to open ourselves to its seeking, there is no surer way than by keeping silent, (Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets, 105). Out of that void you will find prayer happening: waking at night when the silence in your room is palpable, or rising in the morning to trace the emergence of the autumnal sun against the horizon. But, whether it is alone in the dark or alone in the breaking light, it is then, and only then, that you begin to recognize that still, small voice and you know in your heart of hearts, that it is He, the One you have longed for all along. And in that fragmentary moment when the fear of being alone, truly alone, is realized, then it is that you recognize that you have never really been entirely alone at all.