Friday, May 18, 2007

Why is Death So Taboo?

Why don’t people think about or talk about their own death? When I talk about it, people say I’m being morbid or pessimistic because I’ve had cancer. Not so. I used to think about my death even before my cancer diagnosis. I don’t dwell on it or get consumed by it, but I think it’s something worth thinking about. After all, we’re all going to die someday. Don’t people have any curiosity about what it feels like to die?

I wish I could talk about it with friends or family without being accused of pessimism or getting the scolding, “Stop it! You’re being too negative! You’re going to live to a ripe old age!” I’m getting a little annoyed by this attitude. I may indeed live to a ripe old age, but then again, I may not. But my chances are not 50/50. They’re weighed against me such that it’s completely reasonable for me to think and be curious about the most likely scenario. I think this falls under one of those topics that cancer patients can only talk to other cancer patients about. People outside of Cancer World can’t really imagine this part of the cancer experience.

But what exactly are people so afraid of? Mostly, I imagine, what will happen after they die, if they believe in an afterlife. I’m not sure there’s an afterlife; in fact, I sincerely hope there is NOT, so that’s not what really worries me. Maybe people are afraid of what will happen to their world after they’re gone – what will happen to their children and other family members, maybe friends. I’m not really afraid of that because I’ll be gone so I won’t know one way or the other. Plus, I’m not so arrogant as to believe that my family and friends can’t go on without me once I’m gone. That would be silly.

I think what I’m really afraid of is HOW I die. I don’t want to die in so much pain that I can’t even think properly. I don’t want family and friends, especially my children, to see me lying in a hospital bed, all skin and bones, expending every bit of energy I have left to force a smile so as not to upset everyone. I don’t want to spend the last days of my life pretending to be okay for the convenience and comfort of others. Call me selfish. I think a person on the verge of dying should be allowed to feel what they feel without worrying about upsetting others.

And I don’t want people to feel pity, guilt, or obligation. One thing that’s disturbing me about going to my friend Kate’s funeral is the issue of cost. It’s going to cost a lot of money for me to fly down to Australia for the second time in a month, and some people I’ve talked to think it’s a bit excessive of me to spend the money. After all, Kate’s dead and I don’t know her family at all so what does it matter whether I’m there or not? I know all this is true, but I have my own reasons for going to the funeral. When I saw Kate last month, she said the only thing she worried about was her brother and sister. Kate was never married and had no children. I want Kate’s brother and sister to see a lot of her friends at the funeral so they can see how much their sister was loved and respected.

I would hate for any of my family or friends to feel obligated to come see me die or be buried. I imagine people thinking about the cost of flying out, having to use up vacation days at work to make the trip, maybe missing a family holiday or a daughter’s dance recital, or a son’s soccer tournament to come out to my funeral. People will have this unintentional but niggling feeling that their lives have been inconvenienced or disrupted by my death. I think if my funeral were to be held in an exotic place like Bali and it was time for a family vacation anyway, then people would come to my funeral. I’d certainly be more likely to attend a funeral if it were coupled with a nice holiday, I confess.

I don’t think this is something to be critical about. I think it’s normal that people would rather not go to funerals. The living don’t have time for the dead. I don’t think I’d like to have a funeral. I’d like to be cremated and my ashes disposed of in any way that makes my family feel happy. I don’t care if my ashes are flushed down a toilet – I’ll be gone and the ashes are just ashes, not me.

I know funerals are not for the dead person but for the people left behind. But maybe the people left behind should find some other way to reconcile themselves with their loss. Maybe funerals in general are a bad idea.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

What’s a Good Way to Die?

I’m going to a funeral in a few days – the first time for me. It’s for my friend, Kate, whom I worked with when we were both foreign correspondents in Seoul over 10 years ago. She was 64 and died of bowel cancer. I went to see her last month in Sydney when I heard she had cancer and had weeks to live. I hadn’t seen her in three years. The first thing I noticed was that she had HUGE eyes. I mentioned this to someone who said it was like Holocaust victims in documentaries – they all have huge eyes because the rest of their bodies have shrunk so much.

Kate was a tough, feisty, hard-working, hard-drinking, chain-smoking journalist like those classic war correspondents portrayed in the movies. To see her so frail and weak was a bit of a shock to me. I was in Sydney for a week but only got to see her once for 30 minutes because she was too tired or in too much pain to see visitors the rest of the time. She said she was on very strong painkillers and had extra doses that she could take if the pain got too bad. About a week after I left her, she was readmitted to the hospital because the pain got too bad to manage at home. Three days before her death, a friend went to see her in the hospital and she told him to “fuck off”. She was in so much pain that she couldn’t even see anyone and didn’t want anyone to see her in that state.

Kate has covered major wars from the trenches, was kidnapped by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, and dragged by the hair and almost scalped in Afghanistan. If anyone could endure pain, she could. The pain must’ve been very bad. Maybe it’s like being slowly tortured to death like prisoners-of-war in the movies. The kind of pain that would make veteran soldiers spill state secrets. The kind that completely blinds you to anything else. The kind that no one ever comes back from.

And last month, my neighbor’s father died of pancreatic cancer just three months after diagnosis. She told me her father was in sheer agony for the last days of his life. Nothing like the peaceful, calm way they die in the movies, holding a loved one’s hand, saying something poetic, then gently closing the eyes. Apparently, he was writhing in pain and suffered a slow, tortured, agonizing death. It seems like the entire family’s been completely traumatized by the experience of seeing him like that.

I don’t ever want to get to the point of feeling pain above everything else. But how do I do this then? If I get to the point where nothing more can be done for me medically and the doctors can’t even manage the pain enough to let me die quietly, can I just kill myself? But then people would criticize me for being a coward. And I don’t want my kids to think their mother was a coward. On the other hand, do I just suffer through days or weeks of sheer agony – the physical pain as well as the pain of watching everyone around me witness such harrowing scenes of torture and agony? What’s a good way to do this?

The best answer to how I want to die is: suddenly. Unfortunately, cancer doesn’t afford that luxury. Maybe I’ll get lucky and get hit by a meteorite before cancer gets a second chance.