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To Have the Death You Want ~ Planning Matters As Much As Meditation

photo: Dina Stander, comfrey friends

(some rambling thoughts on the concept of 'conscious dying', friendship, and time)

In the pause before the heat of a summer day I wander out into the garden. Morning dew slakes all thirsts. I watch a dragonfly sip a drop from the tip of the sweetgrass. There are bumble bees harvesting in the last of the comfrey clusters and buzzing along the tall verbascum stalks. There are fewer bees now so we plant blossom feasts for the pollinators to browse, then hum little tunes in the early morning stillness to sing our thanks for their labor.

I have an end-of-life navigation client who is exploring the idea of conscious dying, so I am exploring a bit too. My understanding opens one flower petal at a time. I'm not rushing it. Which means the flashes of insight happen between the lines and amidst the day-to-day of all the ordinary chores and stories. The story of pollinators going about their work on the brink of mass extinction layered with the story of whether the trash cans will make it to the curb before the garbage-truck comes, and with the story of how conscious living will support my client's concept of a conscious death.

The client, in becoming a frail elder, has described their intention to choose the time of their death through a meditation process taught by Tibetan monks who then, it is alleged, astral project into their next incarnation. The client is practicing. I am concerned that their effort to control the exit of the 'earth suit' is based in fear of suffering as their body declines. I am also concerned that in the preparation for their ideal of a conscious death they have neglected routine medical care. So we are establishing a balance of supporting their overall intention while also supporting attention to the physical reality. A doctors appointment is scheduled. I emailed forms to fill out for advance directives, we'll go over them together on our next visit. I reassure that planning well will reduce suffering which will ensure more energy for their meditation. My intent is to bring harmony between conscious living and conscious dying.

This is a person who has studied being human, deeply, yet seeks a way to skip the rough patch at the end. Is this their version of 'death with dignity'? Over time I have discovered there is no way to sidestep the personal complexity of shedding the mortal coil. The only way out is through. Whichever door we choose, or whichever chooses us, we are encumbered with the individual labor of releasing and being released. My client is choosing for their labor to be meditative.

Meanwhile, in the garden we have circled the year to the first verdant days of August and the green is shifting towards late summer fading, the first hints of gold settle in around the edges of the forest. It was 88 degrees yesterday and I made sure there were watering stations set out for the pollinators. Even in the heat all creatures pause to notice the light has shifted. Winter is coming.

I spent time this week having a hard conversation about funeral plans with a friend in the ICU. A single man, he just celebrated his 69th birthday. He has been living well and managing stage-4 lung cancer for five years. When he was diagnosed the physical crisis brought new balance to his life force. He continued working, mostly because of financial necessity. He is a master gardener, life responds around him and gives back. He got a summer pneumonia. His kidneys shut down. It has been touch and go but dialysis seems to be helping, at least enough for him to avoid intubation and to be able to talk through his breathing contraption.

The nurse allowed us a half hour to visit. I sit by the bed and ask permission to be blunt, he nods. We hold hands. I offer an apology for waiting so long to have this talk, I feel it was irresponsible of me to put it off, but I hesitated because these questions (like what should we do with your body when you are gone?) are too close to the bone so it is hard to find a way to bring it up. This would have been easier with tea, in the garden. We go slow. We cry.

I ask what he wants done with his body, where he'd like to buried, what music he wants us to hear or sing. I ask where he would like us to gather and how it should feel (classy-casual, not shabby-chic). He names people to speak. I ask if there is someone I should take special care to love, someone who would otherwise be invisible. I ask him to be with the impossible, imagining us all in pain but celebrating him. When I ask if he wants his headstone in the family plot to have an epitaph, his smile shines through the respirator mask, "'Zippity Doo Dah!' it was my mom's favorite song."

We covered a lot of ground in the time we had.

We danced on the liminal edge for as long as we could bear it.

My client, a frail elder but coping independently, is so focused on conscious dying that they need a reminder to take care of living in the here and now. And my beloved friend has been so focused on living well in the here and now that he forgot to take care of the details of dying, which he's known is going to happen soon. Both of them squeeze my hand and smile.

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