I grew up in this quirky 2 person family. Just my dad and me. My mother wasn’t a big part of our lives which is a story for another day.
In my 2 person family the intimacy was intense. Things that one of us cared about tended to be front and center in the other’s life as well. Certainly my dad’s obsession with dying in a controlled way was his focus for all of his life and was also part of the air I breathed. I won’t say it was healthy or normal, but throughout my childhood he regularly reminded me that if he was paralyzed one blink was yes and two was no. That I was responsible for “tripping over the respirator” if he was ever on one to ensure he didn’t live without the vitality and control he required. These missives got abbreviated and repeated so often I’d just get an email saying “one blink is yes, two is no” with no reference to the presumed paralysis. The meta-message was that it was my responsibility to ensure he didn’t linger in death, never lived in a nursing home, and really that he never suffered. This was a weighty and awesome responsibility he attempted to give me from about age 13. My Bat-mitzvah or coming of age.
As my dad aged, as he got first a heart condition then Parkinson’s these messages just became more frequent and nuanced. I would tell him that I would do what I could but as the mother of a young child I was not going to go to prison to ensure his wishes were met. He reassured me (can I really call it that?) that he had saved pills so would take his life at the right time. He reassured me that he had sharp knives around the house and would slit his wrists if he fell etc.
So the time he decided on came and he took those pills. He didn’t tell me he was going to do it, but in retrospect, he was falling a lot, he was so weak he could hardly turn over and his will to live was pretty well gone after the big event of his 90th birthday. But the pills didn’t work, and it is hard to slit your wrists when you have Parkinson’s and can’t control your hands. Finally he shot himself with the gun he’d gotten as a wedding present 60 years before.
I’m an advocate for Death with Dignity. But I don’t want to just be the “death lady” in ministry. Yet, somehow that facet of my formation just keeps on keeping on. I’ve spoken in important public venues for legislation to allow doctors to prescribe fatal mediation to adults with a terminal condition and with 6 months or less to live. People who are in sound mind and failing body, and whose doctors agree with both parts of that statement should have that choice.
And now calls and emails come in the night. “My mother is dying, what can I do” or “My mother was dying and determined to not take action, then she heard you on the so and so show, and she stopped eating then to die days later. I’m writing a book about that and I want to use your name, I want to quote you I wanted let you know.” Weather I want this theme to form me or not it is.
I wonder what a different path of formation would look like. I know someone who is forming around her deep relationship with natural beauty, and someone else who is forming around the deep calculated beauty of math. I know another who has so much heart to give. But death and dying are central to my formation.
I’m thinking about the words of Forrest Church, one of the great contemporary UU ministers:
“I didn’t become a minister in any meaningful sense until I conducted my first funeral. Of all the things I am called on to do, none is more important, and none has proved of greater value to me, than the call to be with people at times of loss. When asked at a gathering of colleagues what gives most meaning to my work, I replied that, above all else, it is the constant reminder of death. Death awakens me to life’s preciousness and also its fragility.”
Church, Forrest. Love & Death