This morning, at 8am, I ran 4.65 miles, and burned off 662 calories. Bully for me. I wasn’t doing it to burnish my six pack though, it was primarily to minimise my chances of death (and disability) from cardiovascular disease.
However, if I can extend my healthy life a bit from that point of view, it just increases the opportunity for cancer or a runaway bus to claim it instead. At my age I’m almost certainly well past the halfway point. It comes to us all.
Which brings me to what, given its inevitability, constitutes a good death?
6 weeks ago a friend of mine was diagnosed with (previously asymptomatic) metastatic cancer. Last week he died. Coincidentally a colleague, younger than me, working elsewhere in the UK, had a similar diagnosis made recently. Nearly two years ago I narrowly avoided an extensive cancer operation by having a tumour diagnosed in the nick of time. Understandably, it makes you think.
There have been quite a few times when I’ve been with someone who is about to die, times when I’ve been there at the moment of death, and times when I’ve visited the room just after death. The overriding impression is of an active process, a mysterious transition, rather than a final curtain. After death it is just a body, however cherished in life. The person has gone.
The prelude to death though, can be something quite extraordinary. On several occasions I’ve felt that the dying person is in dialogue with someone else, unseen and unheard. You can feel like you’re eavesdropping. Likewise, I saw my friend on the morning of his death. He was asleep, but with an overwhelming atmosphere in the room of contentment. His earthly life was almost over, nothing here mattered any more.
That short period – to tie up the important loose ends, deal with your religious requirements, say your goodbyes – is a time of sadness but also of almost palpable heroism in some cases. I always remember a 10 year old boy with cystic fibrosis refusing antibiotics because, as he pointed out, his mother had suffered enough. Desperately sad, in theory, but he was OK with it.
No doubt there are many, many aspects to the ‘good death’, and I’m not intending to reduce it to a limited few observations, but the concept is very noble and also very real. My friend managed it.