November 10, 2006

The Art of Dying Well

2006 1532 page5 capast February, Art Buchwald, American Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and humorist, decided to stop taking dialysis treatments for kidney failure. The 80-year-old entered hospice care, expecting to die in a matter of weeks, if not days.
As of this writing, Buchwald is still alive and well, after having spent the summer in Martha’s Vineyard (Massachusetts) writing his latest book, Too Soon to Say Goodbye. In addition to his many awards, books, and countless columns, Buchwald has now added this to his résumé: he has taught the rest of us how to die gracefully.
Most of us will do anything to postpone the inevitable. About the same time Art Buchwald was deciding to forgo treatments for terminal kidney failure, Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., checked into an alternative cancer clinic in Mexico for treatment of advanced ovarian cancer. That was nearly six months after suffering a debilitating stroke that left her immobile and unable to speak. Confined to a wheelchair, one of her last acts was to undergo nonmedically sanctioned treatments in an attempt to avoid life’s ultimate reality.
Mrs. King isn’t the only one to spend her last days trying to cheat death. With today’s advances in medical technology, most people will grasp at any treatment that promises to prolong their lives—no matter the financial expense or emotional toll on the people around them.
2006 1532 page5An elderly couple I know had to deal with the ordeal of kidney dialysis, three days a week, 52 weeks a year. On the mornings of his treatment, the man’s wife got up at 4:00 to get him dressed and fed so they could get to the treatment center by 6:00. After three or four hours they returned home, had some lunch, and slept away the afternoon. They spent the next day recovering before doing the same thing the day after that.
In the meantime, the man spent his days in his recliner in front of the TV, often asleep. He couldn’t take himself to the bathroom or the bedroom; he was totally dependent on his wife, who, fortunately, was the younger and healthier of the two. This went on for several years. When I’d stop by for a visit and ask how he was doing, my friend’s standard answer was, “Steve, I know I’m not going to get any better.”
Then why do it? I wanted to ask. Why put yourself and your wife through this ordeal? Why go to the expense? Why not celebrate your life, your friends, your accomplishments, and leave your life in God’s hands?
My friend made no profession of being a Christian or of having any belief system. Still, he avoided death as long as he could. Why, then, do Christians, with such a hopeful philosophy of the resurrection, so desperately put their faith in this or that experimental treatment so as to squeeze out a few more weeks or months on this sinful, worn-out planet? Why don’t they place themselves in God’s hands and wait for His will to be done?
I know, part of the reason we try to postpone death is that we hate saying goodbye to the people who mean the most to us. The pain of separation is one of the most agonizing sensations we’ll have to experience this side of eternity.
But on the positive side is the calm assurance we have in the reality of Christ’s return and the certainty of His conquest over disease and death. Instead of being afraid of dying, we can face it with the assurance that the very next sound we’ll hear will be the trumpet call of God; the very next face we’ll see will be the face of our risen Savior.
We certainly want to take advantage of every technological advance to fight disease and hope for a full recovery so as to return to a life of usefulness to our families, churches, and communities. But there are times when, having done all that’s humanly possible, we will simply spare our families the financial and emotional expense of a protracted and ultimately terminal illness, put ourselves in God’s hands, and say, “May your will be done” (Matt. 26:42). As Art Buchwald once wrote: “Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, it’s the only time we’ve got.”

Stephen Chavez is managing editor of Adventist Review