The people in our novels die a variety of ways. From vampire attacks to blazing gun battles we as authors play GOD by creating fictional worlds and deciding when and how our characters will meet their demise. In the real world though, we have no control, much less any idea as to how our own lives will end. Silently though, we hope it will be swift and painless.
From youth you may remember the child’s bedtime prayer or you may have even said it with your own children and grandchildren: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” It’s one of those many things you carry through life as a gentle memory.
I thought of it recently while standing at the nursing home bedside of my mother-in-law. At eighty-seven years of age she had suffered with Alzheimer’s disease the last three years and the disease, now in its final stage, kept her bed-ridden and asleep. Conversation of any sort had stopped months ago. Her eyes rarely opened and when they did, only a distant stare came. Each day she weighed less than before, gradually becoming a mere wisp of the once vibrant woman I had known for thirty-six years. To watch her deteriorate to this physical state, merely breathing, not truly living, was torturous on the family. The next day she passed away. I viewed it as a blessing because her suffering had at last drawn to an end.
In those following days we received volumes of condolences from friends and family. As I read the letters and notes, I was struck hard by the realization almost everyone mentioned a friend or loved one that had suffered with the disease before dying or was presently suffering from it. The disease may physically affect one person, but the outreach of its talons leaves a cruel mark on many.
People die from other debilitating diseases as well. Alzheimer’s is not alone in that respect. What disturbs me is the physical and mental degradation you undergo from these maladies before the end arrives. A once physically active person becomes a prisoner to a bed, no longer able to feed or bathe themselves. A wonderful writer can no longer recall his name much less compose a simple child’s story. A superb speaker grows mute, no longer able to form a coherent sentence. Each of us has witnessed these at some point in our lives, yet we do not want to consider how our own end will be. It doesn’t matter though. We will have little or no control when the time arrives.
Walk through a nursing home, listen to the residents’ moans and let the smells scorch your mind. You will not leave with the same state of mind you carried upon arrival. You will have a sense of guilt about you because the residents must remain while you may leave. But I realized there is more to it. You feel a sense of guilt because you may maintain a degree of dignity about yourself while your loved ones have lost theirs and lay helpless. I was struck by this thought when one of the last things my mother-in-law softly said was “Help me. I want my dignity.”
If I contract a disease and become confined to bed, before I move into a constant state of sleep, I hope someone will recite the bedtime prayer over me. And when the last grain of sand falls in my hourglass of life, all I too will want is to be able to die with dignity.