There must be some way to integrate death into living, neither ignoring it nor giving in to it. – Audre Lorde
If we wish to die well, we must learn how to live well: Hoping for a peaceful death, we must cultivate peace in our mind, and in our way of life. -The Dalai Lama
In an ideal world, I’d live out my 80+year life expectancy and die quietly in my sleep.
“She was healthy & sharp until the very end,” they’d all say.
But I’m trying something different here. This time around I’ll take my final breath at age 43.
(For all my friends who panic when they read that, I can assure you that this is a voluntary quest…)
We’ve all been given the hypothetical date of January 20, 2011 to live.
“What a downer,” some have said.
“Why on earth would you do that?” others manage.
For me, this is really an exercise in living.
It may seem counter-intuitive at first, but I believe that there can be no better way to learn to live fully than to live with a sense of the immediacy and the impermanence of it all.
Half way into the project, I’ve enjoyed quality time with friends and family; worked to make strangers happy; traveled to a place I always wanted to go; helped out in a community garden; completed a 10-day meditation course; planned my advance directive; and thought about how to live better in the moment – even when that moment seems pretty miserable.
Since the beginning of time, wiser men & women than I have undertaken similar quests . Many of them have been transformed by it. How would you live your life differently if you thought you had a short time remaining? I hope you’ll come along and join me for this journey.
Here are the notes I took on my first night of the Year to Live project...
Tonight begins my “Year to Live” journey. Twenty-five of us are assembled in an open loft space in SoHo, sitting on black plastic folding chairs, facing the front of the room.
Robert “Chodo” Campbell, the co-founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, asks us to close our eyes.
In his sonorous British baritone, he instructs us to visualize ourselves going to the doctor’s office.
“Really feel yourself in that space,” he instructs. Gravely, he begins:
“We’ve got the results of your blood work and the scan, and I’m afraid it’s worse than we thought. You have, at most, 12 months to live. Go home and put all of your affairs in order. The nurse can call someone to come and pick you up. You can stay here as long as you need and collect your thoughts.”
I feel my palms getting moist. Would my doctor really say, “Go home and put all of your affairs in order,” I wonder. I’d like to think he’s got more soul than that.
What would he say? “Go home and be with Dave and the boys.” That’s better. Dave and the boys are a hell of a lot more comforting than my “affairs.”
Chodo rings the large gong at his feet, and we slowly open our eyes. Then he asks us to think about a couple of things.
- Who will you tell?
Dave. I’d have the nurse call Dave right away.
My mom and dad? I wonder. My dad recently turned 80, and my mom is in her late 70s. They’d need to know, but not right away.
The boys? This is unimaginable. How do you break such news to a 9 and a 6-year old?
My brothers and sisters-in-law. Yes, I can do that. I need their support.
Susan, Deb, Joy, the Lisa’s… My list of friends grows and starts arranging itself neatly in my mind. I feel a bit of relief.
- What does this change for you?
Wow. It’s immediately apparent. “I’ve got to spend less time on FaceBook and email,” I say to myself with certainty. Superficial, I know. But it’s a start.
It’s clear that I’ll need all of my remaining days to think about these things. I’m grateful that the Year to Live program gives me that chance.
As the evening winds to a close, seven of us jam ourselves silently into the tiny elevator. Before we hit the lobby, we stop at the 3rd floor where a woman moves to get in. Seeing that it’s full, she backs away with a start.
“I guess she doesn’t want to be with 6 dying people,” I quip as the doors close.
A classmate behind me says softly, “But there are 7 of us.”
“I wasn’t counting myself,” I respond. Full denial has already set in.