When Loretta moved from assisted living to nursing care at age 92, she knew the space around her bed would be smaller. She had to choose which framed photos to take with her. She selected a group photo of her three children, eight grandchildren and three great grandchildren taken a few years ago at her 90th birthday party.
On the wall in front of her bed, her family placed Loretta’s university diplomas, her law degrees and a certificate designating her qualification to argue cases at the Supreme Court. So much of Loretta’s identity related to those accomplishments. She had been in the vanguard of women who had a career and raised a family before the two generations that followed her considered it commonplace.
While Loretta lived in the assisted living area of the home, she could still move around, meet the other people , eat in the dining room and participate in social activities. Now, she had trouble swallowing and needed to be fed with a tube. She had never been a whiner. Her mind was sharp: she knew she had to do this if she wanted to stay alive. Her first great granddaughter was taking the bar exam; Loretta wanted to live to congratulate her. Loretta stared at the diplomas on the wall in front of her and savored her memories.
Loretta is leaving a legacy for her family which no amount of money could have provided. In life, and now moving towards death, she is doing it her way. Frank Sinatra would have loved her!
It used to be a simple choice – burial or cremation. Pine box or steel fortress. Ashes saved for lockets and urns or scattered to the wind or ocean. If you really wanted to get fancy, you could hire a plane and pilot to scatter them over the city of your choice.
The good news is that death is no longer a four letter word. It’s out of the closet and getting a lot of attention. Dying has even become part of the cornucopia of consumer decisions. We now have lots of choices for where we want to spend eternity.
Like to scuba or snorkel and want to be part of the surf and turf forever? A company will create an artifical memorial reef combining your ashes with environmentally safe cement and place the reef in your favorite diving spot.
Concerned about metal contamination of the soil? You can have a biodegradable coffin. Interested in downsizing? Costco sells coffins that do double duty as storage or seating while you’re still here. There’s even a company planning to bring ashes to the moon as soon as space shuttling becomes cost effective.
All this talk and choice about going green as we go out is good. Talking about death has been a taboo subject for too long.A good way to desensitize a subject that we fear and try not to think about is by treating it as part of the ordinary. Placing it squarely in the marketplace of choices demystifies the subject and helps to allay some of the anxiety.
After all, if we’re going to be somewhere for eternity, we might as well have it exactly the way we want it.
The poetry of life often lives in the daily rituals, the ordinary activities we often do mindlessly without appreciating how lucky we are to be doing them. Not me, not ever again.
One of my favorite ordinary things is making coffee in the morning. Grinding and inhaling the aroma of the beans, filling the coffee maker with water, emptying the ground beans into the filter, and pushing the brew button. How much more ordinary can you get?
Ever since my husband died suddenly in an accident years ago, I’ve been aware that ordinary events can turn extraordinary in a second. The Boston bombings, 9/11, a plane or car crash, a fatal heart attack, a drive by shooting or the diagnosis of a terminal illness. These sudden events, woven into the tapestry of daily life, are reminders that the ordinary is a gift.
One of my favorite poets celebrates the ordinary. Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia at the age of forty-seven, understood the importance of celebrating the dailiness of life.
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
I was walking my dog a few days ago when I saw a tall blonde woman walking towards me with small slow steps. Holding a cane in one hand, and the leash of her large dog in the other, she seemed to be a paradox – a image of fashion, beauty, youth and vigor, yet she was taking small steps with a cane.