Speak me fair in death

There is a question whose answer I think I should start preparing. It’s not one that would make a large difference to me at this time I suppose, but it still needs some serious thought, some proper wording. The problem of formulating it too far in advance is that its validity might be questioned. Some things need to be embedded in the appropriate context for their importance to be appreciated, their wisdom to be accepted.

The issue, though, is not so much in the preparation, as in the anticipation of its proximate need. It’s a subject generally avoided -generally dreaded– by family and friends; a subject that is usually thought best improvised as and when required.

And yet, at the risk of being accused of self-aggrandizement by suggesting that my opinions about some things may be worthy of an audience, and that there might be lessons to be learned from the mistakes I have continued to make through the years, I would like to point out that what I am proposing is a time-honoured tradition, and one that should not be repudiated in a moment of pique. In fact, it’s a traditional honour that I suspect each of us would seek to be accorded at least once.

I am, of course, referring to my final thoughts, and if asked, the summing up I make on my deathbed: my epilogue -what amounts to my self-declared apotheosis, I suppose. But, you can see why the very idea of preparing this in advance might encounter some backlash. We are often invested in other people remaining amongst us, because their absence reminds us of what lies in wait. We are uncomfortable with the death of someone we know; it is very different than the death of strangers. Of course the death of anyone may remind us that we are all transitory visitors, but we feel the death of a friend, or a loved-one, personally. It is, in a way, a part of us that has left.

But, apart from my age, what started me thinking about epilogues -my own, especially? I happened upon an essay by Neil Levy, a professor of philosophy at Macquarie University in Sydney. Entitled Final Thoughts; it made me wonder what he was referring to -a play, a novel… what ? And then I read the entire article, and realized it was about the value of deathbed statements. It seemed uncannily prescient, I suppose, if a bit morbid. https://aeon.co/essays/why-is-the-deathbed-perspective-considered-so-valuable

He begins by asking how we might find out what really matters in Life. ‘One way might be to ask those who are dying. They might occupy a perspective that allows them to see better what’s trivial and what’s truly significant… What really matters, it turns out, is family and relationships and authenticity.’ At least they’re the commonly expected topics -but there has not been enough research on this to be sure. Maybe it’s what we expect to hear. Maybe we’re hoping the dying person has finally discovered what it all means­ -Life, relationships, accomplishments, regrets…

And yet, ‘There are various cultural pressures that might lead people to report such regrets, whether they feel them or not, and might lead us to attribute them to the dying, whether they report them or not.’ But also, what makes us think that ‘the perspective of the dying gives them a clearer view on what really matters. There are reasons to think that the view from the deathbed is worse, not better, than the view from the midst of life. Their lack of engagement in ongoing projects might leave them with an impoverished sense of their value.’ In other words, should the deathbed statements be ‘epistemically privileged’?

Here, the American philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel weighs in –‘the dying might be subject to hindsight bias, in the form of a tendency to assume that their current epistemic perspective looking back on the past is identical to the perspective they should have adopted at the time.’ But he offers another reason for wariness about deathbed regrets: ‘from the fact that the dying escape the consequences of their advice. They don’t risk accusations of hypocrisy if they fail to live up to it, because they can’t be expected to try. This lack of a stake in their advice might free them to fantasise, in a way that those of us who are called to live up to our own advice can’t.’ So, maybe ‘we might do better to prefer the wisdom of 40-somethings: those who have experienced enough to have a broad perspective on life, but who still have a stake in living.’ An interesting point.

And of course, there’s always the worry that ‘The regrets of the dying are platitudes, taken-for-granted pieces of folk wisdom, and that very fact is grounds for wondering about their sincerity and about their representativeness.’ Still, perhaps in the hindsight of the dying person, there could be a better grasp of what the total evidence at the time actually meant. And yet, ‘The top regrets of the dying are suspiciously familiar. It turns out that the dying value exactly the things that our culture tells us all to value: the themes that fill our advertising and magazines… Perhaps our expectations lead us to fit what the dying say into the established script… If that’s right, the idea that we should give these regrets special weight because they’re expressed by the dying gets things backwards: we attribute these things to the dying because we give them special weight.’

You can see why I feel there is some value in deciding beforehand what to say on my deathbed (assuming I am even asked). But there is another reason. Last year I lost a dear friend. She was in her nineties and suffering from seemingly intractable pain. And to add to her misery, her husband of some sixty years had just died. Canada has enacted legislation allowing medically assisted death (after thorough vetting, of course), and I wondered if Susan might eventually avail herself of it if things did not improve for her. But I assumed I would be informed long before her decision in the event she wanted to talk about it more. Of course we did not talk often on the phone because she couldn’t hear well enough and found any  such conversation quite confusing. And unfortunately the Covid restrictions of the time prevented me from seeing her in person in her elder care home.

At any rate, one day while I was on a walk through the woods, my cell phone rang -it was Susan. I was quite surprised, obviously -she seldom, if ever, initiated a call.

“Hi Susan,” I said, trying to speak loudly into the phone. “How are you?” I assumed she had decided she wanted to talk about some new health issue.

“Oh, I’m the same as usual,” she answered, but I noticed there was a pause before she answered. I assumed it was our usual hesitancy to answer accurately when it comes to health, however -as if ‘how are you?’ is merely a polite greeting, and one that does not expect a litany of complaints.

But she continued before I could ask any more questions. “I’ve decided to do it,” she said.

My jaw dropped, and I had a suddenly sinking feeling. I knew what she was telling me. “When is it… happening?” I asked, unsure of just how to phrase it.

“Tomorrow, they say.” She answered. “I just thought I’d phone you to say goodbye…”

I remember I was fighting back tears, and I couldn’t think of anything to say. What could I say? It’s not like someone going off on a trip, so I could reply something like ‘Well, see you when you get back’ or ‘Have a good time, eh?’

There was so much I wanted to ask her, so much I wanted to say to her, but I could barely talk, let alone think of how to respond. I understood her reasons, and I supported her decision, but here was a life that was about to end, and I was too upset even to reassure her.

I was talking to someone I had known for over sixty years, and I would never be able to say anything to her again. So, I suppose I hoped she’d say something further -if only to help me cope. Something about her life, maybe. But she didn’t. She was kind, and considerate as always, and yet I think it was difficult for her -maybe more difficult than for me- and she ended out conversation with a warm, but not overly emotional “Good bye, G.”

I’m not sure anything would have helped, but maybe something like, “I’ve had a wonderful life, G,” or, I don’t know, “Stay well, and enjoy what you have,” or something… A summation. An appraisal, perhaps.

Still, the onus was not on her; she had made an irrevocable decision that might have been a little frightening. Maybe it was on me to support her. Only now do I realize that. Only now do I regret that I didn’t wish her a pleasant journey… Yes, a pleasant journey… Maybe that would have helped her on her way -it certainly would have helped me…

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