The following is a revised version of a column from eight years ago. The subject is ever relevant.
A man with whom I had worked on a memoir was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Our book project, therefore, turned into a race with whatever time he had left.
I mentioned this to a woman who had kindly helped us create a congenial atmosphere in which to work on the cancer-victim’s memoir and get it ready to issue, printed and bound.
“Cancer is a hard way to die,” this woman said to me. “I know because I’ve been through it with people.
“You just don’t know, do you,” she continued, “whether it would be better to die suddenly — a stroke, a heart attack. Or else take awhile to die, like from cancer.”
“I suppose,” I responded, “it depends upon the condition of one’s soul.”
She looked at me blankly.
“What I mean,” I said, “is that if you need time to repent of things you’ve done, time to get reconciled with God and with others, then I suppose a lingering death would be best.”
She had no reply. Death, any kind of death, is not easy to talk about. And in my experience most Americans avoid it like poison ivy. It was good that this kindly woman and I had been able to say as much as we had.
Later the same day I visited a friend hospitalized at St. Mary’s Medical Center, a friend who was up in years and recovering from complicated throat surgery.
Her status at that point was rehab, not jousting with death. Still in all, she felt weak, drained by trauma. Death no longer seemed like a remote possibility. During my visit we got into talking about an extremely healthy thing — the soul and its relationship with the body.
My own understanding is that the soul, the “principle of life,” fills the body as air fills a balloon. Too many of us, however, have only the slightest sense of our soul. We seem to understand ourselves as if we were primarily (or exclusively) our body.
Most folks we knew, my rehabbing friend and I agreed, tended to shy away from the topic of human mortality. Concerns of everyday life, we concluded, robbed us of the spiritual focus we all truly need.
“Money,” my friend said, “that’s what everyone is worried about. Money.”
“Superficial,” I said. “At the end of one’s life, money and things don’t matter much. What matters most is the condition of one’s soul, whether your soul is ready to meet God — or not.”
“You should write that in your column,” she said.
And so I have.
I sometimes introduce myself to a new Life Writing Class by handing around my obituary. I suggest to them that it would be a good idea if they also wrote theirs. “You just never know,” I say, “when it might come due.”
I vividly remember telling my English comp (for Marshall credit) students at Point Pleasant High School in the mid-1990s: You don’t want to wind up on your deathbed with the question, “What was that that just went by so quickly?” And have to realize. “That was my life. And now it’s over.”