It's a typical Sunday. I am working away in my office at home trying to get a leg up on the coming week. As is the custom in our house, I answer the telephone when it rings. My wife says I should answer because the call is always for me. I harbor the secret belief that she just hates answering the telephone. Even if she really does hate answering the phone, I can't fault her for leaving the task of picking up to me since nine times out of ten she is right. This afternoon's call was from someone called David. He and I were friends many years ago and as often occurs, we drifted apart as our lives changed. Ironically, we were ministers when we met. Now we are both educators. Even more strange, we work for the same school district. In the last dozen or so years I have talked with him on two or three occasions the way people do who have fallen out of touch. I was surprised by his call this afternoon and even more surprised to hear that a mutual friend of ours from our ministry years was dying. When he learned that I did not know about her condition he reported that she had been diagnosed with cancer about a year ago. "The cancer is inoperable and all over her body so in typical fashion she decided 20 days ago to stop eating and drinking. Hospice is taking care of her and we expect her to die any time. I'm calling to ask people who knew her to pray her out of this world." David and I have both undergone radical shifts away from evangelical faith so I felt no obligation to sound more faith-filled than I really am. I told him I would think of her and so this blog post is my "prayer" – my way of acknowledging her wish to die her way. I always admired her for her courage in life though there were times when I considered her stubborn and difficult to like. I can't admire her less for wanting to starve herself to death.
Dignity is different for each of us and it's wrong to speak of dignity in social discourse in fundamentally moral or religious terms. Dignity, unlike freedom, is personally defined by each of us as evidenced when our sense of it is insulted or offended. To die with dignity is to have one's way with the details of dying at least as much as we concern ourselves with the details of everyday life. For my dying friend, dignity is hastening death's arrival to prevent long, vegetative wasting. She has the support of her friends, family, and husband. She is committed to her course and willing to face whatever fear or pain starvation may bring. We should all be so lucky and so brave. So if I were going to pray it would sound something like this:
"Go dear friend. Leave as you lived – in control of what you could control and making peace with the many hands life dealt you. Be at peace in your passing and may the memory of your life and death help all who knew you, including me, choose to personalize dignity in life and death, like you have done."
I'm hanging up now.