The game of death is quite addictive.
Of course, the stakes are high—it’s the end of all things, the last chance, last glance, last words. All-or-nothing; last-ditch effort. A lifetime of apologies, love, and tenderness condensed into a prognosis of months, days, a few gasping breaths.
For the self-ordained “living,” it’s a game of appearances—of “Watching” (a non-fiction essay in the Spring 2015 Intima by Thom Schwarz) for that highly-anticipated moment when that “half-mummified face” would reach its last attempt at animation before smoothing out in petrified peace. But this watching seems forced, almost excessive; it prolongs an agonized tension that hasn’t the ticking buzzer or the “minute-by-minute” updates of a basketball game. Those involved feel obligated to attend the final quarter of life slipping away, of life running around shooting 3-pointers. What does watching accomplish? Is there a standard protocol to be followed in having front seats for the last moments of someone’s life? Are we trying to engrave their death mask in our minds, or has the outline of their “crumpled body beneath the marriage quit” been “seared on [our] retinas”?
But what if the dying don’t want to be watched? What if they only want a beer to slake their thirst? The schism between the living and the dying lies beyond a relative scale of time, but gapes in a canyon of silence, where words echo back into minds shut in on themselves crying in pain, grief, awkward pauses and hands stuffed in pockets. “What Do the Dying Want?” (a poem in the Spring 2015 Intima by Sara Baker)? We don’t know—for we don’t ask, they don’t tell; perhaps they lie while they “lie/still on their beds.” Our words, music, touch seem so insufficient, futile without confirmation, affirmation of the efficacy of our attention; but we can’t stop trying, hoping, wanting a response suitable to the consciences and standards of the “living.”
Dying is a spectator sport—a silent game with no final countdown, last hurrah. Years of amity and love are seemingly effaced without a word, because of the lack of words, sentiments, thoughts being exchanged. Perhaps advanced care planning (“Dying Well: Choose Your Beverage,” Esther Park & Gladys Rodriguez in the Spring 2015 Intima) can help make the progress smoother—of making sure that there are guidelines to follow, boundaries on the court, a definitive scoring system to make all parties feel content. But beyond the advanced directive and the POLST, the living must reconcile with the dying—to not impose the weight of their eyes or their kind gestures, but to ask clearly and with sincerity, “What do you want for me to do?” Or, to put the dying in the forefront—“What would make this process the ideal for you?”
No one can quite win in the game of dying—but we could at the very least fill it with (un)spoken messages of love and support, of warm memories and acknowledgement of the life that yet remains.
Vivian Lam is a senior at Stanford University studying Human Biology, with a concentration in Medical Humanities and Ethics, and Comparative Literature. She is captivated by palliative and end of life care, death and dying, and medical anthropology. To practice her belief that critical theory and narrative can unveil alternative modalities of care and ways of being, she is dedicated to public service, and writes and edits for a number of online and print publications and journals. She also enjoys distance running, staring vacantly into the distance, and warbling in the shower. Vivan Lam recently joined the Editorial Board of Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine
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