Sunday, August 19, 2012

Life of the Party & Death Expert Extraordinaire

This week has been full of surreal experiences.  It all began on Wednesday afternoon when the phone rang and the caller ID read "LA TIMES".  The voice on the other end of the line said, "Hi, this is Steve Lopez." 

Wait, what?  Steve Lopez, award winning journalist and author of such novels as Third and Indiana and In the Clear, as well as the non-fiction work The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music which tells the story of his relationship with homeless musical genius Nathaniel Ayers.  Of course he is more popularly known to many of my female friends as, "the guy who Robert Downey Jr. played in The Soloist".  Anyway, him.  He was calling me.  Why on earth would he want to talk to me?  

There's the on it to read.

He explained.  Since the death of his father Lopez has been writing articles which examine death and dying in American society, look at essentially, how we deal...  In his estimation we Americans aren't doing too good of a job at dying in dignity and comfort and so he wanted to know how other cultures look at the act of dying.  Thus began our conversation on an area I have been researching for the past few years:  Sallekhana.

Sallekhana, for those who are not familiar, is the ritual of voluntary starvation that devout members of the Jain religious tradition practice to bring about a non-violent death.  Jain thought is incredibly complex and in no way can I give a full or even close to proper explanation of the intricacies of Jainist philosophy in a blog post, but at it's core Jainism teaches the supreme importance of ahimsa or "non-violence".  Now because they believe every carbon-based item on this earth has a jiva or soul they believe that in starving one's self  one meet's death in a manner that is supremely peaceful, non-violent and unselfish.

Is Sallekhana a pleasant death?  That I do not know.  Having never experienced it myself I would never presume to suggest what it is like or if it is any better or worse than dying after being weaned from a ventilator or being struck by a falling astroid.  Is it a meritorious death? there such a thing?  Mr. Lopez isn't sure that exists.  I am still trying that out myself.  He said to me, "You're young so you probably don't really worry about these matters quite yet..."

I stopped him right there.  "Young" is a relative term (as I am constantly reminded by my OBGYN and relatives who fear I am missing my most fertile window) but for all intents and purposes I am in the prime of my life and very healthy.  And that is precisely why I worry about the end of my life on a regular basis.  The healthier I am the more I worry about suffering a traumatic brain injury and being rendered non-sentient or entering into a persistent vegetative state (a la Terry Schiavo) where my brain stem continues to work properly and my organs function on their own in the absence of my higher conscience and I am left on this earth as a burden to my parents who will see me deteriorate daily and feel the financial strain to either care for me or be forced to make the agonizing decision to withdraw my feeding tube.  And God forbid I somehow become the center of a legal battle over the right to death and end up fodder for the press and lawyers charging $1000 an hour to push my case through the American legal system.  So yes, I may be "young" but I think about this often.  

And it was in this moment of responding to one of my literary idol's line of questioning that he asked me another question: "Where do you think the best place to go to die is?"

"Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium," I blurted out.  Why I mentioned the low countries of Europe as ideal locations for ending one's sojourn on this earth is material for another blog post but after I answered him I had this surreal moment:  Steve Lopez, is asking me where to go to die?"

And suddenly it occurred to me that while I pride myself on being the life of the party and the person that no matter how awful the situation is can always inject some sort of levity into an otherwise dismal atmosphere, and find every opportunity to quote Will Ferrel films no matter how inappropriate the apparently also now an expert on the most bummer of all topics: death.

How, at thirty years old, have I become known for being a go-to person on the subject of dying?  I hadn't really looked at it in perspective until I got off the phone with Mr. Lopez.  I flashed back to a month ago when I filmed two segments for the television show "Taboo" on the National Geographic Channel.  The title of the episode is "Death".  Then I ran through the titles of the papers I have published, one is about healthcare and the death penalty in the American prison system, another is about dying in the Jain tradition and another still is also about dying in the Jain tradition but written in Castilian Spanish so that the Latin world can also enjoy learning about death.  I'm a go-to person on the topic of death in two different languages!

So given this epiphany I have one hope for the future.  I pray that by the time I reach my sunset years I am no longer a go-to person on the subject of death but, God willing, a source of authority on life and the living of it.  I hope I can be that Oprah-like creature that offers nuggets of wisdom on where to find the best macaroni and cheese in America or what brand makes the most comfortable stretchy pants.  And hopefully in between telling young people to drink their milk and stay off the drugs I can slip in the fact that we're all going to die and we have no control over that.  But we can control the amount of Will Ferrel films we watch and we should definitely all be watching more.  In my experience with death as a bioethicist the one thing I have never heard anyone say is, "I wasted to too much time laughing."

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