Saturday, April 02, 2005

Aging, Dying and Death

I doubt that aging, death and dying are topics most dormgrandpop readers probably spend a lot of time thinking about, but for some reason, I was particularly conscious of them on my recent trip to Sri Lanka. Possibly this is because two of my oldest friends, Kingsley and Douglas, are being felled by the aging process. A third, Peiris, like my father, continues to live a full life with considerable vigor.

And then, today, there was the opportunity to experience the very public death of Pope John Paul II. The many tributes to which I listened all emphasized the vigor of his early years, the frailty of his last years and how he likened the sufferings of his last illnesses to Christ’s suffering on the cross. I have been immobilized by my fourth winter cold, which has imposed time for thinking and reflecting, in contrast to my more typically frenetic life style,

I will not write of Pope John Paul, others will be doing so at great length and more eloquently. But I will write something of my more unheralded Sri Lankan friends.

Douglas’s aging has been the most painful to share. On the walls and surfaces of his modest home are pictures of the vigorous man he once was. He was a respected senior government civil servant. He rode horseback. He successfully competed in long distance walking competitions into his 70s. He was a voracious consumer of Sri Lankan and world news, which he organized and stored in voluminous files. Visiting his home is a “must” stop on most of my trips to Sri Lanka and I spent part of the morning with him last Saturday, Seven years ago he injured his back. There are no chiropractors in Sri Lanka and this seriously limited his mobility. Then, is eyesight began to fail; an operation made things worse.

For nearly four years, he has been blind and immobile, the perimeters of his life shrunk to his chair and his bed. Douglas recently celebrated his 90th birthday, but he may not have felt there was much to celebrate. He no longer listens to the radio or books on tape. His memory is failing. He is depressed and has a right to be. Yet a vigorous constitution, the legacy of a vigorous life, keeps his heart beating and sustains others basic biological functions. His devoted wife, age 84, cares for him. He nom huddles on his bed, in a fetal position, looking like an elderly newborn, waiting for time to pass and for the end. The bed – and his room – are immaculate.

I read a very few passages from my recently completed book, especially my acknowledgement of his contributions. Clearly, he knew who I was, though he sometimes doesn’t remember his children and grandchildren. His wife, once a physically beautiful woman, is careworn, but soldiers on, sustained by determination and occasional visits from their children. They have been married nearly seventy years. She is still beautiful, despite her frail body and wrinkled face, She is an embodiment of love – and duty.

Spending time with Douglas and following John Paul’s dying process in the news, I cannot help but wonder what my own dying process will be like. I have long been a member of the Hemlock Society. It takes its name from the poison given to Socrates, following his conviction for “corrupting the youth of Athens”. Members support the idea that the right to end one’s own life is a fundamental right. For John Paul and many American religious conservatives, this view is anathema. For the latter group, using the power of the state to impose their views on everyone is a priority,. How John Paul chose to use dying as one more expression of a life lived by faith has caused me to reflect. This is, no doubt part of what he intended.

I not queried Douglas on this matter, though years ago his views would have been insightful. I wonder what he thinks, but philosophical discussions are beyond his capabilities.

Perhaps I will write more about my other Sri Lankan friends in another blog.


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