I’m afraid to die, she said.
I told her it was the bridge
we all crossed.
She told me they were the words
we all used.
Hold me for a while, she said
to her husband
who was speechless
as we spoke.
And he held her,
gently putting his arms
around his wife of many years.
So we talked of death for a while.
They feared to die, I said,
as I spoke of loved ones lost,
who had crossed before.
Their bridge is our bridge, I said,
and we all will cross over it,
must cross over it, together.
There are many alone, I said,
reminding her that there were many
who died alone.
But we’re here with you, I said,
reminding her that to be not alone
was a gift.
I’m dying, she said,
As tears rolled down my cheeks,
I told her it was the truth
for us all.
But you’re not alone, I said.
When it comes, and surely it will,
we’ll be here.
That it will come, we know,
but when it will come,
we have no right to guess.
I must go now, I said.
I told them to keep on living,
for breath was.
Thank you, she said,
I walked away, her on my mind,
in my aching heart.
We’re dying, I say,
and I hope,
that someone will say,
I am with you,
when we die.
Rev. Dr. John D. Willis
Written at Salonika’s Restaurant
For many years, I served as a Christian minister. During that time, I was studying deeply in history and ethics as I pursued the doctorate. My intellectual formation was shaping my spiritual formation, as I daily learned how people in the past had acted morally and ethically, or not, in the uses of their lives. Every day for me in ministry I knew could be my last, due to accident or illness. I generally took no day's opportunities for granted, though I will not represent myself as always having done the best with what was put before me. I did want to hear, "Well done, good and faithful servant," when my life was over.
The poem above was written after I had visited a dying woman and her supportive husband in a hospital. Its content is self-explanatory. The moment in ministry was powerful for me, and I did not return home right afterward. I drove to one of my favorite little restaurants in Hyde Park, in Chicago, bought a cup of coffee, took out some paper, and tried to put down in poetic form what just had happened. Looking back now on this poem, I still have these views, so share this moment in my life in hope that perhaps my readers will find something of benefit for themselves.
I have a few things I want to say about death and dying in America, as I see it today, and of our ethical duties, if not your own religious duties, towards your own family members and friends who face death. The poem has its own charge for you to consider.
America does not manage death very well as a culture. Our media give us images of beautiful, healthy people of all ages, in every context. Everyone has the appearance of perfection--hair, teeth, complexion, dress, and affectations. When we see them, there is conveyed somehow the sense that this is how real people look, communicate, and are. And millions of our people spend billions of dollars, those who have jobs anyway, trying to emulate these Perfect Americans.
All our cultural images reinforce vitality and success. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, are what we see. Yet life also includes death, carefree liberty eventually is displaced by the bondage of unwilling suffering, and happiness will be replaced at some future point with grief.
We are trained by our culture to "look at the positive, not the negative." We are trained to money, profit, materialism, and buying things. Yet real life is so much more than these externals. Our cultural emphases have robbed us of so much of the full richness in real life, and made many nearly automatons to a false idea of what it means to live a full and meaningful lives.
Billions of dollars are spent every month on cosmetic surgeries, periodontal perfection, wardrobes purchased to ensure conformity to current fashion, and every item advertisements convince purchasers somehow will add to their "quality of life." The men and women who have helped ruin our nation all were seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of their neighbors, all because they were obsessed with the idea that millions in profits, or added political power, somehow were the most important goals for their lives.
When I was in ministry, I saw some families who, when their loved ones became ill, did not have the capacity to stand beside them in their suffering, decline, and approaching death. I have seen too many family members whose visits became less frequent as the physical conditions of their loved ones worsened. The healthy could not accept the mirror of themselves in the unhealthy. So when they did visit, some went into long explanations of all their many activities and schedules, which had interfered to keep them away.
Many times I have watched in pain, as the sick, enduring terminal illness known by all, silently listened to litanies of excuses. Typically, the last comment and question would be, in a cheery tone and with a forced smile, "You look so good. How are you feeling today?"
Nearly all the patients had listened blankly to what they were hearing. Perhaps they were familiar with the narrative, having themselves offered the same when they were healthy. Depending on the patient, the answers would vary. Some would say quietly and clearly they did not feel well. Some would turn to the facts well-known by all, and say they were "ready to go." And there always were some who did not want to make their loved ones feel uncomfortable, saying they felt better than they did. A few did not answer much. A few said thanks, but they were not feeling well, thanked their visitors for coming, and said they wanted to be alone.
Almost invariably, if a patient said he or she was ready to die, these kinds of visitors would say something like, "Oh, no, you're going to get better. You're going to get out of here. Your golfing buddy is ready for you to go out on the links again. Don't be negative. You have to be positive and cooperate with the doctors. I don't want to hear you talking like that!" These were the people who clearly themselves were trying to avoid the fact of suffering and death. They could not face them even though their own loved one needed their quiet, unremitting support, and understanding.
I realized their responses were from years of conditioning in and by our society, which presents a very shallow and unrealistic view of life, and which suppresses and pushes suffering, decline, and death, out and away from our collective consciousness. These people were not bad. In fact, they had an inner turmoil at work within them. I could see it. Thinking back now on them, I am sure some left the room, dropped their cheery facades, and wept on the way to the car.
Thankfully, I can tell you I also saw many, many family members who did not do this. Their love for their patient made them shed off the habit of shallowness, as they became fully real, fully engaged, fully sacrificial, doing all they could every day and on into the night, whatever was required to listen, respond appropriately, and to become servants of love.
I saw family members gently wash their loved ones. I remember how one loving wife put a small sponge saturated with frozen water to cool the tongue of her husband who could not drink as he lay dying. I saw many who always were there when I came into the room, sleeping there beside their loved ones, ready for any call or any need. What a love I saw in so many. I was deeply moved seeing and hearing the real definition of love poured out in every detail.
In the medieval period, some Christian theologians used to write manuals entitled, "De Ars Bene Moriendi," or, "On the art of dying well." For many years now, when someone solemnly tells me someone they know is "terminal," I say immediately, "Yes, as are we all." Those medieval writers were instructing their readers to live every day within the context of truth--that our lives eventually have an end. What they wrote about, therefore, was not how to develop skill in dying well at the very end, as with fortitude and acceptance. What they taught was, "Live well every day, now, wisely and with well-chosen thoughts, words, and deeds, and then, at the end of your life, you will die well, having lived well."
Those medieval theologians were Christians. For them, to live well in order to die well meant to live every day within the context of divine love. Jesus Christ said that the Great Commandment was to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength; and, that the Second Great Commandment was to love our neighbors as ourselves. There is another passage in the New Testament that says, love covers a multitude of sins.
To be motivated by love, to live in love, to create relationships in love, to live through in love whatever roses or thorns life brings, to be saturated in love, is a wonderful way to live. Let us be purged, and seek to purge from our lives, all that is not of love, and to be open to the divine love that transcends and outlasts all temporal loves.
I hope you enjoyed the poem. JDW