I just noticed that my book, Penelope Ayers, is on sale on amazon.com at the moment for $11.69 (how on earth they set these prices, I have no idea). Click here if you're interested.
I just returned from a week of book-related events in the Boston area, so the story is on my mind again, after a long hiatus. For those of you who don't know, it's a memoir and spiritual autobiography, the story of one year in my life in which I had the privilege of getting to know my mother-in-law as she battled cancer. Peter and I lived in New Orleans for much of that year, so I got to know Penny (Grand Penny, as we now call her), her family, and her city. It changed my life for the better. In the midst of the darkness of a cancer diagnosis, light shone. In the midst of the high likelihood that she would die, Penny began to live, in the fullest sense of the word. In the midst of pain and sorrow, there was goodness and grace.
Last week, I spoke in front of 60 people who are affiliated with Hospice in some way or another. It was a chance to say thank you to them for the work that they do, the work that the rest of us so often ignore, the work of helping people to "live their dying." When Penny was sick, I had heard of Hospice, but I didn't know what it was. No doctor ever told us that we could call Hospice as a resource for end-of-life care, but thankfully, a friend of Penny's gave us the information we needed. Although people are eligible for Hospice for 6-12 months before they die, the average length of care is 3 weeks.
The recent health care debates have highlighted the systemic cultural phobias we have when it comes to death. We don't want to talk about it, plan for it, or do the work of coming to terms with the fact that there is a 100% mortality rate in this country, and around the globe. We pour our energy and money and time into treatments and skin creams and cures for diseases. We move the cemeteries to the fringes of town. We idolize life, and as a result, we lose out on the healing that can come in accepting our mortality.
My mother-in-law, Penny, understood that she was going to die. She lived well to the end, and she worked hard to ensure that all the people in her life had the opportunity to say goodbye. She worked hard to ensure that she finished her life well. One social worker at this Hospice conference noted that most of the people she works with are unwilling to admit that they are dying, or that their loved one is dying, and as a result, the potential for healing is cut short. Ironic, isn't it, that our denial of death can make death all the more painful?
I'm in an ethics class in which we're reading St. Augustine. To paraphrase, he says that the problems we face in this world are just a matter of disordered loves, loving things too little, loving things too much. Our culture loves youth and capability and competence too much, and as a result, when we face the reality of aging, disability, and need for one anther, when we face the ultimate reality that all of us will die, we don't know how to handle it.
Penny's life, as a whole, was far from perfect. But she was willing to face the reality of her death, and as a result she died well. I'm grateful to have been written into her story.