Let's Talk About Death (Over Dinner): An Excerpt

What is the most significant end-of-life experience of which you’ve been a part?

Death has the quality of a diamond. It is irrefutable and prismatic; with every angle you turn, it emits new light and new perspectives. Telling the story of deaths we’ve witnessed helps us to examine new perspectives and identify our own wishes. These stories are our way of coming to know ourselves as we weigh our sensibilities against the protagonist’s. Without sharing these stories, we deny our ability to become fully expressed. This is why we read literature and why myths are important, and it might also be the silver lining in our binge-watching marathons.

Laurie Anderson was with her fellow musician, best friend, and husband, the legendary Lou Reed, when he died of liver cancer. He pursued all options in his treatment and did not give up until the last half-hour of his life, when Laurie wrote that he accepted it “all at once and completely.” She wrote in a moving piece for Rolling Stone how he asked to go outside their home, into the morning light. He knew what was happening. “I have never seen an expression as full of wonder as Lou’s as he died,” she wrote. “He wasn’t afraid. I had gotten to walk with him to the end of the world. Life—so beautiful, painful and dazzling—does not get better than that. And death? I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.”

Lisa was in her early seventies when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her primary instinct then, as it had long been, was protecting her children. Her son had just had his first baby, and her daughter was then pregnant with her first. It was a rich and beautiful time in their lives, and Lisa did not want her medical issues to distract from that. It took a while for Lisa to reveal to her children the extent of her illness. It only became clear to her daughter, Jamaica, months later—by which time Jamaica’s baby daughter was nine months old—while Lisa was visiting Jamaica at her new home and plainly very sick.

“I remember sitting outside on our porch with her and asking her if she wanted to come stay with us,” said Jamaica. “And my mom said, ‘I don’t want to die in your house.’” It was the first time they had spoken about what was going to happen so directly. Jamaica asked her: Why not? Why not die in her house? “My mom said, ‘This is your new house, and you’re getting established. I don’t want that to happen here.’” Jamaica felt differently about it—she didn’t want her mom anywhere else. Lisa’s son felt the same way—he wanted his mom close. But Lisa remained insistent about not being a burden.

Lisa and Jamaica’s dad looked into renting apartments nearby, but before they could commit to anything, Lisa’s health took a turn for the worst. A late-night trip to the ER was followed by a hospital admission a few days later. Then a personable doctor Lisa took a liking to, who Jamaica described as a bit of a hippie but with the look of Austin Powers, spoke frankly with Lisa about her plans during one of his daily check-ins. When he asked if she would continue staying with her daughter after her hospital stay and Lisa explained her reluctance, this doctor turned to Lisa and implored her with a knowing shake of his head, “Don’t deny your children the opportunity to care for you.”

This was powerful advice, a different perspective from someone she’d come to trust, and something in Lisa’s approach shifted. She suddenly stopped resisting being cared for as much. She was willing to ask things of her son and daughter. She recognized that it made sense not to push her children away when they were trying to give her love and wanted to care for her.

During Lisa’s last weeks, Jamaica was deeply involved in her physical care. “I remember talking with my dad and brother and them saying, ‘It could be months or a year …,’ but I think a daughter with a mother is different—you’re intimately involved in the care aspects. You see and touch it and start to live it. Being with her every single day, she couldn’t escape what was happening to her body, and neither could I. And that was okay. I think it was therapeutic. It’s heartbreaking, but when you put your hands on it, when you see from one week to the next how hard it is and you see the daily changes taking place, it makes it real and makes it tangible. There’s hoping for the best, and then there’s a point of acceptance. I felt a bit at peace when that point of acceptance happened. When my dad and brother were still asking, ‘How will we prolong her life?’ I was reading the situation very differently.”

Years before, Jamaica had worked in the Peace Corps in Africa, and Lisa had spent time with her there. As they talked with Lisa’s Austin-Powers-doppelganger doctor about their memories of Africa—a place he’d also worked as a doctor for Medecins Sans Frontieres—he sighed nostalgically. “They sure know how to die there,” he said. Jamaica knew this to be true. When someone was dying where she’d lived in Guinea, you knew it because everyone gathered. “Family and friends would come and everyone would just sit for a half day, or a full day, outside the home and come in the home to visit whoever was sick and support the family,” Jamaica remembered.

Lisa wanted this too. As she became ensconced in Jamaica’s home, the front door was never locked and rarely even closed. Family and friends came in and out to visit, and during the final weeks of Lisa’s life the house was a hive of activity. Lisa’s brother and sister-in-law came from a thousand miles away and set up camp. Lisa’s sister-in-law cooked huge meals, and nightly dinners in Jamaica’s backyard included anywhere from six to fifteen people and usually no fewer than two children. “It was one of the worst periods of my life and one of the best,” Jamaica said. There was always someone there to pitch in and do what needed to be done. And Jamaica never opened the refrigerator without seeing it stocked with food people had dropped by, a gesture that meant so much to her both practically and symbolically. “My mom’s parting gift was bringing all of this together. It was three weeks of family. Three weeks of a party. There was lots of wine and lots of good food, and she was in the middle of it all. Even the last night, when she wasn’t conscious, she was in the sunroom but we opened the windows so she could be looking out at the table outside.”

After Lisa died, Jamaica recognized that she had left another gift to her children. Because she’d had time to prepare, Lisa handled as many of the logistics of her passing as she could, from insurance matters to going through her jewelry, and assigning who would get what. Though Jamaica acknowledged that still many logistics fell to her dad, she appreciated that she had the space to just grieve. “I can see how heavy the burden of administration is for many people, and there wasn’t any of that. If you want to make the comparison with Guinea, there are no forms to sign there after someone dies,” Jamaica said. “There are clear steps and traditions, and there’s a good reason for that—it means that you don’t need to make decisions. You can go through the motions of what tradition dictates and focus on your grief.”

Jamaica works as a demographer, so issues of birth and death have a very different context for her professionally. In her work she looks at death numerically—she has to. But living alongside her mom as she died gave her more of a sense of immediacy, of how she would handle her own death. She got everything in order from her life insurance to her will. “We’re all going to die,” she said thoughtfully. “We can either accept it or make it a shit-show for everyone around us.”

Jamaica thinks that Lisa’s attention to the details also helped her to let go at the end. “She said ‘I’ve had a good life. I lived really well. I’m really lucky.’ That’s how I want to feel. You can always say there’s more to do—and there is. Or you can say it’s been a pretty good run and now I get to just be at peace.”

Learn more about the program Let’s Talk About Death, with Michael Hebb and Angel Grant at Kripalu.

Excerpted from Let’s Talk About Death (Over Dinner): An Invitation and Guide to Life's Most Important Conversation by Michael Hebb. Copyright © 2018. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Michael Hebb is the founder of deathoverdinner.org, drugsoverdinner.org, womenteachmen.com, and the Living Wake. His second book, Let’s Talk About Death, is forthcoming in October 2018.

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