We just got the news that the 92-year-old mother of good friends of ours has died, and we are making preparations to travel there for the funeral. Since the state of her health wasn’t good (she had just been diagnosed with inoperable cancer), it is probably a blessing. But what interests me is that it also seems to have been a choice. When I almost died six years ago, I was given the choice to return and I took it–but I wasn’t 92 years old with my husband dead and most of my life behind me.
The last time I saw this woman, at Christmas, she seemed well, although in arthritic pain (which may actually have been undiagnosed bone cancer), but despite being tucked into her chair with an solicitous attendant hovering nearby, she made what I considered to be an odd remark. She said, "I feel totally superfluous, like a bump on a log." We all rushed to assure her that this wasn’t the case, but I suspect she was getting ready to disengage from the world. The following week, doctors discovered that she had cancer that had spread to her bones–thus she didn’t have long to live. Our friends started making plans for her to have hospice care at the facility where she was living. But as soon as she got the news about her disease, she passed away–quietly and gently in the night. It’s almost as if some part of her brain decided, "This is it. Might as well leave now," so she did.
There was a story recently in the New York Times about the controversy going on in medical circles about whether or not our will to live helps us to survive longer. I remember when I was in the hospital many years ago, my roommate (who was a very forthright lady) discovered that the steel cart parked outside our door had a notebook on it in which the nurses who came in to check on us recorded our states of mind throughout the day. It made her angry to be spied on in this way, but I concluded that doctors must think that good spirits are somehow healing, and I later began to read studies confirming this. In the Times, I read many rebuttal letters about that article from medical personnel, saying that our mood has nothing to do with getting well, otherwise we could "wish" our cancer away, etc. And I certainly have known many people who wanted desperately to live but were not able to hang on, so I don’t believe that everyone gets a chance to make this choice. Also, implying that we do brings up the theory that if someone dies, it’s because they didn’t "try" hard enough not to, which seems rather cruel to me.
Something that especially interested me was that her daughter later told me that she had a visitor a few days before she died, who gave her a cat. Cats really do seem to be some sort of conduit to the world of the dead.
But some of us do seem to have a say in the matter. I found it very telling that as soon as this old lady knew the game was up–that very night–she closed her eyes and gave up the ghost. This can’t have been a coincidence, it must have been a choice.