Virginia (not her real name) would die with in 36 hours. She didn’t know it. I didn’t know it. Newest arrival to the nursing home, she’d been placed on the bed beside my grandmother’s. Virginia was distraught, wild-eyed. restless. “What do you think I should I do?” Her voice ran to the high side of throaty. Her tone was earnest, laden with emotion. Her question very human: “What should I do? Oh, what should I do?”
My own throat tightened. What should you do about what? Doesn’t look like you can do much of anything. And how should I know? I don’t have the answers. I felt relieved when her minister and granddaughter soon arrived.
“Oh good! Maybe you can help me. What should I do? I don’t know what I should do.”
“Rest,” said the granddaughter. “You’ve had a big day. You were transferred from the hospital this morning, remember? You’re here now, but you’re tired out. You need to relax, and get some rest.”
“I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I don’t know what should I do.” She caught her breath. “Am I dying?”
Ah, that’s her real question.
“You’re tired,” the minister said. “You’ve had a big day. You need rest. You need to let your body rest.”
“Is that it, then? I’m tired out? Oh, good. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I’ve been worrying myself sick.”
“Try to relax, Grandma. Just lay back and relax.”
By the next evening Virginia was dead. Didn’t her minister and granddaughter know she was dying? Or did they know but feel uncomfortable talking about it? Did they choose to protect her from the truth?
I don't know. But I do know I don't want the same thing to happen to me. If and when I am dying, don’t tell me I’m merely tired. I want the truth.
This represents a sea change for me. I spent years not wanting to know, suppressing my attraction to men. I didn’t want to be gay, didn’t want to consider that I might be. I was afraid of this truth. Life changed for me when I turned and faced what was. Possibilities opened up. Awareness set in. No way I want to go back.
When I am dying I want to know it, and to use the hours and energy left me to prepare for my final passage into Mystery. I'd rather do this than go to bed early and catch up on my rest. Those around me, if they're willing to be honest, able to overcome their own fears about the subject, may be able to offer me a heads up. As I have opportunity, I'd like to make use of my time. Yet that time, that opportunity is now, isn’t it? I need now to be surrounding myself with truth-tellers, using my time to honor, further and tell truth. I need now to be living into what is, learning to stay aware of those facets of truth I already know.
This I know: I am dying. You are dying. We all of us received a sentence of mortality when we were born. Virginia was no braver than me. No smarter. No stronger. No different, really. Her death, when it came, came with a rush. She navigated this ultimate passage with eyes closed. Me, I want mightily to keep them open wide.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Letter, September 2007.