This week a little brown bird crashed into the window where I sit and write. He broke his neck and died instantly. I laid his body under a tangled mat of evergreen phlox in the front garden, and I thought, “There it is again: memento mori – remember death.” And I took a deep breath, amazed, as always, at the fact of Life, and how intertwined life is with death.

I’m grateful to so many people who engaged in the conversations prompted by my last two blog posts considering life, and death, and living with dying. I hope that the discussions will continue with as much curiosity and insight as they have had so far!

For the most part the ideas that were shared fell into three general categories: the positive(s), the problematic, and the philosophical.


The positive(s)

Many people mentioned joy. They recognized that life, for as long as we have it, is a gift, and there can be pleasure in “unwrapping” each moment. We can be amazed that we get to participate in the adventure of living. The experience of joy and amazement do not automatically come with the gift, however – these we must choose. To take the time to appreciate, to focus on the positive, to find the beauty and joy, to be fully present to life even in the shadow of death – these are our ways of saying “thank you” for the gift.


The problematic

Comments from those with acute or chronic illnesses (or even just the “terminal prognosis” of having life at all) added rich dimensions to the conversations. Some mentioned the “problem” of hope: Hoping not to have to go back into treatment. Hope as a grasping at what one wants rather than being fully present to what is. Wondering if hope is antithetical to presence, or is hope actually being present more fully?

Some who are in various support groups mentioned a subtle “competition,” an insidious “inequality of status,” as members compared their states of health and the support they do or do not have.There is also the American expectation of optimism and self-determination that can work against being present to what is true for each individual.

One correspondent had become aware that having a serious disease forces one to become “bicultural” – “you have to learn a whole new language, a new culture of illness and medicine and healthcare, but not everyone in your life understands that culture or speaks that language – and they may not want to, either.” This new culture and language often include analogies of fighting and war, and that may be incompatible for a peaceful person. How can we validate the different qualities of each person’s own genuine experience?

And there is the unspoken problem of guilt: feeling guilty if one has a disease, feeling guilty if one is dying, feeling guilty if one is not “succeeding” by “winning the battle” over a disease. And then there are the medical professionals who feel they have “failed” when a patient dies. A hospice director smiles as she tells the story about being asked by a religious professional how a particular guest was doing. “She’s failing rapidly,” the director had replied. And then she corrected herself: “She’s succeeding very well at dying.”

All these “problems” are intriguing dilemmas that can be made easier, I believe, by recognizing them and bringing conversations about them into the open among our family and friends and in our society.


The philosophical

Terminal illness, chronic illness, or just aging and becoming increasingly aware of our mortality can help to bring us back to our cultural memory as ordinary humans, back to what we knew before we began worshiping youth and accepted unattainable standards of health and physical perfection and beauty – and believed the photoshopped ads that “prove” these standards are possible and normal.

Because, folks, none of us is going to make it out of this life alive. We need to acknowledge our illusions of immortality and get on with living as mortals in all our glorious imperfection!

We’ve had some good teachers about normalizing death. There are the monks who remind themselves continuously to memento mori, “remember death.” There is a de los Muertos the annual Mexican Day of the Dead, with death decorations everywhere, and children playing with skulls and skeletons, and families picnicking on gaily-decorated graves as they remember their deceased loved ones and ancestors. There was the philosopher Seneca who, 2000 years ago, urged us to tell ourselves “You may not wake up tomorrow,” when going to bed and “You may not sleep again,” when waking. And there are hundreds of books on the best-seller lists, from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s pioneering works to Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie to Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. So many teachers, so many opportunities to consider what we’d sometimes rather not!

The real take-away for me from these past two months of correspondence and in-person conversations is that an understanding of impermanence helps us to prioritize our lives. Counter-intuitively, choosing to contemplate death can make life more purposeful.

Will we choose to befriend our mortality, to appreciate and be present to what we are and what we have in this very moment, even, and especially, when it’s right in the middle of the muddle?

May it be so.


cemetery photo






My friend Susanne facilitates a circle of women, each of whom has experienced a cancer in her body. Last week Susanne read to them a poem I’d written recently, and it sparked the day’s conversation: how is it possible to sustain the feeling of every moment being precious when one is not “actively” dying?


I was immediately intrigued when Susanne brought that question back to me, and I was inspired to write a poem about it. But it seems that I have too many thoughts for a single poem to hold – my response is becoming a blog post instead. In fact, I’ve realized that the question is larger than just a single blog post. So I’m starting with the second part of the circle’s question, the part about “not actively dying.” Next month I’ll write about the idea of sustaining our awareness of precious moments. And in the meantime, I hope your comments, added below, will spark new thoughts and conversations as well.


So: beginning with the back end of the circle’s question, the part about not actively dying . . .


Probably the question for the women of this circle assumes a sequence of: cancer diagnosis and prognosis; then a chosen form of treatment; then revised prognosis, and the passage of time in some definition of “remission.”


But does any step of this sequence really determine whether or not one is “actively dying”? For all of the medical expertise behind it, all that “-gnosis” stuff is still just informed guesses. Treatment may slow the progress of a terminal disease – then there may be a revised prognosis, called a “remission.” However, the fact is that we have all been in a “terminal condition” since the second our father’s sperm pierced our mother’s egg. The real issue for us is that we have become a death-denying culture; we have forgotten that life is an STTD – “a sexually transmitted terminal disease.”


A terminal disease is one that is progressive and incurable. It is, by definition, irreversible. The “disease” called life may be more protracted, more like a chronic disease, but it is still progressive and incurable. We are mortal beings, and life is fatal.


With or without particular diagnoses, parts of us are dying continuously. The largest organ of the human body is the skin, an eight-pound organ that keeps us from evaporating. A skin cell lives two or three weeks, and then dies and is sloughed off as a new one takes its place. Cells of the colon live only about four days before they die and are replaced. White blood cells live about a year. The bottom line is this: there is no time when we are not “actively dying.”


For millennia religious monks, stoics, and philosophers have practiced meditating on impermanence. They have repeated, taught, and pondered the words “memento mori,” a Latin phrase meaning “remember death.” This phrase reminds us to be present to who we are and what we have in this moment. Live life fully, it says; don’t waste precious, limited time.


Which brings me to the first part of the cancer circle’s question: “how is it possible to sustain the feeling of every moment being precious?”


That will be next month’s blog post topic. I’d love to have you share with me your thoughts and questions between now and then.

candle photo