Every living thing on this planet dies. Everything from the tiniest of microbes to the Great Sequoias eventually comes to an end. The question is not “Will we die?” but how that happens. For many of us, the decisions are made for us and the end comes in a blink. For some, there are other players in the game besides fate and the sudden cessation of bodily function. Sometimes the dying process stretches out before us in a pallid path that most people fear to walk. I’ve walked that path with hundreds of people as a hospice chaplain.
The walk with one as spiritually and emotionally healthy as Peg Morton always was a gift to me and my teammates. Those extraordinary people are not as rare as one would expect but often they are camouflaged by the concerns of those around them who are more fearful of death than they. Others are flooded with the very human dread of loss. I felt for Mr. Dresser especially who told us of his sense of loss by saying, “I have seen none in Eugene who surpass [Peg] in honesty of purpose, unimpeachable integrity, social courage, and readiness to face what others shrink from.”
I think he was listing the qualities that he so cherished for his own life that to lose her was to lose a part of himself. Ironically, he then says that she was unsurpassed in “… readiness to face what others shrink from.” He pointed out the very characteristic that led her to make that decision. He might have been unable to avoid pointing that out even though he was writing in effort to convince her to change her mind.
Morton said that she felt no need to live to a ripe old age – she had achieved that. We have a tendency to think that our death lay in the future by about 15 years. The people who felt the personal loss of such a powerful healer and Quaker avatar probably projected the misty expectation of 15 more years for her. She, however was well aware of herself and was clear that her time was at hand.
My work as a hospice chaplain, especially as a Quaker, was not to preach the hope of heaven or the fear of hell. In my practice as a clinical chaplain, I refused to do what one Buddhist writer called “flogging a doctrine to a standstill.”
The work at the end of life is not to find ways to fight the inevitable as if there a martial glory to be obtained. Family often stands around the death bed and declares that the deceased was a fighter. I always envisioned the end of the Pequod in Moby Dick when they say that. I envision the white whale dragging Ahab’s body along as he rams and finally sinks the ship – its tallest mast finally giving up to the sea the tip of it merely cloaked like a twig.
The doctrine being flogged to a standstill is not always religious. More often in our time in this postmodern age of industry, it is the doctrine of technologically extended life; “Artificially extended life,” as she put it. The fact is that it is not life that is extended but death. Peg said that her body was telling her that it was time to go, but others fantasized that with technology, her life would go into that fifteen-year golden horizon where they can be comforted by her presence as if her mind and body would be frozen in its current condition. Ahab thought the same thing. He says,
“Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. ‘Tis Ahab– his body’s part; but Ahab’s soul’s a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs. I feel strained, half-stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break, ye’ll hear me crack; and till ye hear that, know that Ahab’s hawser tows his purpose yet. Believe ye, men, in the things called omens? Then laugh aloud, and cry encore! For ere they drown, drowning things will twice rise to the surface; then rise again, to sink for evermore. So with Moby Dick– two days he’s floated– to-morrow will be the third. Aye, men, he’ll rise once more,– but only to spout his last! D’ye feel brave men, brave?”
His ivory stump is already shattered and he leans on a broken lance for support. Already his technology is breaking down but yet, he is in denial of the whale’s power and boasts of defeating it again. How many times have I seen people spend thousands traveling to faith healers, taking on suspicious alternative health modes and demanding the tubes and mechanical robots that click and beep supposedly keeping the ship afloat.
Morton tells her friends and family that it’s time and she doesn’t want to foolishly pursue the colorless whale of postmodern peg legs whether they are made of ivory or not. And yet, while the field of medicine is finally closing in on the humanity of dying, her loved ones struggle to let her go as if clinging to the hawser that they dream will bring down death.
“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”
One day in my hospice work, a young man lying in a hospital bed in his living room staring at the ceiling agrees to talk with me.
His wife says that he’s afraid. She’s scared too.
He and I say nothing for a time and when we’re alone; he turns his head to me and says, “I hate this cancer. I had everything going for me.”
He lists all of the accomplishments of a 30ish man who was beginning to see the way to the American Dream but cancer cut him off.
“I’m going to fight this cancer and beat it.”
“Cancer is a terrible enemy.” I said quietly and directly into his ear. What do your doctors say about all of this?”
“They say that my body is full of cancer. I don’t want to die until I have fought the fight and won the race.” He said, quoting Paul in the New Testament.
“Some men die at ebb tide; some at low water; some at the full of the flood;– and I feel now like a billow that’s all one crested comb…” (Ahab to Starbuck)
I said, “Why don’t you pick a fight with an enemy you can defeat in a fair fight? Why don’t you take on your fear and your pain? When you win that you’ll defend your family from it as well. They will be able to remember you at peace and not in the agony of losing to an impossible enemy?”
He turned his head and looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you, chaplain.”
“Can I come back to see you?”
He said, “I don’t think that will be necessary. I think I’ve got this.”
How can I as a healer and a Quaker ask for more? His steady gaze and the movement of the Spirit between us spoke not of the hate for the cancer but of the love of a young man for the battle for peace and wholeness.
Ahab hates his enemy and pursues it into the crested wave of his hate. My young patient let go of his hate and picked up a challenge that he wanted to win in a battle with the weapons of the spirit. It was a long visit with much silence and few words but we won.
The nurse that attended his time of death said that the family was at peace and he died in comfort – he won a more noble battle as did Peg Morton.
Peg also clearly defined another issue for women her age. She pointed out the many people who sit in the halls of her complex. She is quoted as saying, “Often the people who are sitting in these halls, if their memories and faculties are not totally gone, wish they were dead, wish they could just go and they don’t know how.”
So many of the elderly women that I served clutched my hands and begged me to help them die. I once wrote a poem that expressed my frustration with the relentless question from those women about why they continued to live without purpose. A portion of the poem says,
A Woman pours her
tears into my hands
Begs me to help her die
Another clutches my arm
to her breast
Milking hope from my fingers
I cry for them – for me
“Why Does God keep me here? I’m no good to anyone.”
Those words came to me daily when I visited in homes and facilities alike. People became so old that their usefulness was always a question in their minds. In the later years of my hospice career, I had so many dementia patients that I became a student of relationships with them. I learned how to ask the right questions. One woman who was in a late stage of dementia surprised me with a profound response to my question, “Where is God?” She replied, “He’s up there and that’s all well and good for him but she’s (sic) carrying a big burden.” As Morton said, people want to die but don’t know how.
Women, for the most part, have spent their lives loving and serving and now it is they who are served and they don’t know how to be served. I always took time to teach those women how to be Elders. In visit after visit, we would talk about deserving to be served and the true meaning of being an Elder. In home care, the question that usually helped the most was, “Are they taking good care of you?”
“Where did they learn to do that?” (I taught them)
“Yes you did. Your job as an Elder is still to teach. What are they learning by caring for you?” (patience).
“Yes ma’am. There is one more important thing you have to teach them – how to die.”
Many times the pastoral conversation from that point on was not about being useless but how to face death and how to cope with the process. When that point is touched, the learning and teaching within the family becomes free of the lies of technology.
As I read this article about Peg Morton, I noticed the amount of teaching that she was doing with her decision to follow the leading of her body. She worried about her children, grandchildren and the folks in her Meeting. She speaks of her own pain and in so doing she opens the door to talk about grief for all of those people. It was a final magnificent act for a Friend who understands the movement of the Spirit within herself. In my exchange with older women in my care, I was always careful to educate them to the one skill their people needed the most; how to die in peace.
We don’t know how to die. Peg Morton was teaching that. We have ceded our power for the two most important events in our lives; birth and death. She reclaims her body and her dying and leaves us with not only the huge lesson on how to die but how to personalize the Quaker movement for non-violence and peace.
Dying in an intensive care unit can be as violent as violence can get. The body is beaten and shocked, cut and crammed with all manners of needles, chemicals and violated with the indignity of a body shop. We watch too much television wherein CPR is a gentle push on the chest.
That is theatre done on live actors.
I was once forced to do CPR on a patient who had already died. Her ribs broke under the force of my upper body. It sounded like cracking one’s knuckles. I broke them all until her sternum was free and I could feel it rolling on something that felt like a tennis ball – it was her heart.
I was leaning on my car when EMS finished, after the family finally found the DNR [“DO NOT RESUSCITATE” Form].
One paramedic asked me if I was OK. I looked up at her and said, “I’ve done CPR before but I’ve never broken anybody’s ribs.”
She replied, “You’ll never forget it.”
Peg Morton will never have to face that violence to her body, and if we learn from her, we may be able to relearn the art of a peaceful death as well.