Preparing for the end


A lot of my friends have told me that, when it comes to be their time, they want to die in their sleep. “I don’t want to know about it,” one of them said. “I can’t do anything about it, can I?”



Well, hm.



I like what Rue McLanahan said as Vivian on “Maude” a long time ago: “When it’s time for me to die, I’m just going to be somewhere else.”



This is a good plan, but I don’t think it would actually work.



Some of my friends have said, much more specifically, that they want to be spared the knowledge that death is coming for them: they don’t want a bad diagnosis, or a wonky heart that might go kaboom at any moment, or a nasty lingering complaint that just keeps picking away at you until you give up and lie down and die. They don’t want those months or years of misery, waiting for Mister Reaper.



But we are having those years right now, n’est-ce pas? I predict, with absolute certainty, that you will die, and so will I, at some point in the (indeterminate) future.



There! Just like a doctor might have told you.



Now: what are you going to do about it?



I have watched friends and family members go down the road to death:



Mom was nine years from diagnosis to death: for more than eight of those years, she kept active and vital and managed to get some enjoyment out of life.



My sister Darlene, who had six years from diagnosis to death, spent her time taking care of neighbors’ kids and cooking and gardening and doing everything she could think of. She was never my favorite person, but you know what? She spent her last few years nobly and profitably. Good for her.



Dad had less than a year. His cancer wasn’t diagnosed until late, because he’d ignored the pain inside him – he thought it was his hernia. Diagnosed in October, died in May. Miserable most of that time. Tried radiation therapy, but it was 1975, and radiation therapy in those days was primitive and humiliating and painful.



My friend Bob caught the flu in 1992. It never quite went away. Then he began to lose weight. Then came the HIV diagnosis. He wasn’t surprised: his partner back in New York had been HIV+, so Bob had always assumed he was positive too, without being tested. He lasted about three years (he died within a month of the death of my sister Susan, about whom I will tell you later). He got tired a lot, and depressed a lot, but he was still funny and smart and outrageous most of the time.



Oh, yes, my sister Susan. She was diagnosed soon after Mom, also with ovarian cancer, but Susan’s cancer was very aggressive. She lasted three years.



She spent those three years living.



I visited her about a month before her death. She had just come home from coffin-shopping. We’d be talking, and she’d be picking through her closet, or her jewelry-box, looking for – guess what? – the right outfit for her funeral. “I don’t want them to worry about it,” she said. “I can take care of a lot of that now. Then they won’t have to worry. They’ll have other things on their mind.”



I can’t tell you all about Susan here; there’s not enough room.



But, more than any other person in my life, Susan taught me how to think about death.



I hope, when my time comes, I can be as brave and tough as she was.




About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

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