The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. -- Mark Twain
There are few more jarring experiences than sitting in a hospital room and hearing a neuro-oncologist deliver a report that full metastasis has set in. My sister, Janette Kettmann Klingner, had held up with such grace and bravery through the months since she first learned she had a brain tumor, and this moment was no exception. "Wow," she said, even then trying her best to be positive and cheerful for all of us in the room.
This was only a month ago. Jan's impulse then was still to think of trying more chemo or radiation, trying in short to hold out hope for a miracle. To talk to her was to feel lifted -- not just by her insistence on optimism, on hope, but on a force of spirit behind that optimism and hope that kindled a joy in all of us who love her.
Now that she's gone, her battle with cancer over, leaving a void in the lives of so many, I find myself thinking back to another meeting we had in my sister's hospital room, the day after the session with the neuro-oncologist. By this point all of us close to my sister cringed at the idea of any more chemo, which could not beat back the cancer, only -- in the best-case scenario -- buy her a month or two or three more of life. Yet the neuro-oncologist had presented still more chemo as an ostensibly viable course of action; he was, in that context, only doing his job.
Dr. Katherine Morrison of the palliative medicine team at the University of Colorado Denver hospital came in and talked to my sister for close to an hour and a half. She was funny, charming, human. Three times in the course of less than fifteen minutes, the door opened for another delivery of flowers, and she joked about that. If someone asked a question that felt off topic, she listened with patient interest and then steered the talk back to her overall subject, which was quality of life, for each day left, over quantity.
My sister had only four weeks of life left at that point, and so maybe from the outside it doesn't seem to matter much that a medical doctor took the time to discuss her life with her, to talk about what she was proud of and what she enjoyed -- in short, who she was. Katie Morrison moved the discussion beyond test results and prognoses. She helped my sister to make the transition from focusing all her will on beating the cancer with a smile to the next phase, which was keeping that smile as she pulled all those who loved her close for her slide through her final weeks. Even when her declining condition led to some facial paralysis, blocking that smile, still Jan found a way to cherish her remaining time with her immediate family.
In the aftermath of her death, I feel even worse than I'd expected, like I've blown a whole bank of fuses. As much as you might think you've prepared yourself, it still feels like falling through a trapdoor, tumbling far below. Jan and I were very close for many years; she even asked me to be her best man (she grinned calling me her "maid of honor") when she and Don were married. So much of who I am is built on the foundation of what she and I were together.
I feel that Dr. Morrison gave me -- and all of us -- a gift. Of course my sister will be with me as long as I live, the sight of her smile, the sound of her voice or her laughter, a regular presence. The love I shared with her is forever.
But beyond that, with Dr. Morrison's help, I feel that my sister helped give me a nudge to lean into living every day the way I want to live it, not waiting for some idealized distant date when finally everything could be how it should be. That was why Sarah Ringler and I founded the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods two years ago, to focus on bringing a little more beauty and inspiration into peoples' lives, taking a step away from overwork and overstress, and stopping to breathe.
What has changed for me is I'm tired of flinching away from looking death in the face, a habit encouraged by western medicine and a youth-obsessed popular culture. Why? What is the point? Death is just a facet of life. To me, in knowing that at the end we can move gracefully to our time of transition, there is somehow a surer footing underneath in the here and now, a stronger basis to let now be now, to let life be life, and to taste its sweetness and joy with everything we have. Mark Twain was right. Let's find a way to skip both the fear of death and the fear of life.