A perfect death

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This week in which the country will come together to mourn the passing of a true American original, John McCain, it might be worth considering our (your) own mortality. Even as the ongoing progress toward controlling prostate cancer is underway, it remains clear that “something else” will get us. As an example, in a study I was privileged to lead among patients with high risk prostate cancer, other cancers (many of which were caused by our adjuvant mitoxantrone treatment) were as likely to lead to death and prostate cancer was the cause of dying only ~20% of the time

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As oncologists, we face the “end of life” issues more frequently than most physicians, and certainly deal with the reality of death more than folks in most other professions. I distinctly remember one lovely woman in her 50’s who was very open in discussing her wishes. She wanted to die while lying on her favorite beach in Florida watching the sunlight sparkling on the ocean – not an easy thing to arrange (and it didn’t happen). My own fantasy would be to have a lovely vacation in Hawaii (without this week’s rain) with my entire family, say my good-byes as I put them all on the plane, and stay over an extra day to pay for the hotel and be sure all of my financial affairs were up to date – then die of a heart attack on the way home the next day. Perfect. The airline would be carrying my carcass home for the mere cost of a coach seat and I wouldn’t even have to suffer that long in the crunched position with no leg room.

Short of these fantasies, however, I recently undertook an exercise that anyone could do and I herewith commend to you as well. My wife and I were lucky enough to score tickets to the London production of Hamilton last February. In it, there were two numbers that grabbed me by the heart. First was Washington’s “teach ’em how to say goodbye” song, “One Last Time”. As with John McCain’s final commentaries over the past few months, Hamilton’s farewell speech written for Washington was masterful (as is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s reprise).

But the song that most moved me to tears (and action) was “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”. After listening to it about a dozen times, I realized that we all have a story. It may not be as honest/noble as John McCain’s, or as consequential as Hamilton’s or Washington’s, but for some small group of your relatives or children or grandchildren, your story will have special meaning. If you don’t write it, your memories of your father, your grandfather, your family in general will die with you. In my case, I read a couple of autobiographies, self-published, from friends/acquaintances and decided that their stories were highly personal, and not terribly interesting. But when I started writing the story of my own grandfather and father, and my story, it was a joyful experience of reliving many happy memories, and a way of reconnecting with my first love affair, our children’s births, and the many blessings that have come my way. The result is not a literary masterpiece, but I am going to have it bound and give a copy to each of my kids to gather dust on their bookshelves.

In the arc of history, some things have not changed. “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.” (Psalm 90:10). Although trouble and sorrow are a part of life (and of dying), there can be real joy in pausing to appreciate all life has given you. Carpe diem!



Filed under General Prostate Cancer Issues, Prostate cancer therapy

11 responses to “A perfect death

  1. Margo Ann Schappell

    As Roger has reached the age of 81 and has early-on metastatic prostate cancer, COPD, and heart disease he (we) have faced these issues of END OF LIFE.
    The idea of a biography (gratitude journal) is very important. I have mentioned this to him before. I will print your post for him…and perhaps this will convince him to do this especially since he has such respect for you.
    Thanks again,
    Margo Schappell

  2. Paul Liao

    “Carpe Diem” What a perfect close to your blog today!

  3. Ray Baker

    As a genealogist your article touched a spot very dear to my heart. Facts are facts but they will never replace the story’s of our lives and those that came before us that our children and grandchildren will never know unless we take the time to write them down.


  4. Amy

    Great recommendation to write your own story. It’s amazing how soon even names are forgotten, let alone details. I feel inspired!

  5. Julius

    Thanks for reminding me to write “my story” (for my kids and grandkids). At 72, moving to the US from Indonesia alone 52 years ago, I think, PRAY and hope that my life will inspire them to excel far beyond what I have accomplished in this great country. By most standards I have reached the American dream and have been blessed by God the Father, but my most and next dream is that they would carry on and live their life pursuing the goal of “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:23) for the the Lord.
    Carpe Diem indeed.

  6. Bob Lederer

    As usual you have struck a perfect note. Rather than talk science today you have touched on issues of the heart and our own reality/mortality. I find myself clearly in my last year or so. I am busy assembling slides, movies and photos but I have not taken the time to do the writing you suggest. My minister suggested the same thing when I was having many sleepless nights.
    Thanks for your humane touch to the science of medicine.
    I thought about the words in Hamilton as well and will re-listen with fresh ears. You continue to inspire us all.

  7. Bob and Julius – Thanks for your kind comments and inspiring words. It is a privilege to participate in your journeys.

  8. Elaine Torrence

    I enjoyed reading your blog post. I have encouraged my husband to write his story precisely because it is HIS story and that is what will make it interesting. I do have an observation or comment…you mention writing about your father and grandfather and maybe this is because you are male. But is there nothing of interest about your mother and grandmother?

    • Hi Elaine. I of course wrote about them, but even more about my wife and her mother and grandmother, as there was much less known about my paternal grandmother. Actually, it is challenging when you get into it to know where to stop. My grandmother’s family on my mom’s side is quite a bit more interesting (and much larger) than the Glode side, so picking an choosing which stories becomes part of the project – stay entertaining vs try to be the family historian… And as I said in the “forward”, probably very few grandchildren will actually read it anyway, but at least we try!

      • Elaine Torrence

        As my husband has started and stopped, then repeated that cycle that it also becomes clear how writing helps him make sense of his own life.

  9. Pingback: Is it OK if I drink? | prost8blog

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