Maybe you know the 1909 poem by Thomas Hardy, “The Dead Man Walking” or the 1993 book by anti-death penalty activist Sr. Helen Prejean , Dead Man Walking, or the 1995 film that was based on the book. Hardy’s poem is about a life of disappointment and rejection, about depression. The book and film are about men condemned to death but not yet executed.
It’s an apt phrase to describe me, I think. My executioner is in my body, in my bones. Please don’t tell me that everyone is going to die, that none of us know when, that all of us are under a death sentence. That is a specious comment, a comment that I’m sure no one would make if they really thought about it. It is not the same thing. I am much more like a condemned prisoner whose execution date has not yet been set than a healthy person walking around.
At times I am like the man in the last stanza of Hardy’s poem:
Yet is it that, though whiling
The time somehow
In walking, talking, smiling,
I live not now.
My life has become small, limited. I am usually not depressed, but the way I live might look like depression because of the fatigue, the side effects of pain medication and the very limited scope of my activities. My life today is so far from the active life I once led. Barely recognizable, in fact.
The experience of living with this disease is strange and it is individual. You have only to read a few blogs or visit an on-line Stage IV forum or attend a support group to see the differences. We have much in common, but we retain our own identities up to the end and, as trite as it may sound,, we each seem to be dying the way we live.
My favorite line from the Dead Man Walking movie is when Sr. Helen (played by Susan Sarandon) tells Matthew Poncelet (played by Sean Penn), “I want to help you die with dignity.” We usually think of death with dignity in medical terms, but lately I’ve been thinking about it as the act of dying with dignity.
When does dying begin? (Again, please don’t glibly say that it begins at birth.) I suppose it depends on how you define it. If “dying” means the progressive shutting down of bodily functions until it all stops, I suppose dying begins in the last days or hours before death. Here is a table from Medscape, a site for physicians and other health professionals.
But what if instead of looking backwards from death to define dying, we count forward from life? I have the image of a wide beam of light slowly becoming tighter and tighter and until it is an exquisitely sharp point of collimated light. (Illustration.) All the intensity of the original light source is there, but it is concentrated, focused.
My life force is not being attenuated; it is being collimated. As I become less and less involved in peripheral things, my challenge now is to remain focused on the essential without dissipation of my energy, to live life fully as a dead woman walking.