Did you know that “this” is an anagram of “sh!t”?!
For today’s time study we’re taking a look at everybody’s favorite topic, dying! While death gets marquee billing, dying ends up carrying the show. Death is the passive topic, the mysterious one. Death is the silent house down the block that might be uninhabited or haunted — who knows! Death’s a set of rules, a border, an orderly state of its own. Death is the cemetery and you deal with it by holding your breath as you hurry past.
But dying? Ooooh, boy! Dying is active, dying is in-your-face chaos (however long or short that might be).Dying is the progressively more disturbing noises coming from the house of the neighbor who seems so nice. Dying is wondering at what point you ought to call police? should you have already rung the fire department? Dying is anarchy, eco-terrorists infiltrating a well-oiled machine. Dying is the thing that chases you past the cemetery and gives you nightmares that night.
At what point do you diagnose a dear one as dying*? At what point do you go from the passive future to the active present? At what point do you realize that the biggest threat to Life As You Know It isn’t the nation of Death (which really, you should admit that you use mostly in jingoistic terms (bucket lists, carpe diem, etc.)), but the guerilla fighters of Dying who have infiltrated everything you hold dear? At what point are your declarations as meaningless as a war on drugs?
This is serious business. As a life-long ethnographer of funerals, I can tell you that invariably someone is kvetching “I just didn’t realize [dead person] was so sick/close to death/out of it”. And inversely, someone else will be sitting at the after-funeral party, eying the elderly as they shift-stop-shift their walkers along the folding tables of sandwich buffets, saying, “well, you realize this means it’s us/our parents/our young great-aunts next, don’t you?” It’s a delicate balancing act between sounding the alarm of (self-)awareness early enough to avoid (some) regrets of conversations unhad, but not so early as to become the doomsday dud who cries wolf.
Having attended 30+ funerals, two deaths (moment of), three or four deaths (within hours of), natural human agings ending in death (at least ten, but you see our definitional problems here), I’m pretty sure I’ve got Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours under my belt, perhaps a few times over**. I certainly put “geriatric studies” and “funeral planning” on my homeschool transcript. And right now…”dying” has moved from a word I think briefly, filled with self-recrimination, to one I mouth silently when nobody’s watching to one I’m trying out the pronunciation of.
I could write more on this. I mean, we haven’t really covered how long dying is allowed to take, or what the seven stages are, or why I’m talking as if car crashes and suicide and sudden catastrophic failures of corporeal systems don’t exist. But that’s because I’m telling you about very specific things via abstract notions and obtuse analogies. Just until I figure out how to say these words without tripping over my own tongue.
* I’m not talking only hospice-diagnoses, or doctors and hospitals. I’m talking everyday dying.
** You know what I’m spending my late night Tuesday calculating…