According to the legend, Damocles was invited to a sumptuous banquet by Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, who wanted to show him the impermanence of happiness. The food was wonderful, but hanging over Damocles' head was a sword, suspended by a horsehair, ready to drop at any moment. Needless to say, he did not enjoy the evening.
It is much the same with the end of life. After exhausting our appointed threescore years and ten, there comes a time when we must be ushered out of this world. The question is -- how?
There are those who say a sudden heart attack is merciful, but also painful, and the alternative of a long illness is to me more painful still. Will it be heart failure, with intake and output measured and each day a decline, or will it be a stroke that leaves one confused and shuffling, or cancer with its wasting ravages?
I have seen two friends die, two strong-willed people, losing ground day by day, incontinent, diapered, finally unable to turn over or to sip water. The hospitals gave up on them and sent them home to die, and they really wanted to be at home. No one wants to be a burden to his or her children, but there are a few dedicated people who will minister to those who have lost the capability of taking care of themselves.
Then there is the question: If I am no longer to be in control (possibly even speechless), at what point do I give up my home and move to a retirement community while I am still well? I may have 20 more years. Twenty years of bingo?
In the nursing home are lovely ladies in wheel chairs, stockings wrinkled, waiting for "Daddy" to come home. The men in the halls are equally pitiful, dozing, drooling, unable to take care of their needs. The attendants are very much concerned with their own affairs, laughing and talking.
It is not the transitory pains that I mind: the chest pain that calls for a battery of tests and then goes away, the pain in the neck and shoulders that is relieved by massage, the intestinal disturbances that finally right themselves. It is the loss of autonomy -- of being able to decide, of being in control.
I have always thought that perhaps people have lingering illnesses in order to make it easier for their families to give them up: Well, she's better off now.
And as a Christian, I am not afraid of what happens afterward. Now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. But I am bothered by the path I must take.
When my grandmother was in her seventies, I found her standing on a ladder, taking her Haviland china down from the shelf and washing it.
Grandmother what are you do- ing? I asked. Well, I might die, she answered, and I wouldn't want anyone to find my china dirty. She lived 20 more years in her own house, and the china was indeed dirty when we came to divide it.
To go back to Damocles, apparently the sword did not fall and he was left with a better sense of values for the rest of his life.
Jane Tinsley Swope writes from Baltimore.