Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Dying is a 12-step program

My seven-year-old son Isaac was listening to Gil Roth’s interview with me on the Virtual Memories Show. “He will be dead from prostate cancer within the next two years,” Roth said in introducing me. “You’re dying?” Isaac cried. Isaac is named after Isaac Rosenfeld, of whom the critic Ted Solotaroff said that “his very name itself still seems to possess an incantatory power: some of his friends speak it as though ‘Isaac’ were a magic word for joy and wit. . . .” My son too is a merry prankster, the family’s stand-up comic. He was not prepared to think of his father as dying, and not only because he is just seven years old.

Dying is the problem, not death. As an Orthodox Jew, I believe with perfect faith in the resurrection of the dead, but until that happens, death is the termination of consciousness. No peeking back into life. I won’t get to keep a scorecard of who is crying at my funeral, who is dry-eyed, who never bothered to show up. If I want someone to cry at my funeral, I need to patch things up with him before the last weak images flicker out.

In the past few weeks I have been approaching ex-friends whom I have damaged to ask their forgiveness. I’ve been behaving, in short, as if dying were a twelve-step program. Step 8: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.” Step 9: “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” Not that I mind having enemies. One person whom I approached recently accused me of “basking in self-importance,” which is one possible way, I suppose, of describing the tireless knowledge that death is near. But there are other persons, including some with whom I have had very public fallings-out, whom I don’t want as enemies when I pass away. To die without accepting responsibility for the damage I have done to relationships that were once meaningful to me would be shameful and undeniably self-important.

The remaining ten steps can be revised somewhat to suit the dying:

• “We admitted we were powerless over our dying and that prolonging our lives had become unmanageable—by us.”

• “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to acceptance of our death.”

• “Made a decision to turn our last remaining days, the peace and torment, over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

• “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” (This one needs no revision.)

• “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our regrets and reasons for happiness.”

• “Were entirely ready to have God receive us exactly as we have become, without the opportunity for additional effort or success.”

• “Humbly asked Him to make light of our failures.”

• “Continued to take personal inventory and when we indulged in magical thinking about death, promptly stopped it.”

• “Sought through prayer and meditation—and, sometimes, through literary exertions—to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying (and, sometimes, writing) for knowledge of life under the shadow of death and the power to endure it.”

• “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to the dying and to practice these principles in our daily lives, even if we occasionally suffered dark nights of the soul, which we tried our best not to carry over into the next morning.”

The difference, of course, is that dying is an addiction from which there is no recovery. But the similarity is this. Dying is a mental discipline, even if the goal is not to be clean and sober, but simply to be ready.


Unknown said...

Oh David.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your humbling and soulful gift of wisdom. It is perhaps a blessing for someone to be able to plan for what will happen to all of us. My father never planned. I should plan. You have given me much to ponder. God bless you in your journey. From your friend on the Gulf coast's Redneck Riviera, Tim

Unknown said...

FYI . . .

Andrew Fox said...

David, if it means anything to you, I have printed out this post and plan to refer to it regularly over the coming months (and perhaps years). My oldest son Levi's autistic fits have been getting worse and more frequent. I now find myself having to regularly deal with them at home. His personality changes for about an hour and twenty minutes; he becomes violent, strips off his clothes, and attempts to run away. He is coming home from the hospital tomorrow, and I have no idea whether they've been able to help him much at all (he continued having fits while in the hospital). So I am printing out your 12 step program to help guide me through the difficult emotional transitions ahead.

G-d bless you and your family, and may your journey towards death be one filled with quiet and satisfying contemplation of the people and world around you.

Best wishes,
Andy Fox

Anonymous said...

What a God-blessed thing you've written. I'm sure you don't mind this black Baptist saying so. I'm going to pass this on to my pastor. It's such a delight. Be comforted in the knowledge that just by writing this post, you've done so much good for so many people. I'll be praying for you.

Linda Z. said...

Wow David. You're wisdom and willingness to share inspire me. You also give me hope that one day I too might navigate the dying process with honesty, integrity, thoughtfulness and acceptance of my human limitations. In the meantime, I will attempt to live that way. Thank you.

Susan Messer said...

Thinking of you and of what you gave me--a serious regard. A little scary, but I knew it was completely honest.

Steven J. Wangsness said...

David, I'm so sorry to hear of your illness. It's been a long time since we last spoke -- 40 years! I think we met in the quad the day you were admitted to grad school at Brown. Best wishes from an old pal.

CS said...

Thank you for this too, David. I have cued (queued?) up your interview for tomorrow, but I'm already a bit astonished to read that it's going to include Jennifer Warnes singing Cohen songs. I have been playing that cd repeatedly during the last couple of days.

David Savory said...


I stumbled over your blog googling for George Hitchcock. I remember you once told me he declared the world is running out of milk.

It has been over twenty years since we first met with all the others to argue philosophy and literature. I have always been grateful to all those people and especially to you and Denis who brought us together.

Thank you for that. And thank you for this post.

All the best.

David Savory
in Vancouver

Unknown said...

David, I hope you will continue to make postings to your blog. If you do not, I understand, and I will you wonder-filled days ahead.

Anonymous said...

'Dying is a mental discipline, even if the goal is not to be clean and sober, but simply to be ready.'
So well said...
Best thoughts and wishes and hope we'll still read your inputs for a long time in the future.
Delia Friedberg

Michael said...

David, this is a very difficult post for me to read. I stopped by Commonplace this morning to revisit your essay on Michael Chabon, whose Kavalier & Clay I am teaching; your thesis on his works will be part of my presentation. My thoughts are with you. You've made an indelible impression on my thinking about the Holocaust, Judaism, literature -- you've helped me think about how to think. Sending best wishes to you from St. Louis, MO.