Learning to die


In a moving, thought-provoking essay, journalist Jack Thomas describes coming to terms with his imminent death.

After a week of injections, blood tests, X-rays, and a CAT scan, I have been diagnosed with cancer. It’s inoperable. Doctors say it will kill me within a time they measure not in years, but months.

As the saying goes, fate has dealt me one from the bottom of the deck, and I am now condemned to confront the question that has plagued me for years: How does a person spend what he knows are his final months of life?

Atop the list of things I’ll miss are the smiles and hugs every morning from my beautiful wife, Geraldine, the greatest blessing of my life. I hate the notion of an eternity without hearing laughter from my three children. And what about my 40 rose bushes? Who will nurture them? I cannot imagine an afterlife without the red of my America roses or the aroma of my yellow Julia Childs.

. . .

Editing the final details of one’s life is like editing a story for the final time. It’s the last shot an editor has at making corrections, the last rewrite before the roll of the presses. It’s more painful than I anticipated to throw away files and paperwork that seemed critical to my survival just two weeks ago, and today, are all trash. Like the manual for the TV that broke down four years ago, and notebooks for stories that will never be written, and from former girlfriends, letters whose value will plummet the day I die. Filling wastebasket after wastebasket is a regrettable reminder that I have squandered much of my life on trivia.

. . .

Does the intensity of a fatal illness clarify anything? Every day, I look at my wife’s beautiful face more admiringly, and in the garden, I do stare at the long row of blue hydrangeas with more appreciation than before. And the hundreds and hundreds of roses that bloomed this year were a greater joy than usual, not merely in their massive sprays of color, but also in their deep green foliage, the soft petals, the deep colors and the aromas that remind me of boyhood. As for [current crises] — on all those matters, no insights, no thunderbolts of discovery. I remai­­n as ignorant as ever.

I am now so early into this new hell that I have no pain, although that is coming, surely, and no symptoms except moments of utter exhaustion and, in the past three months, a loss of 20 pounds. After decades of turning down desserts, candies, and pastries to control my weight, it now seems cruel to be pressured to eat more food for which I have less appetite.

As my life nears the finish line, the list of things I’ll miss grows.

I’ll miss my homes in Cambridge and Falmouth. I’ll never again see the sun rise over the marsh off Vineyard Sound, never again see that little, yellow goldfinch that perched atop a hemlock outside my window from time to time so that both of us could watch the tide rise to cover the wetland.

Never again will I stretch out on the sand with a drink and stare in amazement at a sky filled with diamond stars. How is it possible that there could be more than 100 thousand million stars in our Milky Way, let alone who can say how many millions upon millions more in other galaxies, and yet, among them all, there is no planet that supports life? Imagine how newspapers will report that discovery!

. . .

As death draws near, I feel the same uncomfortable transition I experienced when I was a teenager at Brantwood Camp in Peterborough, New Hampshire, packing up to go home after a grand summer. I’m not sure what awaits me when I get home, but this has certainly been an exciting experience. I had a loving family. I had a great job at the newspaper. I met fascinating people, and I saw myriad worldwide wonders. It’s been full of fun and laughter, too, a really good time.

I just wish I could stay a little longer.

There’s much more at the link.  Recommended reading.



  1. Something similar happened to my sister last year. She was diagnosed with cancer in April, and initially told she had maybe a couple of weeks left, though this later got extended out to maybe a year. She went through chemo and all of that anyway, as to even get to that "maybe a year" it was needed, and she initially seemed to be responding well to the treatment and perhaps maybe even miraculously going to "beat it."

    Sadly, this didn't happen and she died in September at the age of 46, leaving behind her husband, her 3 daughters, and of course all the rest of the extended family.

    For me what was odd was the whole "you know it's coming and you think you're prepared for it" but when it actually happens you find out just how unprepared you actually were….

  2. Healthy people should learn to embrace death as an old friend.

    It make living more precious and fighting possible.

  3. There is NOTHING this world can offer that can compare with what is waiting for those who know Jesus…

  4. On one hand, I respect that he's not whining about it being unfair, or that he didn't get enough time, or whatever. My father went on about how unfair it was my grandmother died like she did (the only unfair thing I noticed was that he and my sister didn't get her ordered for Hospice and morphine when she died….). There was nothing particularly unfair about my grandmother's death: she was frail for decades, and finally the smoking damage and the blood thinners took out her lungs in her 80s. She lived life the way she wanted to live it, and she died a saved Christian who was confident she was going to Heaven. Doesn't sound unfair to me at all.

    The problem with this fellow is that he's (probably) been a functional atheist his whole life, but now he's trying to hedge his bets without actually turning to God and submitting. He wants to eat his cake (believe in some form of afterlife) but keep it too. His ideal Heaven is more What Dreams May Come?, but he can't even bring himself to try to propose that.

    Follow Christ's words, and be either hot or cold. Embrace Christ and live, or embrace the supposed sweet nothingness of the atheist death. This wishy-washy "something's next, I just am not ready for it" is lukewarm, and IMHO a bit pathetic.

  5. Even given the unfortunate sentence of death, he cannot resist taking jabs at those he disagrees with. That is unfortunate, as it mars what might have been a very thoughtful consideration on the notification of dying.

    Or partially thoughtful. His approach to the afterlife seems very blaise, a sort of extended version of real life to the nth degree. I sincerely hope he more than that to cling to.

  6. I have contemplated this. I hope I do better than that, when my time comes.

    One of the children's catechisms in my little corner of the Christian world has a question and answer that goes like this: "Q) If Christ has die for us, why do we still have to die? A) Our death is not a payment for sin. It is a release from sin and entrance into eternal life." Quite a different attitude than this guy has, thinking to transition into a vague afterlife.

  7. Play the game of life if you want, but the only thing that matters is getting forgiven and saved, and thus avoiding Hell which is by default. God wants everyone to come to Heaven. Eternity is where it's at, not your finite life.

  8. "How should I live?" asked the student.
    "Prepare for death", said the master.
    Several months later…
    "How should I prepare for death, master?"
    "Learn to live!"

  9. Worth searching out is Christopher Hitchens's final book, Mortality, written following the diagnosis of the esophageal cancer that killed him.

  10. Absence of the sense of agency in all action is a feature of realization:
    One who is a knower of the truth, although he is engaged in seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, moving, sleeping, breathing, talking, evacuating, accepting objects and blinking the eyes, realizes that all his sense-functions are interacting with the respective sense-objects. Therefore, he thinks, “I am not doing anything.”

    "Nirvana", frequently misrepresented as enlightenment, actually means "extinguishment" – of the sense of a separate, individual identity. The Self of all selves is grokked as one's own Conscious Awareness, an awareness without an "of".

    One of the descriptive analogies represents Consciousness by space. The space in a clay pot has an apparent individuality, and is continuous with the Great Space, The "pot-space" is temporally and spatially constrained until the pot breaks. Then the pot-space (of a realized person) neither disappears nor merges: it neither ceases to exist nor continues to exist. The Great Space is referred to in Buddhism as the Void or Emptiness and in the Vedic (Hindu) traditions as the Pletitude.

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