Dying? When? Or Maybe Not?

For most of our recorded history, we humans have been concerned with the prospect of dying.  Some of us have welcomed it, many of us have feared it, but all of us have recognized its inevitability.

death2

Today, however, there are at least three schools of thought on the matter.  The first, the majority, accepts that, not until they are called, will they go—no matter how long it takes, no matter how incapacitated they become.  The second, a growing number, wants to determine their own manner of death, at a time and by a method of their own choosing.

A third group has emerged recently, devoted to living beyond the demise of their mortal bodies by digitizing their brains in the cloud—enabling them to live on forever, as it were, as a stream of conscious thoughts interacting with those still alive.

Preposterous?  Maybe not.

The first notion of death is pretty much established.  As of this writing, no one in all our history has failed to die.

The second, though, is becoming more prevalent.  Called by a variety of names (including assisted death, assisted suicide, merciful release, quietus), the concept is that any person, at a time of her/his choosing, may be allowed to die, assisted if necessary by others.

Several countries around the world have enacted laws to enable this in one form or another.  But almost without fail, the legislation requires informed consent from the person at the time (s)he decides to go, and only if (s)he is judged mentally competent in the moment to make such a decision.  Further, the person must be facing a grievous and irremediable medical condition.

medical-assistance-in-dying-MAID

In Canada, where it is called Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID), the procedure requires that the person:

  • have a serious illness, disease or disability,
  • be in an advanced state of decline that cannot be reversed,
  • be experiencing unbearable physical or mental suffering from illness, disease, disability, or state of decline, none of which can be relieved under conditions considered acceptable, and
  • be at a point where natural death has become reasonably foreseeable (but not requiring a specific prognosis as to how long there is left to live), and where all medical circumstances have been taken into account.

One does not need to have a fatal or terminal condition to be eligible for medical assistance in dying.  However, one must be able to give informed consent both at the time of the initial request, and—most importantly—immediately before the medical assistance in dying is provided.

In that last condition lies the rub.  Presumably, one might have put all the steps in place in advance; and then, on the very day when it is to take place, perhaps only moments before the actual act, one could lapse into unconsciousness and be unable to give that final consent.

In such a circumstance, and despite one’s own previously-granted, informed consent, one might linger for days or weeks, or even longer, unable to exert any control over the end of life.

I hope that condition will be changed.

The third concept, disrupting death, is only in its infancy.  Artificial intelligence experts are increasingly working on brain-scanning techniques that will allow them to digitize the brain, and then upload it to the cloud.  Already, specialists have developed digital replicas of brains, virtual avatars, that they hope will be able to communicate with those left behind after the death of their owners.

brain1

With software to mine the gigabytes of thoughts and emotions created every day by those brains, virtual models can be created in the ether.  These will, the developers hope, be able to communicate with loved ones after their owners have passed away.

Just imagine being able to exchange ideas with the dearly-departed who, with the assistance of data inputted regularly into chatbots, will be able to stay abreast of current affairs and form opinions on events that happen after their death.

To be sure, there are many experts who scoff at the notion.  Although it may well be possible to enable such robotic connections, they say, it will prove impossible to replicate human consciousness beyond death.

One such expert, Hiroshi Ishiguro, a Japanese roboticist—who has built an android version of himself and programmed it with all manner of knowledge—says, “If we have an android, we can live forever in society.  But personal immortality is impossible because consciousness is not continuous.”

I confess, I have no idea of the viability of any of this.  My brain, even while still alive, has not the capacity to imagine it.

It probably won’t matter, though.  At my age, I’m more interested in the notion of assisted dying than the possibility of life eternal.  I’d much rather wander the star-filled vastness of the universe than plod endlessly through what is becoming an earthbound wasteland.

Silhouette of man and stars sky. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

Still, I’m suggesting to those near and dear to me that once I am gone, should they happen to hear my voice whispering in their ears, pay it heed.

Stranger things have happened.

Remembering a Friend

A good friend of mine died earlier this year, and I was asked to speak at a gathering of family and friends to celebrate his life.

This is what I had to say.

Every memory I have of my friend brings a smile to my face.  Every one.  It was fifty years ago that we first met, as young teachers.  We clicked right away, and spent many hours playing tennis, going on ski-holidays with our wives, and spending many New Year’s Eves together.  During all those occasions, we enjoyed a lot of delicious food washed down with cheap wine.

And although it might be hard to believe these many years later, legend has it that he and I were a lethal pass-and-catch combination on the flag-football field.  Or so we told our wives.

team formulating a plan

Early on in our teaching careers, my friend and I contemplated applying for promotion to vice-principal.  As the deadline grew near, however, he seemed somewhat hesitant about taking the step—having second thoughts because he really enjoyed working in the classroom.  Many of his colleagues—and I for sure—encouraged him to go for it.  We all thought he was more than ready, and I was sure we’d both be successful.

After much consideration, despite his reservations, he did apply.  And guess what?  My friend, the reluctant one, got that coveted promotion!

While I, the gung-ho guy, did not!  Go figure!

But two good things immediately came out of that experience.  The first was when my friend took me aside—I assumed to console me over my disappointment.  Not so.  He had an urgent, almost breathless tone to his voice when he was excited, and here’s what he said.

“Brad!  Brad!  Listen!  Just because I’m a VP now, you don’t have to call me Sir!”

Of course, he said it with that mischievous, little smile I was so familiar with when he was having me on.  I miss his sly, Irish sense of humour.

The second good thing from his promotion was that his first VP assignment was with the same principal who had hired me out of teachers’ college a few years earlier.  That man showed my friend and me more about child-centred education than anyone else we ever worked for.  He believed children came to school, not to be taught, but to learn; it was our job, therefore, not to teach them, but to guide them in their learning.

classroom1

My friend took that philosophy to heart, as did I.

Our mutual mentor could be somewhat unpredictable, though.  On the very first day of school that September, just before my friend’s very first staff meeting at the very first school where he was VP, where he knew almost no one on the staff, his new principal told him he would have to chair the meeting because something unexpected had come up that couldn’t wait.

Now, my friend was never, by nature, a cannonball-into-the-deep-end-of-the-pool sort of guy.  He much preferred to examine every situation six ways from Sunday before committing himself to any course of action.  He might eventually jump into that very pool, but not until he’d scoped it out thoroughly.

In this situation, however, the principal dropped the news on him at the very last moment, so you can imagine his reaction.  He must have told me the story at least a dozen times over the years.

“Brad!  Can you imagine?  Just before the meeting was supposed to start!  I was petrified!  I had no idea what I was doing!”

But, as with everything he did, my friend carried it off with aplomb.

Over the years, he and I enjoyed professional-development opportunities together as our careers advanced, almost in parallel.  Many of these were at annual conferences we attended, where we always roomed together.  There were three reasons for that:  one, we trusted each other not to drink too much and stumble back to our room in the wee, small hours; two, back in those days, neither one of us snored; and three, most important, we really liked each other’s company.

The two of us spent a lot of time at those retreats, walking the trails, talking about the challenges we faced as principals, about strategies for coping with those challenges, and about how we could make our schools into true centres for learning—for students and staff.  We both benefited greatly from our professional affiliation, as well as from our friendship.

Our most influential professional development excursion was a real eye-opener for both of us.  We had applied to visit four inner-city schools in a large American city, knowing we would probably be assigned at some point to similar special-needs schools in our own jurisdiction.  I still remember stopping at a gas-station to ask directions to the first school—in those days, there was no GPS, but there were still service-station attendants.

The attendant said, “You two are going to that school?”

When we nodded eagerly, he pointed the way and said, “Keep your doors locked and your windows rolled-up!”

My friend and I looked at each other, wide-eyed, wondering what we might be getting into.

inner city2

Within minutes, we found ourselves—two naïve waifs, far from home—driving through a neighbourhood in our bright-yellow rental car, hard to miss, where the only faces we saw around us belonged to people of colour.  Nobody looked like us!  Nobody!  But a lot of them seemed to be looking at us.

We were never in any danger, but it was the first time in our lives, I think, that we both understood, at a gut-level, how it felt to be outside the mainstream—to be a person of colour in our predominantly white society—to be different, to be the other.  It was a visceral awakening.  Neither of us had ever experienced what it was like to be a visible-minority person until that day, when we realized we were.

The people in the schools were very gracious to these two trusting wayfarers who tried to absorb everything we were hearing and seeing.  It was an experience that forever-after shaped our approach to children in our own schools who came from different backgrounds, different cultures, who had different skin-colour and strange names—all of whom wanted nothing more than to live and learn together in their adopted homeland.

I’m so glad I shared that experience and learned those lessons with my friend.

Part of his DNA, I think, was a natural empathy for the underdog in any situation; he always rooted for the little guy.  Our experience in those inner-city schools certainly underscored and reinforced that quality.

Because of this empathy, it was no surprise that, later in his career, he became supervising principal for special education in our school board.  In that role, he saw it as his mission to find the best learning environment for every child with special needs, sometimes with individualized instruction, where she or he could most closely realize their potential.

i on 1 2

Finding placements for them was never just a numbers game.  Like every principal worth their salt, my friend took these decisions personally.  He took them to heart.

He was a good teacher, a good principal, and a good man.

It has been said that no one has ever truly died until the last person who remembers them has passed on.  If that is so, then my friend will live a long time in the minds and hearts of his family and friends.

In fact, there are countless other people out there, people I shall never meet, people who remember my friend as their principal, or as their teacher.  And I think many of them, when they sent their own children off to their first day of school, might have had this thought in mind.

“I hope they get a teacher like I had.  I hope they get a teacher like him.”

And that is perhaps the greatest tribute.

I mentioned at the beginning that memories of my friend make me smile.  And I’m smiling still because I knew him for fifty years, and was honoured that he counted me his friend.

walking9

Godspeed!

He Was My Brother

My brother died today, the first of our generation to go.

We weren’t close, he and I—brothers by birth, but distant in life.  He was a complex man, troubled by emotional problems and addiction issues, and hard to help.

Since learning of his passing, I’ve been reflecting on his life and how it intertwined with mine.  As is often the way with me, it helps to write it down and share it.

The best parts of our relationship were during our childhood, so long ago now that I have to think hard to remember them.  We didn’t see each other much over the past five decades, nor did we speak very often by phone—telephone phobia being one of the fears he struggled with.  The last time I met with him, he looked older than I who am his elder by three years—hair gone white, walking only with assistance, racked by a persistent, phlegmy cough.

When we did meet over the years, it was almost always when he needed help.  I checked him into rehab clinics on three different occasions, lent him money, gave him a temporary bed, and after our parents’ deaths, managed his financial affairs—always feeling, I’m sorry to say, somewhat put-upon.  I could never understand why he seemed unable to respond to the many, well-intentioned interventions mounted by his sisters and me.

I have pictures of him as a young boy, nestled in the cocoon of parents and siblings, but almost no pictures of his adult years.  He always had a dreamy expression on his face in those pictures, as if he couldn’t quite grasp the notion that the onrushing realities of life would have to be faced.

He was highly intelligent, but seriously unable to apply his intellect to everyday problems and situations.  He wanted to be liked, but his social skills were lacking, to the point that he would frequently offend people without intending to.  And when he became frightened or frustrated, as he often did, he had a temper.

But he could display a quirky, astute sense of humour, too, and would smile quietly as the rest of us laughed at some of the things he said.  When at his best, he was unfailingly polite, almost Victorian in manner, and spoke deliberately in the most precise English.  Even when I, impatient with the pace of the conversation, would finish his sentences for him, he would continue on to finish in his own way, as if I hadn’t interrupted.  He could be a charmer.

He was a keen devotee of chess, a game at which he beat me regularly in our childhood, much to my chagrin.  He loved classical music, a trait we both learned from our father.  I remember listening to each other’s LP records and arguing about which was best—Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol; Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos or Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition; Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht-Musik or Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, ‘Emperor’.  I find now that I love them all, and am glad we listened together.

clef

Reading was another of his passions, as it was for me, although our tastes were not the same.  Nevertheless, it was my brother who introduced me to Edgar Allen Poe and William Butler Yeats, two favourites to this day, and it was he who gave me my first copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, Lord of the Rings, perhaps my all-time favourite story.

It would have been nice if all that had continued into adulthood.  But it didn’t, and no amount of wishing will make it so.

Given his afflictions and general health near the end, I feel little sorrow at his passing—rather, I am grateful that his problems are over and he is at peace.  I picture him now, embarking upon the next phase of his eternal journey through the universe, unencumbered by his mortal restraints, free and open wide to whatever may come.

If I choose to remember him only through the good things from our time together on this earth, so be it.  If I choose to believe we loved each other despite the many obstacles, then it is so.  He was more than his illnesses and sufferings, after all.

He was my brother.

Nothing Else Matters

I read an interesting post recently by an author, John Gorman*, who professed that life is essentially meaningless, that there’s no preordained destination for our journey.  Rather than searching fruitlessly for meaning in life, he wrote, we should be looking for the intrinsic value in the things we do along the way.

On the same day, I read another post by a different writer, Rachel McAlpine**, who mused poetically on the eventuality of her own death—

…I’ll be dead and I won’t know I’m dead because
the brain that could create, contain and comprehend that fact
has fled.

The two posts got me thinking about, guess what?  Death, and the value of life.  And here, in haiku form, are some conclusions I came to—

my thoughts, unbridled,

take me to worlds I ne’er will see,

nor have ever seen

The-Spirituality-and-Immortality-of-the-Soul

don’t fret the future,

focus fiercely on the now

where we live our lives

the now

the journey from womb

to tomb—no matter how long—

is but a fragment

immortal 2

I would have to live

forever to realize

I already died

live-a-life-of-purpose

nothing else matters

in the great, grand tapestry

if you are with me

together

See?  No worries.

*[John Gorman –  IG: @heygorman]  **[Rachel McAlpine – writeintolife.com/blog]

 

Whither Humanity?

The word humanity is a noun, defined thusly:

  • a collective name for all human beings;
  • the state of being human; and
  • the quality of benevolence, kind-heartedness, or magnanimity.

The first may be illustrated by the sentence, That invention will benefit all humanity; the second by, We are united in our common humanity; and the third by, The good Samaritan showed such humanity through his actions.

In the first definition above, humanity—of which you and I as human beings are a part—had its origins in the dim recesses of time past, perhaps 200,000 years ago, when archaeological studies posit the emergence of Homo sapiens.  These studies have demonstrated that several precursors to that species existed, including Homo habilis and Homo erectus, all of which displayed characteristics quite distinct from apelike creatures.  But human beings as we know us today (referred to now as Homo sapiens sapiens) evolved distinctly and irrevocably away from our earliest ancestors, perhaps 50,000 years ago.

It has been estimated by the Population Reference Bureau that more than 108 billion such ‘people’ have lived on our planet since then.  The PRB, founded in 1929, is a non-profit organization that studies issues related to population, health, and the environment.  Its work pegs the number of people living today at something greater than seven billion, which constitutes approximately 6.5% of the total of every human who has ever lived.

Two major demarcations, among many others, distinguish us from the earlier versions of Homo species.  One is the growth of brain size, the other the shrinking of some physical attributes, including brow prominence, mid-face projection, and skeletal structure.  Both eventually enabled the acquisition and refinement of speech, and thus the possibility of sharing thoughts and feelings among each other—the earliest manifestation of humanity in its second definition.

It would be possible, I imagine, to express affinity, empathy, or insight with respect to the emotional or physical well-being of another, even if we were unable to communicate them verbally.  Possible, too, I think, to convey anger, resentment, or disappointment to someone.  Body language and non-verbal gestures could convey such messages adequately.  But it is through speech that we can most accurately articulate our feelings, be they positive or negative, without resorting to physical demonstrations.

The ability to speak depends on both physical and neural capabilities, which we, alone among animals, possess.  And language, which developed from this unique ability, is what has made possible every significant intellectual accomplishment along the path of our development as a species—including both the ability to save lives and prolong them beyond the wildest expectations of a century ago; and the ability to wage war unto death on those we fear or loathe, to the point of wiping them from the face of the earth.

So, at the dawn of another year, the two-thousand-and-seventeenth of the modern era (and maybe the fifty-two-thousand-and-seventeenth of our existence as a modern species), I ask this question:  Whither humanity?

We have a good idea whence we came, thanks to the innumerable studies of our history and development.  The state of humanity all humanity enjoys is well and truly established.  But where are we going?  And what of our inner humanity—our benevolence, kind-heartedness, magnanimity—toward our co-habitants of the planet?  Could it be that our brains are indeed dualistic—in the sense that we want to create and destroy, build up and tear down, co-exist and dominate—at one and the same time?  If so, that is an horrific equation, one that is perhaps the result of centuries of struggle to survive as a species, in order to perpetuate humanity.

But now, we live in an age where the baser half of that equation can have disastrous results, not just for those we choose to see as our enemies, but for us all.  And if we allow fear to draw us back into protective enclaves of our own kind—those who look, think, and act like us—to the exclusion of those who don’t, we risk diminishing our fundamental humanity.  At a time of great peril to our entire race, surely it is better to reach out, to join hands, than it is to lash out and smash humanity asunder.

We belong to numerous nations inhabiting this long-suffering planet, each of which harbours its own patriotic aspirations.  But every one of those nations depends upon the same planetary host, and all humanity is travelling on the same interstellar vessel.  Will we collectively steer our ship to safe harbour, or scuttle it with all hands on board?

I have long admired these words from the second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln, which I excerpt here—

          With malice toward none, with charity for all, [let us] achieve and cherish a

just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Happy New Year—free of malice, full of charity—to all humanity!

On Top of the Grass

Almost a decade ago, I was seized by a medical emergency with very little warning.  After a frantic day of searching for an available hospital to perform a needed surgery, I was wheeled into the operating room in the wee small hours of the following morning—in the very nick of time I subsequently learned, due to a severe case of blockage in my colon, caused by diverticulitis.

During the endless days of recovery in hospital afterward, I consoled myself in the lonely nighttime hours by composing a poem in my head, one stanza at a time.  On each following morning, my wife would write the stanza down as I recited it from a sometimes drug-addled memory.

writing

Once home, I tweaked the poem somewhat, then used it as a foreword to a book of tales I was about to publish.  It centered on a sentiment my golfing pals used to joke about in our retirement community—that, no matter what might be ailing us on any given day, at least we were still standing on top of the grass, rather than resting beneath it.

While I was composing it, the poem provided a promise of hope for me that my recovery would be complete.  Later, it became a source of inspiration to do whatever it would take to make that happen.

As things turned out, the hopefulness expressed in the final stanza—written before a second surgery restored me half-a-year later—did bear fruit.  And almost ten years on, the poem still resonates for me with its message of faith and optimism.

On Top of the Grass

It struck with a rush, and hit full-flush,

The pain that would not end.

It twisted my gut until it was shut,

And made my belly distend.

It took fierce hold of my abdominal fold

As I lay on the emergency bed.

I feared I would die, and the question of “Why?”

Kept banging around in my head.

~ 0 ~

My angels of life—my daughters and wife—

Were there from beginning to end.

A sense of their touch meant ever so much

Through pain I could not comprehend.

From dusk until dawn, I thought I was gone

As we raced through the city’s grim gloom,

With siren and lights, we searched the dark night

For an available surgery-room.

~ 0 ~

In the back of the van with the ambulance man,

Sedated, but dogged by the pain,

I yearned for relief, though it was my belief

That I’d never be normal again.

I knew that I should make myself understood,

And tell him I was sinking down fast.

Then he gave me some slugs of painkilling drugs,

And oblivion quickly slipped past.

~ 0 ~

Some hours anon, the doctors had gone,

And I wakened, my girls at my side.

How fair they did seem, my loveliest dream,

Their smiles of relief beaming wide.

They stroked my poor head as I lay in my bed,

And together we gave thanks for life,

The four of us there, reliving the scare,

Just me, and my daughters and wife.

~ 0 ~

The details were grim, but I wanted them,

So I’d know what had happened to me.

They gave me the scoop on my colonic loop,

And I learned it was taken, you see.

But enough does remain, they’ll connect me again,

Just as soon as they figure out why—

And what—caused the block, caused my system to lock,

And laid me so low I could die.

~ 0 ~

I’m home now, it’s great, and so I just wait

For my good health and strength to return.

Then I’ll journey back down to the city’s downtown,

Where the doctor’s next steps I will learn.

A scope and a scan, MRI if I can,

Will give her a plan to pursue,

Then under the knife, I’ll get back my life,

And that life I shall gladly renew.

~ 0 ~

What does it all mean, and why have I been

A victim, or so it appears?

I’m not sure I know, but I’ll go with the flow,

With more smiles than pitying tears.

I know this for true, and I’m telling you,

That all of this sickness shall pass.

When all’s said and done, at each dawn of the sun…

I’ll be standing on top of the grass!

top-of-the-grass

I hope you, too, will be standing there for many years to come.

 

 

Coexistence

There’s a bumper sticker out there that neatly sums up the means to solving the world’s problems, including war, famine, pollution, drought, overpopulation, greed—

Coexistence sounds so simple, yet over the millennia it has proven impossible to attain.

An old joke goes like this:  “You don’t know when you’re dead; only other people notice.  It’s the same when you’re stupid.”

Never having been dead, I can’t vouch for the first premise; for all I know, no one will notice when I’m gone.  But the second part might well be true.  Why else do so many of us ignore the certainty that humankind’s current practices are dooming our planet?

Nation against nation, race against race, religion against religion; endless resource extraction; massive defoliation and overfishing; reckless despoliation of our environment, including the very air we breathe—all in the name of what?  Geo-political supremacy?  Last one standing wins?  It’s sheer, rampant stupidity.

In his poem, Ozymandias, Shelley wrote these lines—

…on the [shatter’d] pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Where the glory, where the triumph?  Nothing left in a vast wasteland but a smashed relic of one man’s vainglorious attempt to take control of his world.

Think of two anthills in a garden, one bustling with industrious black ants, the other alive with equally busy red ants.  Everything is peaceful in the garden until, one sad day, the two colonies discover each other.  And then madness, folly, turmoil, mayhem, as each tries to subjugate the other.  Warfare unto the death, until the gardener brings his stomping boots and smashing shovel down on them.  And they are all annihilated, indistinguishable in their lifeless remains.

Is there a celestial gardener, I wonder, who looks upon our planet, this earthly garden, and despairs?  Do we appear as nothing more than those foolish ants, scurrying hysterically to and fro, intent upon the destruction of any who are not like us?  And will we avoid the gardener’s heavy boot?  Or is it already too late?

Coexistence has many synonyms: reconciliation, harmony, accord, synchronicity, collaboration.  All are needed if we are, indeed, to live together on our fragile planet.

Coexistence also has one supremely important result: survival!