The following appeared in shorter form in Celebrate Life, March-April 2002, and essentially in this form in Human Life Review, vol. 28, Nos. 1 & 2 (Winter/Spring 2002). End notes were added for this Web site posting. Copyright © 2002 by Mary Meehan.
Are you bothered by stories of people who sit around plotting their own demise? Put off by those who hoard pills for overdose, or learn how to tie plastic bags around their heads? Do you suspect that there are better and braver ways to face one's final illness?
Many people who support dying "the old-fashioned way"--without overdoses, plastic bags or bullets--stress that pain-control techniques are now so advanced that no one need die in extreme and unrelenting pain. They are largely right. Yet there is no guarantee against some pain, nor against discomfort and extreme fatigue. Even when modern medicine does its best, there is still need for patience and courage.
It is remarkable how people overlook these old-fashioned virtues in debates over assisted suicide and euthanasia. It is striking how seldom anyone suggests that adults should be brave in order to set a good example for teenagers in their many trials.
The Quakers have a saying, "Let your life speak."(1) They understand that words are not enough, that we should act out our deepest convictions in our daily lives. To this one might add: When the time comes, we can also let our deaths speak a message of courage to those we leave behind. By leaving with grace, we can give our last and best gift to family and friends.
Hollywood, often the last place to look for good examples, provides some excellent ones in this case. Great performers can summon extra strength in times of crisis, and they appreciate the importance of a brave exit.
Facing a devastating cancer, the late actor Michael Landon declared: "If I'm gonna die, Death's gonna have to do a lot of fighting to get me." He said that "if you fight and win, it pays off for thousands of people. It gives them hope, and hope can work miracles." He did not win, but he showed an admirable lack of self-pity as he neared death at age 54. Suggesting that he hadn't missed much in life, Landon said that "I've had a pretty good lick here."(2)
Performer Tiny Tim (Herbert Khaury), knowing that heart problems might soon take his life, said that "I am ready for anything that happens. Death is never polite, even when we expect it. The only thing I pray for is the strength to go out without complaining." He was fatally stricken in 1996 while singing his signature song; his wife said that "the last thing he heard was the applause" and that she was the last person he saw.(3)
In facing terminal cancer, Audrey Hepburn showed the same class she had always shown on film. Trying to hide her pain, she made things as easy as she could for family and friends. "This is the happiest Christmas I've ever had," she said less than a month before she died. And she gave her two sons the kind of message a family member always treasures: "You are the two best creations I ever made."(4)
Nineteenth-century writer Harriet Beecher Stowe knew that her mind was not right in her old age. But she accepted that reality with tranquillity. "My mind wanders like a running brook," she wrote one friend on a lucid day. "I have written all my words and thought all my thoughts, and now I rest me in the flickering light of the dying embers."(5) Her mind may have wandered, but she certainly hadn't forgotten how to write.
The Yankees' great player, Lou Gehrig, in his farewell to fans after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, said that "for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got." Yet he considered himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth" because of all the people who had helped him along the way. Despite rapidly-increasing weakness, Gehrig worked for a year as a parole commissioner in New York City. When he could no longer do that, he received visitors at home with cheerfulness and grace until his death at age 37.(6)
The knight who led Sir Thomas More to the Tower of London, after More was condemned to death, wept as he said goodbye. But More urged him to "be of good cheer, for I will pray for you and my good lady your wife, that we may meet in heaven together, where we shall be merry forever and ever." Of King Henry VIII, the source of all his troubles, More said that he wanted God "to preserve and defend the King's Majesty, and to send him good counsel."(7)
The dying George Washington thanked his doctors, while also trying to end their hopeless efforts to save him. "I thank you for your attentions," he said courteously, "but I pray you to take no more trouble about me. Let me go off quietly; I cannot last long."(8) John Greenleaf Whittier, the old Quaker poet, told his doctors: "You have done all that love and human skill could do; I thank you."(9)
Harriet Tubman, the famous Underground Railroad conductor, had a message for women who were struggling to win the vote as she neared her life's end. "Tell the women to stick together," she said. "God is fighting for them and all will be well!"(10) The formidable Susan B. Anthony, in her last speech to her suffragist troops before she died, declared simply: "Failure is impossible!" To her successor she said: "Take your stand and hold it: then let come what will, and receive the blows like a good soldier."(11)
All of these people were able to transcend the normal self-centeredness of the dying process. They thought of others and gave them the messages of hope, thanks, love and determination that everyone needs in life's struggles.
Some also tried to ensure that their deaths would not add bitterness where there was more than enough already. An Irish Free State military court condemned Erskine Childers to death after his capture in the bitter Irish civil war of 1922-23. (Childers, like Eamon de Valera, opposed the treaty that provided for the Irish Free State but kept it subordinate to England.) Shortly before he faced the firing squad, Childers asked his older son to promise to "shake hands with each person who figured in my death" and never to use his father's name "to any political advantage." To his wife Molly, who shared his nationalist convictions, Childers wrote that his coming death seemed "perfectly simple and inevitable, like lying down after a long day's work." Before they shot him, he shook hands with each man on the firing squad.(12)
Less dramatic, but closer to what most people today might achieve, was English artist Thomas Gainsborough's reconciliation with a professional rival, Sir Joshua Reynolds. The tension between them probably had been caused by the blunter, more impetuous Gainsborough. When he was dying of cancer, though, Gainsborough asked Reynolds to visit him and view some of his paintings. Gainsborough had long revered the Flemish painter, Sir Anthony Van Dyck, and there is a legend that he told Reynolds, "We are all going to heaven, and Van Dyck is of the company."(13)
When all accounts are settled, reconciliations made and messages sent, there is much to be said for going out with song. Shortly before his death in 1809, Austrian composer Joseph Haydn was visited by a French soldier who sang for him one of Haydn's own arias. Although quite weak, Haydn was able to accompany the soldier on the piano.(14)
As her death approached in 1883, the old abolitionist Sojourner Truth sang one of her favorite hymns, "It Was Early in the Morning."(15) And the aged Harriet Tubman told fellow church members, "I am nearing the end of my journey. I can hear them bells a-ringing, I can hear the angels singing, I can see the hosts a-marching." When she was dying, she led friends and family members in singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."(16)
I looked over Jordan, and what did I see,
Much better than a plastic bag over your head, don't you think?
1. Robert Lawrence Smith, A Quaker Book of Wisdom (New York: Morrow, 1998), xi, attributes the saying to Quaker founder George Fox.
2. Michael Landon, as told to Brad Darrach, "'I Want to See My Kids Grow Up,'" Life, June 1991, 26; and Martin Weil, "TV Actor Michael Landon Dies...,"Washington Post, 2 July 1991, B-4.
3. "Tiny Tim Collapses Amid 'Tulips,' Dies," Washington Times, 2 Dec. 1996, A-3.
4. Barry Paris, Audrey Hepburn (New York: Putnam, 1996), 365 & 364.
5. Johanna Johnston, Runaway to Heaven (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963), 471-472.
6. Richard Bak, Lou Gehrig: An American Classic (Dallas: Taylor Publishing Co., 1995), 160-161; and Ray Robinson, Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time (New York: Norton, 1990), 265-269 & 271-273.
7. Daniel Sargent, Thomas More (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1933), 291 & 290.
8. Richard Norton Smith, Patriarch (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 354.
9. Samuel T. Pickard, Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier (Cambridge [Mass.]: Riverside Press, 1894), vol. 2, 767.
10. Judith Bentley, Harriet Tubman (New York: Franklin Watts, 1990), 124.
11. Kathleen Barry, Susan B. Anthony (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), 354-355.
12. Burke Wilkinson, The Zeal of the Convert (Washington: Robert B. Luce Co., 1976), 232-234.
13. Walter Armstrong, Gainsborough (London: William Heineman, 1904), 217-218.
14. H. E. Jacob, Joseph Haydn: His Art, Times, and Glory (New York: Rinehart, 1950; repr., Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971), 336-337; and Karl Geiringer, Haydn: A Creative Life in Music (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1963), 205-206.
15. Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol (New York: Norton, 1996), 254.
16. Bentley (n. 10), 123-124.