Learning How To Die

Posted on May 13, 2020


20200514_132059Ruth Hurmence Green “took her own life,” wrote Capital Times reporter Jacquelyn Mitchard in her tribute to author Ruth Green, “because she believed profoundly it was hers to take.”

…When cancer returned for the fourth time, Ruth quietly and deliberately put her affairs in order, wrote her own obituary and ended her life at her Missouri home with an overdose of medication. –Ann Nicol Gaylor, 1982, in the preface to the fourth edition of The Book of Ruth, which is included in her larger volume, The Born Again Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible.

WOW. I was already a HUGE fan of Ruth Green, but when I read about how she faced death, my heart nearly burst with admiration for her. Wow. Ruth Green was a powerful, thoughtful, REAL freethinker. Right on, Ruth!

I think about death a lot. We all do, but as an atheist, a teacher, and a researcher, thinking about, learning about, and writing about the subject consumes part of nearly every day.

As a high school Mythology teacher for a couple of decades, I researched and taught about death traditions from cultures all over the world and throughout all of recorded human history. My memory holds hundreds of images, information, and narratives about death and afterlife imaginings.  I left the classroom a year ago, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning about death Mythology.

Another reason I think about death a lot is because I’m an atheist, so I view death as a biological process wherein I will be transformed, through decomposition, from an individual human being into food for other beings. I accept this reality without fear.

Like Ruth, I accept the reality of death, and like Ruth, I see body autonomy, even regarding death, as my human right.

Therma, Great Grandbaby Ty, and Arthur “Duff” Eddy, 1984

My grandma, Therma Eddy, saw it the same way. She lived and died on her terms. She didn’t go to the doctor but once a year, for a routine physical. A short while after her second-to-last annual exam, she began to feel cold and tired. As the year passed, she felt ever more cold and tired, but she didn’t call the doctor. When she went to her last annual check-up, she was diagnosed with a type of late-stage leukemia and told that she may die within months. She was sick for that whole year. She handled her illness and death in her own way. She died at home with her family around her, under Hospice care.

Now that there’s a global Corona virus pandemic, I think about the possibility of dying from COVID19. I started taking precautions about a week before the community around me started taking the threat seriously, and I’m doing all I can to NOT contract the virus, as are my family members, but we know that we could get it anyway. The way I see it is this: if I do get it, I will handle it at home, and I will live or die at home.

I cannot accept the idea that health care workers who are much younger than me might be killed as a result of caring for me–especially those who were my high school students. I love my life, but I can’t ask another person to risk theirs for it. I’m retired; my children are adults; and I’m pretty certain I’m not on the brink of discovering a cure for cancer. I’m not trying to die, but if I get the virus, I do not plan to go to the hospital. Save the youth.

Another reason I intend to stay home is that I cannot accept the idea that because I have health insurance, I have access to care that many Americans do not because they’re uninsured. The injustice of the “health care” system in the USA is literally sickening and killing Americans. The USA death toll from this pandemic is and will be much higher than necessary because the system prioritizes profit over Public Health. I’m no more deserving of medical resources than anyone else. All humans deserve access to basic healthcare.

I know what it’s like to be uninsured. When I was a young mother, I had developed a pre-cancerous condition that, left untreated, could become life-threatening. I did not have the money for treatment. I was a server in a restaurant at the time, working seven days a week for a little over two dollars per hour. Fortunately, one of my regular customers noticed that my health was faltering and asked if they could help. Although skeptical of their motives at first, I visited them at home after my shift, as they had requested. When I explained the situation, they handed me $1000 to get treatment and made me promise to never reveal their identity. It’s quite possible that they saved my life. I am grateful.

More recently, an amazing, caring friend gave me money to cover an emergency dental procedure that far exceeded my insurance coverage. I am deeply humbled and filled with gratitude to the people who have helped me get the treatments I need, but I also realize that there are many, many people in the community who are suffering so much more with so, so much less. They don’t have kind strangers or generous friends to help them make it through. The injustice of it is immense.

I’ve always said that the only tattoo I’ve ever considered getting is “DNR” (do not resuscitate) on my chest, so that if I appear to have fallen down dead among strangers, my wishes would be clear, should anyone feel compelled to attempt to revive me. I, like the ancient Greeks, consider a sudden death by heart attack a good death.

I’m not trying to die, but like Grandma Eddy and Ruth Green, if I have any say in the matter, I plan to do it with minimal intervention from others. Until then,

Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out, I smile.

Living in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.

from Thich Nhat Hahn, Peace Is Every Step

No photo description available.lisa eddy is a writer, researcher, educator, advocate,  musician, and gardener.

On Twitter: @lisa_eddy

On email: lisagay.eddy1@gmail.com