Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Good Death

One of my good friends from the Masters swimming group was unable to join us a week ago from Friday. He got a call that his mother had suddenly passed away in South Africa, so another swimmer took him to the airport to catch a plane to Washington DC. He was going to meet his sister on her way from California so they could travel home together.

It was a surprise, in spite of the fact that she was 86 years old. He had been home over the Christmas holidays. Her health was as good as could be expected for a woman of her age. There was no hint of long-term illness.

I saw him again tonight when I went to our Masters workout. He was his usual self: smiling, calm, and swimming faster than anybody in the pool. He complained about being out of shape after having been away, but he's still head and shoulders beyond the rest of us. My typical pace is 75% of his. If we do a 200 yard freestyle, I'll be making my turn for the final lap when he finishes.

The remarkable part came after the workout was over. When we hit the shower I asked him how his trip was: "Good as could be expected?", I asked.

The story he told me was unbelievable. She died on her birthday, just like Ingrid Bergman and (allegedly) Shakespeare. My friend had spoken to her by phone just hours before she died. There was no hint of a problem. She was planning to go to a restaurant for a celebration that evening. When her son came to pick her up, he found her looking pale and sweat was running down her face. He took her to hospital as a precautionary measure. She insisted that she'd be fine, that the others should proceed to the restaurant without her. They came back later to look in on her and found her in good hands with the doctors.

An hour later they got a call at home to say she had passed away from a heart attack. There was no history of heart problems or high cholesterol.

He told the story so calmly, with a smile on his face as he related the details. It was as if he was talking about someone who wasn't a relative. It wasn't cold or unemotional, just matter-of-fact.

I come from a long line of emotional blubber babies. When my mother leaves me, there will be no one within fifty miles who will miss out on the news.

My friend is one of the most accomplished people I've had the pleasure of knowing. You would have to pick up on being in the presence of genius by listening and observing; he'll never tell you that he got his Ph.D. from Cal Tech and did a post-doc at MIT.

It made me think that this was an example of what I'd call a good death: lucid until the end, possessing all your faculties, not experiencing prolonged pain or convalescence. Still going out to celebrate your birthday! We should all hope to do as well.

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