Serendipity is the occurrence of event by chance and in a happy way and synchronicity is the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear related but have no real causal connection. So says the dictionary. Life is full of both, but we often fail to make the connections. I am in the midst of reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande a book that has been heralded as life changing. That the subject matter is death should not deter you in any way; it is a moving and humane and urges you to aspire not for a good death but a good life lived to the very last in dignity and joy. As I read the pages, a host of memories long forgotten come back and took on a new meaning. I could now understand my mother’s obsessive and sometimes childlike desire to not live where she not able to walk to the bathroom and wash her own undergarments. It was her choice. Just as refusing treatment for her advanced cancer was her choice. I must admit rather sheepishly today that pa and I did resent it though our love for her was so strong that it transcended logic. Kamala knew that if she took one step in the direction of conventional medicine it would be a free fall and strip her of her dignity. For her pain was acceptable, loss of dignity was not and she died on her own terms with a smile on her face. So remember this if any loved one makes a choice that does not seem right to you; he or she has the right to make that choice. Atul Gawande puts in words what we all refuse to accept: the obsession medical fraternity has to prolong life at all costs is more for us then for the elder we subject to it. I do not think any one in our right state of mind would want life at all costs. I for one have stated in no uncertain terms that I do not wish to be put on life support.
When mama was detected with cancer, though the word C was never mentioned in our home, she told us in no uncertain terms that had I been younger she may have considered medical support but she felt she was ready to go on her terms as she had seen me married, played with her grandchildren and wanted her husband to send her off. That was her choice and we agreed to play along. There was no place for logic or reason. It was all a matter of seeing with ones heart.
I still do not know where I stand but Gawande’s book made me aware of how serendipitous Project Why was for me personally. He argues that the quality of life in our twilight years greatly depends on our sense of purpose and usefulness. He recounts how Dr Bill Thomas decided to bring ‘life’ into a nursing facility for sever lay disabled elderly residents: he simply brought in plants, animals and children and everything changed! The residents who earlier had no ‘reason’ to love for suddenly felt ‘responsible’ for the plant in their room or animal on their floor and played with the staff children when they visited. The results were for all to see: the number of prescriptions diminished and so did the cost. I was reminded of the Little Prince and his rose: he has to go back to his planet because he is responsible for his rose.
Project Why saw the life of day when I was touching half a century and somewhat lost. The children had grown, the parents had moved on and life seemed without purpose. Enter Manu and with him countless children that still colour my day and whose dreams are in my custody. And if God remains on board then this will remain true all the way till the end. This I realise today is the greatest gift of all and I am humbled and deeply grateful.
We all need a purpose in life and whereas once life expectancy was shorter and not prolonged by medicine with contented itself to a palliative role, today the spectre of death in a brightly lit ICU where the concept of time is warped and where machines taken the role of the body is very real. In the name of love we subject our helpless loved ones to a terrible ordeal.
Gawande recalls how death once happened in the comfort of the home, with some medical care, where one was surrounded by familiar objects and those one loved. Today there are scant famous last words or simple farewells, be it just holding hands. The whole art of dying has been rewritten in language that is sadly inhumane. No priest or chants but the whirring of a ventilator or the bleeping of a heart monitor. How lonely death has become.
I was blessed again to have bid farewell to my parents at home and on their won terms. I heard their last words and could say good bye in what was home, giving them their final sip of water and chanting the prayers that they had so lovingly taught me.