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What would you do if you had only a few days to live? Or a few weeks or months? What if a loved one were in this situation — how could you help that person decide how to spend the time that remained? Perhaps you lost a family member or dear friend to a terminal illness and were baffled by that person's choices. How do you make sense of his or her last acts?
Dr. David Casarett, a palliative care physician and researcher, specializes in the care of patients near the end of life. ...
What would you do if you had only a few days to live? Or a few weeks or months? What if a loved one were in this situation — how could you help that person decide how to spend the time that remained? Perhaps you lost a family member or dear friend to a terminal illness and were baffled by that person's choices. How do you make sense of his or her last acts?
Dr. David Casarett, a palliative care physician and researcher, specializes in the care of patients near the end of life. Drawing on his years of experience and the stories of patients he has treated, as well as his own research, he explores the wide variety of ways in which people spend their last days. Why do some people choose to be altruistic, while others are vengeful? Why do some leave a legacy, while others prefer to celebrate and enjoy their time with family and friends? Why do some fight and struggle to the last minute, while others accept their fate and use their limited time to reconnect or reconcile?
The tremendous diversity of these last acts makes clear that there is no formula for dying well or choices that are right for everyone. At the same time, these stories reveal that some choices may be harmful to the dying person or those closest to him. Last Acts helps dying patients and their families think about the possibilities that exist at the end of life, so they may choose to spend their time in ways that help bring them peace of mind.
It was when I was finishing rounds in my hospital late one evening that I first began to think about how my patients should spend their time when that time was cruelly limited. I’d just spent what felt like hours trying unsuccessfully to wrap up a difficult conversation with Sylvester, an older man who had a particularly vicious form of renal cancer. That his cancer was so extensive when it was discovered was due at least in part to a colleague’s talent for inventing benign explanations for the increasingly numerous symptoms that Sylvester brought to clinic every month. My colleague dismissed Sylvester’s symptoms first as “nerves” and later as “old age” until they were explained, finally, by the cancer that would kill him.
This was the second time that Sylvester and I had met, and again our conversation quickly descended into a protracted and dispiriting review of Sylvester’s treatment options, which were limited, and the chance of success with each, which was essentially zero. We had been talking for well over an hour about his cancer, possible treatments, and even experimental protocols for which he wouldn’t have been eligible anyway. The conversation had become like a juggling act in which clubs were replaced by phrases—“quality of life,” “comfort care,” “aggressive treatment”—that he and I tossed back and forth until, for me at least, they had lost their meaning. In fact, I’m not sure these terms ever had much meaning for Sylvester. His mind was clearly elsewhere, and that night, just as he had during our first visit, he kept circling back to his missed diagnosis with a predictability that was becoming disheartening.
It had grown dark outside his hospital room, which was itself lit only by a pale, flickering fluorescent tube on the wall just above Sylvester’s head. The hospital ward had grown quiet, and even the shouts and metallic hammering of the construction site across 38th Street had been replaced by an eerie silence. And any remaining hope I had for a resolution to our discussion disappeared as I realized that Sylvester, who was Italian, began to lose his already tenuous grasp on English grammar and pronunciation as he became more emotional. He was working himself into a fit over his mistreatment, and our discussion swirled around and around, propelled by language that bore a diminishing resemblance to English.
Finally, though, despite many misunderstandings, we seemed to be making progress across a river of circular arguments and recriminations. But just when I thought we had succeeded in hauling each other out of the other side, Sylvester stopped me with a question that sent us right back to where we started: “What I do now?”
I shrugged—what choice did I have?—and waded back into a discussion of treatment options. But he stopped me again, in English that was suddenly so clear it was hard to imagine our past hour of missed communication and said, “No. No, I mean, I have no time left. What I do?”
I wish I could say that this question—the most significant one he had asked me in our short but intense relationship—led to a meaningful discussion and let us connect as we hadn’t before. But no, I dodged it. Just as most doctors would, I think.
How should Sylvester spend the rest of his life? What sort of a question is that for a physician? He should ask his wife, perhaps, or their children. Or his priest. Or maybe this question was something he just needed to work out for himself. But I was stunned that he would ask me.
I was also reluctant to answer because I was, suddenly, in new territory for which I didn’t have a map. And that is anxiety-provoking for any physician, and particularly for one who was as young as I was then. I thought I would say the wrong thing, and that I might tell Sylvester what he didn’t want to hear. Or worse, that I would give him advice—the wrong advice—that he would accept.
Mostly, though, I think I was reluctant to offer an answer because Sylvester’s question was so intensely personal. An answer, if I’d been prepared to offer one, would have implied a rich appreciation of his life that I didn’t have, and indeed would never have. And his question seemed to imply that he wanted to establish the relationship that my answer would require. It was almost as if he were saying, “OK, it’s so easy for you to talk to me with rehearsed answers about treatment. Here’s a question that will force you to talk with me.” It created a forced, importuning intimacy that I wasn’t comfortable accepting, and an intimacy for which I hadn’t yet mastered the physician’s dubious skill of avoiding gracefully.
I’m not sure what I told Sylvester that night: “Whatever you want,” or maybe “Whatever you think is most important to you.” I don’t know what advice I offered, if I offered any at all, but it was probably as thin and weak as the hospital vending-machine coffee he used to complain about. I do know, though, that his question evaporated as I left the hospital and walked down an empty Market Street that night in time to catch the last train home.
But ideas—at least important ones—are persistent. They may disappear, leaving you alone for a while, but they eventually come back again, and again, until you pay attention to them. This is fortunate, because I suspect that most of us can’t be trusted to recognize an important idea the first time it comes calling.
I wish I could point to an epiphany of my own that led me to return to Sylvester’s question with the intensity that would make a book worthwhile. That would make for a convincing story, but unfortunately it’s not true. The truth, as far as I can discern it, is that this book is the product of an endless series of nudges, increasing in frequency and intensity, which have propelled me from that evening visit to Sylvester’s hospital room to this book.
That his question stayed with me is due largely to my patients. I’m a palliative-care physician, and so most of my patients are near the end of life. Many have several months to live but some, when I meet them, only have a few days or hours. And all of them, no matter how little time they have left, and no matter what their background, have answered Sylvester’s question in their own ways. A few, as Sylvester did, have made the mistake of asking me for advice. But most, fortunately, seem to know better and turn elsewhere. Still, I heard Sylvester’s question, or variants of it, often enough that I gradually began to pay attention.
And once I did, I began to see Sylvester’s question everywhere. In the multiple tragedies of September 11, 2001, for instance. And the Sago mining disaster, and the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk. All of these events and many more have forced a wide variety of people to recognize, often with tragic suddenness, that they have very little time left. Some—the fortunate ones, perhaps—have a chance to ask the same question that Sylvester asked me: “What should I do with the time I have left?” And a few—the very lucky few—have time to find an answer and to act.
The result, for these victims of tragedies and for my patients, is the last acts that fill whatever time they have. Some last acts are so small as to be barely noticeable, and vanish into the swirl of emotion and activity that surround a death. Notes to family members, for instance, or small changes to a will. Others are the product of grand efforts—novels, films, works of art—that leave a lasting mark. But I began to see that I could learn from all of them.
A Lady in Hyde Park
Visitors to my office are often impressed by the photographs that hang on the walls. It’s a collection, mostly, of large framed color photographs that I’ve taken and sold over the years, to support my university’s partnership with an AIDS hospice in Botswana. So visitors exclaim over my amateurish photographs of children and all manner of wildlife, and occasionally even purchase one, sending a few dollars to people in Africa whom they’ll never meet.
But there is one photograph, hanging over my desk, which they seem to miss. Much smaller than its neighbors, it’s in black and white. It seems to be hiding, unwilling to compete with its bright, oversized neighbors.
The photo frames an elderly woman in profile, resting on a park bench in London’s Hyde Park. Both of her hands are tightening her collar against what I imagine to be a cold London spring day, giving her an attitude that, at first glance, looks like prayer. Her feet are extended delicately along the length of a cane that is propped on the edge of the bench in an artful arrangement that succeeds in seeming both clever and perfectly natural. The few visitors who do notice it mistakenly assume that it is my own work. No one yet has recognized it as one of the lesser-known photographs of the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.
What impressed me about that photograph when I first saw it years ago, and what induced me to pay far too much for an original print in a gallery in Milan, was the graceful ease of the woman’s position within the frame. She doesn’t appear to be particularly fashionable, or elegantly dressed, and she is, after all, merely sitting on a park bench. Yet somehow out of that moment she has created a pose that succeeds in being both perfectly poised and—what is infinitely more difficult—perfectly natural.
Even more striking than her pose, though, is the mental attitude that brought her to that position at that moment. There is an attitude of what I read as comfortable resignation that seems to cradle and inspire her. Her image suggests to me an earlier hidden moment—a minute or an hour before Cartier-Bresson passed by—when circumstances led her to that bench. Perhaps her walk was to have taken her further into the park, to Speaker’s Corner or around the Serpentine, and she became tired. Others no doubt paused at that bench that day, but they did so, I imagine, with a migratory tentativeness—touching down, gathering strength or breath—and moving on. But perhaps she paused for a moment, and the path leading onward disappeared. And it was then that she would have realized that this bench could be her stage, if she wanted it to be.
Although Cartier-Bresson is often credited with having an eye for the “decisive moment” when light and form come into perfect alignment, I’d prefer to give credit for this particular photograph to the unnamed woman herself. I’d like to believe that she recognized the challenge that her minor stage posed, and that she realized she could make something of this opportunity that would be uniquely hers, yet also graceful and natural enough to attract the lens of the passing photographer. And I’d like to think that she took stock of her limited props and decided that she could transform them into a pose that would be a work of art.
It doesn’t matter to me that this story of mine is purely speculative. What is important to me, and why Cartier-Bresson’s photograph hangs over my desk, is that the woman’s attitude of creative pragmatism that I’ve conjured up is one that many of my patients need to adopt, whether they realize it or not. Like her, they’ve all come to a moment at which their lives are made of—and therefore must be made from—a much reduced set of props and materials. Instead of years ahead, filled with family, career, and friends, their future has been truncated by illness. And just as Cartier-Bresson’s lady finds her life framed for a moment by that bench, my patients find their lives framed by whatever time—months or weeks or days—that they have left.
As Sylvester had, many of my patients try to fill that frame they’re given with a picture that is uniquely their own. Sometimes their efforts produce a fine image—meticulously arranged and perfectly exposed—that will leave a lasting and treasured impression on all of us. But often the image that takes shape is one of fumbling trial and error, less like a fine silver gelatin print that belongs in a gallery and more like a snapshot captured at a family gathering.
Nevertheless, even when their compositions are slightly askew and out of focus, and even when they’re populated with grinning awkwardness, these snapshots that describe my patients’ last acts are still the genuine products of aspiration. All of them reveal a version of Sylvester’s desire to fill a moment with the grace that Cartier-Bresson’s lady achieved so effortlessly. So I don’t find my patients’ last acts any less compelling if they fall short of what they could have accomplished. In fact, I find that my attention is caught and held simply by the efforts of those, like Sylvester, who wanted to make something of the time that they have left.
A Taxonomy of Last Acts
This, then, was the frame in which Sylvester found himself an unwilling subject. But what were his options? What could he have done? As I left Sylvester’s room that night and made my way home, I began to realize that I didn’t have any idea.
What do we do when we know, or think, that we’re going to die soon? Do we become more altruistic? Do we seek revenge? Do we seek pleasure, or forgiveness, or spiritual fulfillment?
I’ve seen these responses and many more in my own practice, and the possibilities seem endless. But I began to wonder whether maybe these possibilities are circumscribed by boundaries and categories. Maybe there is an overarching organizational structure—a taxonomy—of the last acts that people pursue near the end of life. So that’s partly what this book is about—a search for some set of organizing principles that lets us understand what we do when we’re faced with death.
The stories that make up this book seem to have sorted themselves, through some organic process that I’m not sure I can explain, into one such taxonomy. It’s certainly not the only one that can be imposed on a universe of stories and examples with such protean manifestations. But it is one taxonomy that has helped me to make sense of what we do and, more importantly, what we can do, when our time is limited.
The result is a collection of ten chapters and about fifty stories that I hope impose some sense and structure on the breadth of what’s possible. These represent categories of last acts that Sylvester might have considered for himself. And, I suppose, they’re the categories that I should have laid out for him that night.
For instance, I’ve begun by describing one patient in the first chapter who was less than a day away from death when I met him. Yet Jacob never seemed to consider the question that Sylvester had asked of me, nor did he do anything with the time he had left. At least he didn’t do anything differently. His goal—his only goal, as near as I could tell—was to cling to life as long as possible. And although his striving won him a few more hours of life, he lost forever the chance to spend time with his family and to say goodbye to his fiancée. That chapter is my latest effort, one of many, to figure out why he was blind to the opportunities, which I saw so clearly, to make use of his time. And it is, too, a meditation on the line that separates people like Jacob who chase survival with a single-minded intensity from those, like Sylvester, who turn instead to consider how they can best use the time that they have left.
In a way, I suppose, the nine chapters that follow have a remedial tone. They’re about people who did what Jacob wouldn’t, or couldn’t. They’re stories of people who saw—more or less clearly—that their time was limited. And they all made a conscious effort to use that time for a purpose. That is, like Sylvester, they saw the opportunity that Jacob couldn’t see. These are the stories and examples that I should have shared with Sylvester that night.
Sometimes these stories reflect purposes that were admirable, and which led to actions that most of us might do well to emulate. These patients of mine reconnected with friends and family, for instance (chapter 3), or made amends (chapter 4) or left a legacy (chapter 7), or helped others (chapter 8). Some examples are less grand but no less admirable (chapters 6 and 10). And at least one describes a course that I wouldn’t recommend (chapter 9). Still others are more nuanced and defy snap judgments. Seeking pleasure, for instance (chapter 2) and seeking revenge (chapter 5) aren’t wholly admirable, yet their imperfection makes them compelling.
But this book isn’t only a balance sheet of good choices, because who of us, really, has made choices that would stand up to that sort of audit? It is, instead, an exploration of why people make the choices they do. It is, too, an exploration of the factors that make a particular choice right for one person and wrong for another.
Learning from Last Acts
As these stories assembled themselves into chapters, I realized that they offer more than a map of what’s possible. Not only did these stories suggest options—options that I could have offered to Sylvester—they also raised questions. Questions I wanted to answer, and assumptions I wanted to test.
I wondered, for instance, how many people take the time to ask the question that Sylvester had asked of me. I wanted to believe that every one of us will devote as much attention as Sylvester did to making the most of whatever time we have left. But will we?
And I wondered, too, how many people ask Sylvester’s question with the same intensity that he did. Sylvester had been a mason who had contributed to many of the homes in Philadelphia, and I could imagine him surveying the last weeks of his life that stretched out in front of him with the same critical attention that he would have devoted to a partially finished wall. I could imagine him squinting a bit, head cocked to one side, testing his trajectory against an invisible plan and rearranging his remaining days as he might have shifted stones into place, seeking the best fit and the truest line. But how many of us will take the measure of our remaining time with the same ponderous scrutiny?
And I was curious, too, about why we make the choices that we do. Why does one woman with cancer devote her final months to raising money for cancer research while another writes a brief autobiography to pass on to children and grandchildren? And why does one man in a hijacked plane join the struggle against the hijackers while the man next to him uses those last few minutes to send a message to his wife?
Finally, I wondered about the impact of these last acts on others. A skeptic might say that any such act is little more than a distraction. That is, that anything we set our minds to in the days before we die distracts our attention from death and thus offers some psychological value, but little more. And in some cases, no doubt that’s true. However, it seemed plausible to me that many acts could have an impact that extends far beyond the individual. An intimate message, for instance, that touches friends and family. Or an ambitious novel that reaches much further.
More broadly, though, it seems to me that these last acts can also have an effect more globally, by shaping the way we think about human nature. Certainly, they’re the stuff of myth and legend, and it’s no surprise that they have such a prominent position in modern film and fiction. And just as these fictional last acts strike a chord in the public imagination, so, too, do real-life acts. For instance, the media’s coverage of public disasters—the Sago mine explosion or the events of 9/11—gives last acts a prominent place. Long after many details of the 9/11 hijacking of United Flight 93 are forgotten, for instance, we’ll still remember the passengers’ efforts to crash the plane prematurely. So these acts are widely visible and, at least in some cases, become touchstones and defining elements of events.
And I wondered how these last acts shape our opinions of those who have died, and also of human nature more generally. How do these last acts provoke us to imagine what’s possible? And how do they expand our ideas of what each of us is capable of? This is perhaps the most difficult set of questions that this book takes on, but ultimately, I think, the most rewarding.
Together, all of these questions became the inspiration for this book when I decided that they’re answerable. That realization came on slowly and was prompted—forced, really—by repeated encounters with my patients that led me back to this topic again and again. But I realized, too, that these answers couldn’t—and shouldn’t—come only from my patients.
Meaningful, generalizable answers, I thought, would need to come from a wide range of examples. From history, for instance, and from biographies. And also from film and literature, even poetry. Nor could answers come solely from my experience as a physician. Instead, I’d need a variety of methods. Psychology, ethics, anthropology, neuropsychology, and even economics, I decided, would all have a contribution to make.
So this book draws on a wide range of sources and methods to understand how we respond when we’re faced with death, and how we choose to spend the time that we have left. The answers are sometimes heartening, sometimes dismaying, and often both. In isolation, each person’s response is a Rorschach blot that reaffirms whatever we know about an individual and whatever we believe about human nature. But taken together, and examined in an organized way, the themes that make up this part of the human experience are the bare structure of who we are, or at least who we’d like to be, if we had enough time.
Examples and Styles
It’s all very well to describe a taxonomy of last acts, and interesting, I think, to understand why we make the choices that we do. And it will be helpful, too, if I can explain why I think that some last acts are better than others. But I suspect this book’s real value to most readers will lie elsewhere.
For most of us, Sylvester’s question is one that we will ask at some point. Most of us will die of chronic progressive illnesses like cancer, emphysema, dementia, or heart disease. And most of us, therefore, will have enough time to be able to make choices about how we want to spend whatever time we have left.
Sylvester’s story serves as my own, nagging reminder of this. And his predicament is hardly unique. I’m certain that many of my patients are overwhelmed by the enormity of the task they’ve been given. How best to spend the days or weeks they have in front of them? It’s a question that has considerable weight because of its significance both to them and to their families.
But it’s also a perplexing question, because there are so many possible answers. How, then, to make the best choices—from among an infinite array—in the right way? This is a question that, ultimately, many of my patients feel they’re not able to answer, or at least to answer well.
And if this is true of patients facing terminal illness whose time can be measured in months, and whose friends and family are close at hand, then it is certainly true of those who die unexpectedly in coal mine disasters, shipwrecks, and the like. Without warning, and without time to consider, it would be surprising indeed if people in those situations managed to make choices that were the best possible ones for them. Particularly when many people—coal miners, for instance—find themselves thrown together. Buffeted by the choices of others, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone could hope to make one that is unique and genuinely their own.
More generally, most people faced with their own impending death lack the intellectual resources to make the best possible use of the time they have. I don’t mean intelligence, unless perhaps you count emotional intelligence. It’s just that very few of us, myself included, have the capacity to engage the question of what we should do with the unrestrained enthusiasm that the question requires of us.
But some do. And what really is most compelling, and what’s driven me in writing this book, are those special examples—from among my patients and others—of last acts that are both unique and uniquely perfect. These are the stories that make up the backbone of this book, and they all describe people who took the measure of the frame in which they found themselves and made within it an individual statement.
Sometimes these are writers, or academics who have the time, resources, and emotional intelligence to reflect on their experiences. And sometimes these are other people—engineers, teachers, gardeners, and housewives—who are utterly unremarkable except for the way they manage to transform the last days of their lives. All of them, every single one, had a style, an imprint that was immediately recognizable.
And nowhere is that style so vibrant and flamboyant as it is in Anatole Broyard’s account of his last year with prostate cancer. In fact, “style” was precisely the word that Broyard himself used. “I really think you have to have a style in which you finish your life” he wrote. “That’s what I’m doing right now. I’m finishing my life.”
His style, to use his term, was enthusiastic and almost joyous. What is so remarkable to me about Broyard’s account is that he fully inhabited the last year of life that he was given. Even the metaphor he used fits: “At the end, you’re posing for eternity. It’s your last picture.”
And Broyard devotes as much attention to exploring the borders and corners of that picture as he does to its center. Others faced with the same diagnosis would have concentrated their attention, perhaps, on their illness and impending death. But he saw his illness as new territory, full of discovery and opportunity. Even his relationship with his physician gave space to invent: “… when my doctor comes in, I juggle him. I toss him about. I throw him from hand to hand, and he hardly knows what to do with me. I never act sick. A puling person is not appealing.” (To “pule,” by the way—I didn’t know what it meant either—is to whine or whimper.)
This enthusiasm and style has become, for me, emblematic of the way that all of us could inhabit our last days. It’s not the specific gestures that are so inspiring, although I still smile every time I read Broyard’s description of the way he manages his doctor. It is instead the intoxicating energy with which he chooses these gestures, matching and interweaving them to create the most beautiful picture he can imagine. He even wryly suggests a contest: “So I think we should have a competition in dying, sort of like Halloween costumes. I think you should try to die the most beautiful death you can. Let’s give a prize for the most beautiful death. We can call it heaven.”
Although Broyard enlisted his own sense of style to create a beautiful and coherent image of his last year of life, style is not defined solely by beauty. Indeed, others writers—several of whom were Broyard’s contemporaries—composed their final pictures with a very different style. For instance, when Harold Brodkey wrote about his diagnosis of AIDS and the events that led up to his death, he did so with a truculence that was self-deprecating and genuinely funny. Rather than a beautiful death, he said, he wanted a death that would be interesting. “I wanted to have the most interesting illness, if not in my apartment house, then at least in my apartment,” he wrote. “I was tired of being unimportant.”
Ultimately, brief vignettes can’t capture the style of either writer. But if Broyard’s last days were painted, they would resemble a Jackson Pollock, perhaps, with exuberant colors and sinuous shapes flung together. Brodkey’s, on the other hand, might be illustrated by the postmodern irony of an artist like Julian Schnabel. You could object to those characterizations—I recognize they’re not a perfect fit—but you’d have to admit that Broyard and Brodkey each brought a sense of style to their last days, and that those styles were singularly their own.
The most important point, though, is that a sense of style gave Broyard, Brodkey, and others an organizing principle that protected them from being overwhelmed by endless possibilities, as Sylvester was. For someone with a developed sense of personal style, some choices are natural, while most are irrelevant. Brodkey, I think, was guided by a mulishly stubborn self-criticism tempered by love, just as Broyard could not really have spent his time in any other way than in an ebullient celebration of beauty.
Style for the Rest of Us
But what about the rest of us—and I count myself in this group—who don’t have a sense of style to guide them? I would be no more likely to inhabit my last days with the style of Broyard or Brodkey than I would be to inhabit a park bench with the style that Cartier-Bresson’s lady was able to achieve accidentally. Nor, I suspect, would most of us.
Simply borrowing one of those styles—say, Brodkey’s irony and distance—would certainly not serve any of us well. Those styles would not have suited me any better that they would have suited Sylvester. And even though Brodkey’s account resonated for me in a way that I didn’t find with others, and offered a narrative that I thought I could place myself in, his style was uniquely his own. So these examples don’t offer us off-the-shelf patterns for our last days.
What I’d hope for instead is a dialogue in which we can learn from the choices of those who have made them thoughtfully. That’s what I’ve tried to create in these pages. And in assembling these stories, I’ve tried to call on people like Broyard, Brodkey, and a few dozen others, including many of my patients, whose choices and styles can help us to define our own.
I imagine, for instance, what Sylvester might have learned from three men who shared a single land line on the ninety-second floor of one of the World Trade Center towers in the Carr Futures conference room, placing calls to friends and families about ten minutes before the tower collapsed. What could those men have told Sylvester about what he could say, and what was important? What was really, truly important, after you strip away the clutter of our everyday conversations?
Perhaps someone like Broyard or Brodkey would have been able to grasp the essence of a message that Sylvester could have offered. Or perhaps they would have glimpsed the outline of an idea that Sylvester didn’t know was there. Maybe they could have helped him to fill in that outline, creating a last image that would fit the frame of his circumstances.
Finally, maybe there is someone whose style and example Sylvester might have recognized and responded to. Because even though Broyard has his own sense of style that allowed him to inhabit his last days as naturally, and as perfectly, as a bespoke suit, he was also enthusiastically appreciative of the styles of others. “A hospital is full of wonderful and terrible stories” he wrote, “and if I were a doctor I would read them as one reads good fiction and let them educate me.” And it’s really the potentialities of these imagined juxtapositions, and the resultant exchanges that they might inspire and provoke, that have made writing this book so enjoyable for me.
Sylvester could sense the opportunity he faced. In fact, he recognized it before I did. He understood that he could make of that opportunity whatever he wanted and, I think, was overwhelmed by that opportunity, and by the endless choices that he could make. In a sense, I think, he was frozen by the enormity of the task in front of him.
How could he possibly fill the time he had left in a way that is commensurate with the magnitude of the opportunity? What words and gestures would be significant enough—and would carry enough weight—to justify his time? It would be tragic not to fully use the time he had, but doubly tragic, perhaps, to exhaust that time on words and gestures that were trivial.
This portrayal of Sylvester’s state of mind is speculative but not, I think, too far wrong. After he left the hospital to go home with hospice care, he would ask his question of the hospice nurse and later his daughter, who then asked me. I wish I could say that I was able to offer an answer the second time, but I wasn’t.
So his question was clearly important to him, and perhaps even a bit of an obsession. It may also have been a question to which he had given some thought before his diagnosis. Indeed, he had suspected long before his dull-witted physician did that he had cancer and would have had ample time to imagine the question and to become convinced of its significance. Though not enough time, apparently, to formulate an answer.
Still, despite the intensity with which Sylvester seemed to focus on the question of how he should spend his time, his last days were much like those of my other patients. He lived for about five weeks after our conversation that night in his hospital room, and in that time he made a few choices. Some were important, and many were necessary, but most were trivial. He went home, which was what he wanted. He reviewed his will, although as far as I know he didn’t make any changes. He saw a few friends from his neighborhood and of course he saw his family. But for the most part, he waited to die.
Perhaps his final days were so ordinary precisely because of the intensity with which he’d tried to decide how to use those days. There were, really, far too many choices. I imagine that, for Sylvester and indeed for many of us, facing these choices for the first time must be a bit like walking into an enormous clothing store without the guidance that a clear idea of one’s own style might provide. He probably felt overwhelmed by countless options, and yet he seemed to know that any choice would be both enormously significant and irrevocably final.
All in all, the last month or so of Sylvester’s life was not a work of art. The way he used his time was, ultimately, the same way that most of my patients use their time—an admixture of daily activities and obligations, interspersed occasionally with a few notable events. I’m left to conclude that he didn’t live his last days in the way that he thought he had an obligation to live them.
But he could have. He was ready, like the mason he’d once been, to get to work. Or almost ready, because there was something else he seemed to need: examples and options. The stones that he could fit in place.
And so that’s ultimately what this book is. It’s a collection of examples and stories that I wish I could have shared with Sylvester that night. As I wrote this book, trying to capture the style that propels each one, I imagined Sylvester weighing them one at a time, judging its contours and weight, and perhaps finding the one that would have been the perfect fit.
© 2010 David J. Casarett, M.D.