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by Ted Schroder

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday when ashes are imposed with the following words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." The ashes are a sign of our mortality and of our humble penitence. Abraham exhibited this in his intercession in Genesis 18:27, "Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes." Ashes remind us of our lowly origins in creation: "the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground." (Genesis 2:5)

Being able to be reminded of our mortality may be what separates human beings from other animals. There is no evidence that other animals anticipate their death as we do. The Bible is full of reminders that someday we will die. The book of Ecclesiastes is almost wholly devoted to reminding us that death makes this life meaningless unless there is belief in the purpose and plan of God. In the New Testament, James 4:14 spoke to me early on in my life, about the shortness and uncertainty of life: "What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes." It sent me on a search for meaning, purpose, and the gift of eternal life in Jesus. Without the promise of the resurrection from the dead, there is little to hope for beyond this life. As we look toward Easter from Ash Wednesday we appreciate the significance of the resurrection of Jesus, and how he defeated death for us.

Nevertheless, all of us have to make the natural transition to the future life through the grave and gate of death. The good news of Jesus should take the fear of death away, because we look forward to the next stage of a greater life. "Since we are made of flesh and blood, it's logical that the Savior took on flesh and blood in order to rescue us by his death. By embracing death, taking it into himself, he destroyed the Devil's hold on death and freed all who cower through life, scared to death of death." (Hebrews 2:9)

If we are freed from the fear of death, and can accept that our mortality leads to a greater life, we should be able to plan for this transition in the faith of Christ. What we don't want is to resist passing through this transition, or to fail to provide for it.

I have just read "A Place Called Canterbury: Tales of the New Old Age in America", by Dudley Clendinen, a national reported and editorial writer for The New York Times. He chronicles the lives of those who are aging in a retirement community in Tampa called Canterbury Tower. His mother moved there is 1994, with many of her old friends and people who have moved there from across the country. Their average age is eighty-six. In his visits over the years he explores the New Old Age through the lives of these retirees. It is well-written, hilarious, at times, and painful at others, almost like a soap opera in which friendship, love, sex, money, gossip, and new experiences are all still part of a life made fragile and quixotic by great old age. Many of the residents live to 100 and beyond because of the excellent care they receive.

His mother had only been a resident for a year when she suffered a stroke. She was eighty. After being in a coma she awoke, but she was never the same again. She wasn't there. She was gone. Her son found it impossible to accept her departure. The nurse told him that she had no sense of time passing. No memory of the past. No intellectual ability to think about the present. He could not accept that his presence did not register with his mother. He had a different opinion of her awareness. Others believed that she was still animated by her own spirit. Her spark was still visible to them. Each experienced her individually, according to their relationship.

She continued to live for another 12 years, being cared for in the nursing wing, fed by her nurses, bathed, turned, dressed on a regular basis. "She was still a part of life. She was awake to it. She turned and sometimes smiled at the sight and sound and touch of it, the presence of those who loved and attended her. She was hungry and thirsty enough for it to eat and drink at mealtimes. Because she did all those things, she lived. But as time passed, she had ceased to react or contribute in any except the most subtle and nuanced ways."

"Certainly, by the last couple of years - and perhaps for considerably longer - my mother had achieved an effortless, free-floating state of existence. It is one that occurs, I think, only in systems of compassionate and total care, among people who have no life-threatening disease, but also no remaining capabilities or responsibilities, and therefore no stress, no anxiety, no worries about or anger at life, and in fact, little or no awareness of the world, near or far, at all. Nothing to think or wonder about. And nothing left to do. It is the ultimate end state of life in a place like Canterbury, where the contract is care for as long as you live, whether you're aware of it or not."

"If Mother had remained at home, like her own mother or my father's mother, living by herself, or cared for by her children, she would certainly have died years before, from the strokes, the pneumonia, some other infection or - which always terrified me - by choking to death. If she had been put in an inferior nursing facility - a more typically understaffed for-profit nursing home, where most of the residents were wards of Medicaid - I don't think she would have lasted more than a year or two."

"How long can a serenely brain-damaged, but otherwise disease-free person like my mother be maintained, in an existence with no physical and emotional stress, by a system of nearly perfect care. Obviously years longer than if she had not come to Canterbury. But how much longer? And to what purpose?'

"The conversations Mother and I had had more than a decade before when she was crippled by arthritis and osteoporosis, troubled by high blood pressure, beginning to experience transient little cerebral events, but still thoughtful and aware, and determined to avoid precisely this state of affairs, has come to seem naïve, not to mention irrelevant. Neither of us could imagine then what would happen to her. What she would become." (pp.351-353)

This prospect, of ending my days being totally cared for by others, a prisoner of my body, of life being prolonged far beyond my natural term, is anathema to me. I would rather be released from this life to go on to my destiny. All too often the family and the medical staff feel compelled to do all that they can to sustain life. They feel guilty if they withhold any sustenance or medication. I would like my survivors to know that if I have experienced a cerebral or other accident that is irreversible, and am unable to feed myself, that I be allowed to go on to eternity. I do not want to be fed and watered - no feeding tubes or IV for hydration. Let me go on.

I do not believe that this is suicide. It is allowing nature to take its course, and the Author of Life to take me to Himself. If we believe in the resurrection to life eternal we will rejoice in a greater light and on another shore with that multitude which no one can number. "For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. Death has been swallowed up in victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Corinthians 15:53-57)


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