Friday, April 29, 2016

Making the Most of What Comes Next

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about dying.  I am not dying, to my knowledge, any more than the rest of us, who will all end our existence on this earth with death.  At the age of 63, I have been thinking about what makes us happy until we meet the end of our days.  How do we accept that all of our lives are going to end.

I read "Being Mortal" by Arul Gawande and I recommend that book to everyone.  He talks about the reality of dying and what is important.  He asks his patients who are mortally ill a few questions. What is your understanding of what is happening to you?  What are the goals for the rest of your life? What trade-offs are you willing to make to accomplish your goals.  Not to sound too trite, those questions can also be asked of plaintiffs in discrimination cases.  What is your understanding of what has happened to you at work?  What is you goal in your lawsuit - getting as much money as you can, justice for you, justice for others, going to trial, or not going to trial?  What are you willing to do to accomplish those goals?  Trial exacts a tremendous cost to those willing to go through trial, which can be equated to a sort of death, an actual judgment day.

However, I digress.  When I started pondering death, to be fair and truthful, it was not in the context of litigation.  It was in the context of what makes one's life worth living.  Gawande writes that people are most satisfied with their lives when they feel they have accomplished something for the greater good.  I think greater good is relative.  If one has made another person happy, a father, son, daughter, spouse, lover, then I think there is a fair argument that their life is a success.  Making another person happy is working to a greater good.  Working for goals one believes in is working for a greater good. Helping a child, an elderly person, a student, just helping someone else, is working toward the greater good.

Gawande spends a lot of time talking about listening to others to determine how they want to live out their life.  His principles are applicable to living life in general, but he particularly writes about helping someone to live the life he or she wants in their final days.  I realized reading the book that my father was able to do just that before he died.  My father died too young.  He was just 59 years old when he died from complications of a pulmonary embolism caused due to his poor health from diabetes and congestive heart failure in 1989.  My dad was informed that the surgeons were not going to take his damaged leg as had been planned, and that he only had a few days to live.

All four of my dad's children, including me, traveled to my father's hospital bed in Rochester, New York.  He lived another 10 days and he made the most of his time.  He was lucid and understood his fate.  During those final days, he apologized for any perceived faux pas of his past, whether real or imagined.  He told me that the divorce from my mother was all his fault, even though I know divorce is never caused by just one person in a marriage.  He told me how much he loved me and he told me he was proud of me.  He had encouraged me to go to law school when I expressed frustration with my civil service job when I was 25 years old.  After my first jury trial, a slip and fall case, where the jury gave my client everything I asked for (a result that was quite rare for me in later years) he burst with pride.  My dad was gentle, kind, caring and realistic about his plight.  He wanted to tell each of his children what we had meant to him.  He wondered if there was something after death, even though he was a self-professed atheist.  In my mind, my dad was too young to go, but he had always said that he would prefer leaving 5 years too soon rather than 5 years too late. He implored us to take care of his mother, whom we all knew was quite a handful.  He would no longer be able to make the five minute calls to check on her every Sunday.

After ten days, my dad finally became disoriented.  On Friday of that week, Dad's final day, he told me that in the night before, the nurses had tied his hands down so that he could not continue to pull the tubes out of his orifices. He proudly declared, that he wrested himself from the restraints, pulled off his hospital gown and sat naked in the room chair before anyone noticed his freedom.  Within a few hours, he took his last breath, with three of his children and his wife standing over his deathbed.

My dad died well.  My dad died with great dignity.  I, too, want to die with dignity.  One of the things that scares me is that what I have worked for in this lifetime will be forgotten, that my life will be devoid of meaning in the end.  Then I remember my dad, as I have many times through these last 26 years.  I remember my great grandmother, such a kind and gentle woman who died right after my eleventh birthday in 1963.  I remember my maternal grandmother, who saved the family by orchestrating the exodus from Germany in 1938.  She died on my husband's birthday the year of my daughter's birth, 1985.   Then I realized, as long as we are remembered by loved ones, the ones whom cared for us and whom we cared about, our lives are not in vain.  My father is alive in my heart, as are my grandmother and even my great grandmother.  These people helped to shape who I have become and I have helped to shape my children, my husband and my loved ones.

Life is beautiful, but it must end.  Living life on one's own terms and recognizing what matters is what I wish for everyone.


  1. Beautiful, Lynne - and a wonderful tribute to your father.

    1. Thanks, Amy. Congrats on your retirement.