by Dancoise Koechler
“Now where do you live these days?” my grandmother, Joan, asks me for the fourth time in ten minutes. I put a clever spin on the same answer I’ve given three times before to keep things interesting. I don’t sigh, I don’t roll my eyes, and honestly, I don’t mind. “Switzerland! And for more than ten years grandma. You’ve been there you know? I’ll show you pictures sometime,” I tell her, knowing that she’ll say that she’s never been to the mountainous country of cheese and chocolate. “Have I?” she asks utterly surprised, every time, with a confused grimace. “Yea grandma, no worries. I’ll see if I can find those pictures,” I say casually trying not to draw attention to her forgetfulness. “My memory these days ain’t worth a damn,” she half chuckles. She feels bad. She feels out of control. I wish I could do something, but the best I can do is to give her whatever comfort I can muster with my words, with my energy and with my knowing that this is just another phase of life: the opening credits to death.
Why is death so menacing anyway? If we’ve lived a full life and sucked it dry, then what are we actually afraid of? Is it ego? Are we afraid of how the world will manage after the magnificent glory of us is gone? Are we afraid of the brow-beating pain that could usher us to the great unknown? Even better, do we really want to live forever…that sounds boring as hell. So what is it that scares us so much of the thought of death? And why don’t we plan our final days like the grand exit that it really should be?
Do you remember when Oprah turned 50? I just looked up the date and that was 17 years ago! Wow! Her birthday celebration was a wow too. “Oprah’s Birthday Bash” put a whole new spin on aging for me. Whereas I’d constantly heard people around me complaining about the ails of aging, Oprah hit the 5-0 like it was her twenty-first birthday. She celebrated for what seemed to be the whole month long! And that’s the kind of energy I’m saying that we should take into death.
As I take a step back from my family situation to gain perspective, I am so surprised that I’m not feeling overwhelmingly sad or longing for the past. I don’t wish things would be different. Actually, what I wish is that everyone would treat my grandmother like she is the ancient youth that she is becoming and I wish that we had had that agreement with her long ago. I wish that we sat down with her when she was 70 or maybe 75 to say, “Look, your retirement is slowly coming to an end and now it’s time for your grand exit. How would you like that to look?” I tried to have this conversation with her three years ago as we road top-down on the 91 East inland in my new BMW 228i, grandma decorating the passenger side. “Would you like to move to a smaller home? Would you like to move in with my parents? Would you like someone to move in with you? Would you like a driver?” I asked all the questions at once. She was quiet and only mumbled an insufficient, “I don’t know.”
“Well, I’m asking you while you’re still here,” I nudged her. She had already shown mild signs of memory loss and I wanted to be sure that I could speak up for her later using words from her own mouth. She didn’t want to talk about it and I’m sure this happens more often than not in every family.
Could you imagine if we looked forward to finishing a life well lived? The New York Times published a beautiful article this Spring describing what leads to and sustains a beautiful life while also warning us that we better start thinking more seriously about the plans behind it all. “[…]in about 40 years, the number of people 100 and older will be six times as high as it is now, according to the Census Bureau.” Wasik reports. Gone are the days of a 10-year retirement and then sudden death. So with all of that in mind, I’d like to play my own little imagination game of, “How do I want to die over the decades?”
First of all let’s work backward: I want a DJ, disco lights and fried chicken at my afterparty. I want the official ceremony to be short -just like a good wedding ceremony should be- because no one needs to stare at my cold dead body for too long anyway: I’m not even in there! Next, I want my grandchildren to commemorate all of grandma’s best dances Soul Train style: the Tina Turner head-dive and pull to “Rolling on a River“, the Kid n Play Kick Step, the cabbage patch and all the other fun dances from the 90’s. I want my friends and family to share all of their favorite memories of me and be sure that the only thing I would want from them, in this moment, would be to have a fabulous time.
Second of all, at the doorstep of death, I want to have some of my most relaxed moments so that I can gradually float to the other side. I’ve never even thought of taking any strong medications, but the clock starts now. Give me all the drugs, all the gadgets and all of the wonderful things that make life supernatural in 2084. I want to be on top of the world. I want to be the goofy, carefree old woman who’s propped up in some fabulous pillow-padded shrine in her Spanish Colonial residence located somewhere near the tropics. My home will have been curated for years with mystical energies that make time irrelevant and when my visitors come to see me, they will come to stay. No flash visits. They will come to stay because it is a place of refuge, rejuvenation, storytelling and memory-making. That’s exactly the tone I’ll be setting in my retirement years.
THE FINAL ADVENTURE
My retirement years will be full of mentorship and adventure. My working years were just for laying a foundation to have all of the tools ready to make the real kinds of impact I’ve always wanted to make. Retirement simply means that I’ve “secured the bag,” I’m living off the interest, I’m ready to become one with the soul of life.
“Your beginnings will seem humble, so prosperous will your future be.,”
— Job 8:7 (NIV) The Holy Bible
Maybe, I’m just a different kind of person, but as the thought of planning my life until the exit swirls around my brain, I feel myself looking forward to the road ahead. Perhaps the source of that hope is my commitment to living my life fully. Perhaps it’s also my surrender to life, knowing that a keen focus on the present is what will ultimately build my better tomorrow. Perhaps if you’ve always done everything you’ve wanted to do and allowed your heart to fill overflowing with gratitude then you can move forward without that thing that makes death so tragic: regret.
So if I should slowly drift away in a forgetter’s paradise, let me not apologize for the blessing. Let me surrender completely to the protection of those who love me. Let me be a newborn child. Let my smile be naive and let my mind be vacant so that my last glimpses of the world can be as pure as I wish it had always been.
“I’m alive,” he said to the boy, as they ate a bunch of dates one night, with no fires and no moon. “When I’m eating, that’s all I think about. If I’m on the march, I just concentrate on marching. If I have to fight, it will be just as good a day to die as any
“Because I don’t live in either my past or my future. I’m interested only in the present. If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. You’ll see that
there is life in the desert, that there are stars in the heavens, and that tribesmen fight because they are part of the human race. Life will be a party for you, a grand festival,
because life is the moment we’re living right now.”
— Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist