In 1981, I was a member of the California Commission on Aging.
Looking back, I find it ironic that, with a couple of exceptions,
everyone on the commission was in their 40s. We thought we knew a lot
about aging, which was, in retrospect, just plain naïve. The two people
in their 60s were seemingly token ‘oldsters’, lending their gray hair
to our committee.
of the things I thought I knew was that everyone, including the old, is
afraid to die. As I began to speak with hundreds of older men and
women, one common denominator I found was that very few said they were
afraid of death, particularly those in their 70s and 80s. What they
really feared or were distressed about was dying knowing that they had
either wasted the opportunity to have their lives make a difference or
had been unable to ‘pass on’ some of what they had learned. It seems
the young just don’t listen to many older people … or don’t care.
In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche points out
that many people are either terrified or in denial of death for the
simple reason that they ‘don’t know who they are’. Not knowing who we
are and not being able to ‘pass on’ what we’ve learned in our lives
seem to me to be different sides of the same coin. My capacity to speak
and have others listen isn’t a function of my age, it is a function of
my willingness to be responsible for what I have to say and speak with
commitment and clarity. It also has to do with my capacity to listen to
the concerns of others and have whatever it is I have to offer be
relevant to those concerns.
One thing I have learned is that ‘who I am’ is also a function of my
commitments and my willingness to be responsible for whatever
interpretation of ‘self’ I am living. Everyone dies. But everyone does
not relate to death the same way. Whatever our relationship to death,
it is a choice—a choice that will affect how we experience living.
I don’t know what the truth about death is. I don’t know if there is
an ‘other side’ or if we will be back for more lives. I think I do know
who I am, and I find serenity in doing my best—one day at a time. I
will leave the larger questions to a Higher Power. And if there isn’t a
Higher Power, well then, I’ve found a great deal of strength and
satisfaction in imagining the existence of one.
I keep this with my important papers as a message to those who survive me:
Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have
only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything
remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life we
lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to
each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak
of me in the easy way that you always used. Put no difference in your
tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always
laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile,
think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that
it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of
a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as
it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is death
but a negligent accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out
of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very
near, just around the corner. All is well.