• Karl Thunemann

Making Friends with a Diminishing Self

By Karl Thunemann

When I opened the little book called Making Friends with Death, * I was immediately shocked to re-experience emotions related to my last major, personal experience with death. Oh, I am not talking about reincarnation here, as if I could conjure up a heroic string of past lives. I’m speaking in terms that the author uses to introduce her subject: We are constantly going through a series of little deaths—losses, estrangements, separations, changing jobs. By learning to flow with them, we open the door to making friends with death itself.

I am speaking of the last time—was it really the last? – when I went to Harborview, the regional hospital in Seattle, to receive the final results of a nine-month agony of testing to assess the status of my cognitive capacity. The diagnosis—mild cognitive impairment due to vascular disease and other risk factors—did indeed sound almost mild. But it confirmed the transformation I had experienced over the previous three or four years. Where at the onset I had considered myself to have an unusually good memory for a person my age, I had become a person who was likely to come away from meetings with little recollection of what was discussed or decided.

Reading this book I feel gratitude for that initiation into loss, little deaths. I still feel that. And Harborview wasn’t, after all, my last practice run at death. It was later that I had a series of falls, spread over 18 months.

Of course I had begun experiencing this before I sought out evaluation. I had withdrawn from the governance committees at the senior residential cooperative where I live. (I joined another, less urgent panel. When I went to my second meeting there, I was shocked to find in the minutes that in my first meeting I had volunteered to look into four topics. But now I had no recollection of this, and of course had not thought of them since. I soon resigned from this committee, as well.)

But the hard facts of the diagnosis—from my spotty performance on neuro-psychological tests to revelation of “white matter” accumulated in my brain, accounting for my faulty powers of recollection—could not be disputed. Maybe this process could be slowed, but my capacities—vaunted traits that I considered the essence of “me”—could not be retrieved. The hopeless aggravation I felt then came rushing back as I first opened Lief’s book. The feeling that I was lost to myself, that I would never again have any certainty about who I “am,” seemed here to stay.

My devastation as I read Lief’s book passed quickly. It gave way to gratitude—shocking perhaps, that I understood the process of such little deaths writ large. I had lived through this one, perhaps emerging as a somewhat different person, but still recognizable to myself. And, apparently, still acceptable to most of the people I hold closest—though undoubtedly they sometimes feel exasperated by my new deficits. I persist in regarding these traits as uncharacteristic: perhaps I am not as accepting of death as I imagine.

When I mentioned my flashback to this experience to my counselor, she recalled well my feeling of desolation. I felt devastated and guilty. I thought of all the ill-advised food I had eaten and of all the abandoned exercise programs—though I had maintained some of those for years. There was no way to undo these missteps.

My counselor recalled my sharing this grief. And I recall leaving her office with profound anguish after discussing the diagnosis. A couple of blocks away, I must have run a red light—at least that is my interpretation of the angry honking of another motorist. Recalling this day reinforces my sense of disorientation. I tend to lose track of chronology. Here, I have tended to think of this counselor being post Harborview. But her recollection makes it feel vivid. (My sense of time has been deeply disrupted. I tend to think of the diagnosis trip as having been only two years ago, though it must have been three.)

Running the traffic light underscored that if I was going to drive I had to adopt conscious habits to be focused. I made a long list of good driving habits and vowed to observe them whenever I was behind the wheel. To think of them as a kind of driving meditation.

Now, at this much later date, I do not feel anguish. Reading this book I feel gratitude for that initiation into loss, little deaths. I still feel that. And Harborview wasn’t, after all, my last practice run at death. It was later that I had a series of falls, spread over 18 months. I was not seriously injured—but a tiny change in circumstances could have brought grievous consequences. † These falls, coupled with the death of my longtime mechanic from an undisclosed brain injury, had a sobering effect.

I do not intend to clutter this blog with details of every little encounter I have with “death,” but I do hope that readers tend to this in their own lives. Back in the midst of my Harborview period, I would tell acquaintances—generally my age or older—of my experiences. They would listen with some impatience and wave the subject away. Oh, we all have that.

Well, maybe we do. But that makes it so much more important that we pay attention.

Another thing we have in common is that we are all dying. Well, maybe not today or tomorrow—nor even next year nor for years to come. The truth is, we could any of us die at any time. It has crossed my mind to buy a carton of (preferably used) copies of Making Friends with Death and hand them out. It’s only partly that I don’t want to make a spectacle of myself. But then perhaps I have already succeeded at that. Each of us has to make our own way down this road, and to be astonished by it in our own way.

* Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality, By Judith L. Lief.

† It’s said that among people over 65, falls are the leading cause of death and injury.