Observations from a Hospital on Dying

Having spent hundreds of hours in the hospital in the past two years with his wife, who is undergoing cancer treatment, Mike Keller shares his thoughts about our mortality.

Photo © Beyza Sultan Durna

My wife contracted a particularly aggressive form of cancer roughly two years ago and is still being treated for it at MD Anderson cancer treatment center in Houston, Texas. I have spent hundreds of hours with her at this hospital. Eventually, inevitably, I began to see clearly certain facts about our mortality.

The human tone within the hospital was extraordinary.  Among patients, their caregivers, and the staff, there was no observable friction at any time. People were very courteous and caring towards one another. In two years now, I have never heard a voice raised in anger within this hospital.  In place of the sullen and uncommunicative atmosphere that one sometimes finds in hospital waiting rooms elsewhere, here were patients and caregivers talking with interest and care with one another, listening to each other’s stories about their illness, vacating their seats gladly to accommodate other people in bulky wheelchairs, complimenting one another on their clothing, and in general treating one another as valuable and worthy of attention and compassion. 

Once I became aware of this extraordinary tone within the hospital, it was not hard for me to account for it.  The people there knew something about themselves and one another that ordinarily we are not aware of.  Cancer is a mortal disease; without a cure, you are a goner from it sooner or later. In this hospital that specializes in this killing disease, all who were there realized that they and everyone else were mortal. No one was going to live forever. By itself, it seemed to me, this awareness of our common mortality gave rise among the people in the hospital to respect and concern and compassion for one another. 

In time a related insight came to me.  As I was walking into the cafeteria one day, my eyes fell on a man, apparently a healthy caregiver, about whom the thought sprang to mind, “He is on his way out.”  I meant that he was on his way to his death.  To me this perception was a shocking surprise.  I had simply never seen another healthy  human being this way.  Proceeding further into the cafeteria, I looked individually at many of the scores of people there, and about each the new information would strike me again: this person is on his or her way out. This is a profound thing to know about another person, that no matter his circumstances, he is on his way to his or her death. In some way this insight seemed deeper than the one I took the people in general in the hospital to have. Perhaps it is one thing to realize our common mortality and another to realize clearly the coming death of each individual you see. 

In any event, inevitably this perception about the coming death of each individual led me to reflections on the coming death of myself and of course of my wife. I felt profoundly sad. I love being alive, and so does my vivacious wife. It seemed such a pity to have to leave life. What finally came to me as a comfort was that dying is an inevitable part of being alive. All living beings die, be they man, squirrel, tree, spider, or blackbird. In fact the two words “life” and “death” lead to misunderstanding. “Life” is not one process that is ended by another process called “death.” “Living” is just one process, and it includes dying. Perhaps it would be easier to see life/death as a single process if there were just one word for it. We might try forming a single word from Latin roots, say “vivamor,” from the Latin for “to live” (vivere) and “to die” (mori). Now we can say that each living being is in “vivamor,” a life/death process, one process. May all beings have a happy vivamor.     

Mike Keller is a retired university English teacher. For the past eight years he has been a member of the Houston Zen Center, attending meditation sessions as well as teaching. All in all, he has been in spiritual practice for some 34 years. He is also the author of the article, "Henry David Thoreau: A Transpersonal View," Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Spring, 1977. He lives with his wife in Houston, Texas.