The past few weeks of my life have been filled with goodbyes. A necessary part of graduation, each farewell serves as a reminder that my time in the place that I’ve come to know as home now exists in the form of memories and monthly checks to a student loans servicer. Many of these goodbyes have come with a gift that has inevitably fallen into one of three categories: (1) mementos of a shared experience, (2) travel-inspired gifts meant to welcome my coming year, or (3) books about death and dying. An interesting amalgam of my past and future, each gift is a reminder that this chapter is closing while the next is beginning and yet, somewhat paradoxically, the two will be linked by what usually characterizes a final chapter: death.
Perhaps a bit more explanation is needed to justify what may seem like an otherwise macabre connection. As a Thomas J. Watson Fellow, I’ll be spending one calendar year outside of the United States while pursuing my project, “Dispatches from Death: Exploring How We Die.” Broadly, my project is concerned with the concept of ‘dignified death’ and how it comes to be defined by individuals and medical communities. Topics such access to and provisioning of care at the end of life, meaning-making in serious illness, and the influence of culture/religion/ritual in shaping views about death and dignity all fall under the purview of my project (of which you can read more about here).
My year will officially begin on July 1 when I board a one-way flight to Greece. For now, I’m trying to strike the balance between making plans for the year and allowing it to unfold naturally. One of the gifts that I received (which falls under the category of ‘Travel-Inspired’) reminds that finding the delicate equilibrium between the two will likely be an ongoing challenge. A deck of 75 cards that promises to help “discover the unexpected, wherever your journey leads,” it is designed to make you more appreciative of your surroundings through literal reminders to stop and smell the roses. While shuffling through the cards, I thought that perhaps I should try to guide my days by them, using each as a directive to ensure that I appreciate all of my time. I sometimes fear that the lack of normalcy caused by a year of travel will shift my focus towards attaining a sense of familiarity rather than enjoying the present, so the cards promised the perfect antidote. My momentary resolve was quickly dashed by the realization that I only have enough cards to live every 4.867 days by each one and while intentionally getting lost for one day might be nice, wandering aimlessly for 4.867 days is likely overkill.
I think my compulsion towards the cards runs deeper than a mere desire to appreciate each day, instead embodying the greater desire to create order amid disarray by attaching significance to certain moments. Attaching significance to my days, through even inconsequential means, allows me to achieve some sort of structure over the time that has passed.
I’ve come to notice the ways in which passing time is counted without clocks or calendars. Some hospice organizations mark the time since a patient passes in phone calls to surviving family members. Calls occur at pre-determined monthly intervals, often until about thirteen months after the patient’s death, though I’m not entirely convinced family members have stopped marking the time since their loved one’s death by the final call, if they ever stop at all. A hospice patient that I was particularly fond of marked her moments by the delivery of the daily newspaper, once telling me that she maintained her subscription mostly to “feel normal.” The daily delivery of the paper was one of the only artifacts from her previous years as a passionate advocate to carry forward into her recent years characterized by stagnation and decline. Each new headline marked another day that she was still unabashedly herself despite existing in a profoundly altered way.
With each goodbye, I’m counting my time towards a year that will be spent exploring how we say goodbye. I’ve struggled in deciding whether to keep a blog, fearing that doing so would be akin to assuming a bully pulpit. I ultimately decided to create one after a friend suggested that the site need not be solely populated with my thoughts and experiences, but could also be a means to share and engage with the experiences and opinions of others. That felt right because even in the months leading up to my year I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity individuals have shown me in lending their advice, connections, and personal stories. I am humbled by the year ahead of me and the experiences that will inevitably challenge my views of humanity, dignity, health, society, and, crucially, how they all intersect. Thank you for sharing in it with me.