I don’t know, but I wonder if anyone has asked any of my family or friends that question about me. It’s a common question in movies or on television ‘medical’ dramas. Of course, it’s virtually impossible to answer that question unless the circumstances have been set up ahead of time to determine the time of anyone’s death. In most circumstances we just don’t know. In some we do. Maybe you have a gun and are about to shoot a hapless victim. In that circumstance, you would precisely know the day and time of your victim’s death. Somebody on death row in the U.S. would know when they were scheduled to die, but with all the appeals possible, some death row denizens have been there for sixteen years and more. Still, eventually appeals run out and off you go to the abattoir. Or you might get up in Toronto some dreary Monday morning expecting to spend the day dispensing cash and stamping statements as a teller in a bank downtown, only to be stabbed to death leaving a subway train at your usual stop.
You might have come across the same story I did about the young woman (31) stabbed to death in the subway in Toronto on December 9that around 2 PM. I have no idea if she was a bank teller, that’s my invention, but it would be possible. The fact that she was stabbed at 2 PM is significant. There are many reasons why she would be out and about midday. Her killer, 52-year-old Neng Jia Jin, required a Mandarin translator for his court appearance and was given a list of people he was not to contact even though he was held in custody. He killed the victim, Vanessa Kurpiewska, randomly. Who expects to get up in the morning, get dressed, maybe make plans for the holidays, have a coffee, go off to work, take an afternoon break to do a little shopping, and end up dead on a subway train? On the same day the CBC reported a deadly shooting in Mississauga and every day the papers are happy to report on any number of random shootings and stabbings across the country and in the US. Regular, typical, unspectacular deaths generally appear under the radar, in the obituaries, not on the front pages.
So, a significant number of people die randomly every day from any number of causes, some endemic, some violent, and all unpredictable. It may happen that I get surprised by my death, or at least by my dying. Probably not, but it’s not in the realm of the impossible. My palliative care team can track the deteriorations in my body, some of which are clear signs of impending death. Kidney failure is a sure sign of imminent death. When I came close to dying a month or so ago after my last chemo treatment, it was because my kidney was shutting down. That’s an indicator of major bodily shutdown. I remember clearly in the ER at the time that the docs asked us what we wanted to do if my kidney did shut down. We made it clear to them that no heroics were to be used to keep me alive. Palliative care doctors are really attuned to changes in the functions of major organs. I’m fortunate in that I have a strong heart and no indication of any cardio-vascular issues.
We (Carolyn and I) drove to Campbell River last week to see an orthopaedic surgeon about the lytic lesion in my right femur. The palliative care docs flagged it as a potential major issue because it seemed to be growing. The orthopaedic surgeon, Deke Botsford, concluded that the changes that had occurred over the past few months in my femur would not likely cause a pathological break, that is one that would happen with no provocation (a fall, for instance). Anyway, we decided that I would get an X-ray in a month or so and that we would have another chat at that time. Fair enough. No problem for now.
I’m reading a book that was kindly given to me by a very thoughtful neighbour. It’s called: With the End in Mind: Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial by Kathryn Mannix (2018). I’m almost finished it. Mannix is a physician and a Cognitive Behaviour Therapist (CBT). Her approach to death and dying is psychological and biological. My approach you will realize, if you’ve followed this blog at all, leans much more to the cultural, social, and anthropological side of things. Of course, I also inject lots of personal anecdotes and experiences. That’s where Mannix and I cross paths. Her book is a compendium of stories about the end-of-life experiences of a whole range of people of all ages in Britain. My blog is a mix of things, but it leans heavily on my experiences in hospitals, with medications, and with medical staff. Denial, for Mannix, refers to how individuals come to accept or reject the fact of their imminent death. For me, following Becker and others, denial is considered primarily a cultural phenomenon which rubs off on every one of us via religious or magical traditions and practices that we rely upon to convince us that we are immortal. Our traditions, practices, and protocols act as collective reinforcement of our beliefs in our immortality. Émile Durkheim, the first French sociologist and education theorist, wrote about the importance of what he called collective effervescence as an important structural component of social coherence.
I guess if I have any institutional or cultural connections with denial mechanisms, they would be associated with science, especially physics and chemistry. If I have any belief about what happens to my body after I die, it’s that all the atoms and molecules that make up my body will return to the biosphere, to be taken up by organisms in their process of growth. My consciousness will evaporate to nothingness. So, it goes.