Thursday, May 31, 2012


I have a lot of respect for Hospice. Twenty-four years ago, their caregivers helped my family deal with the hardest aspects of my mother's rapid death from untreatable cancer – both in easing her pain and helping us cope. Now, the organization is doing the same for another loved one, who has luckily survived to face the consequences of old age: so-called "natural causes."

The signs of impending death are as unmistakable as they are heart-wrenching. When you see them, you begin to comprehend the incomprehensible, that there are some situations where death is preferable to living. In such situations, typified by the body's inability to overcome the forces that are breaking it down, the mind looks for a way to escape. That escape is withdrawal into an imaginary reality that at first, like dreaming, tries to sort out what's happening, then at the end appears and feels like the passage into another, more benign world. Many of us who haven't faced death directly, or crave hope for a positive outcome as our loved ones suffer, find solace in the idea that the imaginary world is real. As death approaches, for us and for others, we want it to be as positive as possible, and with luck and help we can prepare the mind to make it so.

Twenty years ago, my father had a much different experience. He died alone of a heart attack in a bathroom at work. There was no opportunity to save him, no time to say goodbye. Sometimes he would say he wanted to die with his boots on, but I doubt he meant anything like this. In retrospect, there were signs: he smoked; tired easily during long walks after we moved up in altitude from sea level to nearly 5,000 feet; and was stressed by a grueling work schedule (in my early 30s, I had trouble keeping up). We were on a deathwatch and didn't know it. I suspect that in the shorts seconds before my father died, his always active mind went through its own escape process, a rapid shutdown that I hope ended with a flash of peace.

These experiences are part of a continuum, which appears to vary in scale, age, and time: a single death or multiple deaths; time lived before death; and an irreversible decline lasting an instant or years. The global mass extinction event currently underway represents an extreme part of that continuum: in terms of just humanity, there may be billions of deaths following a few hundred thousand years of our species' existence, and a decline of a few decades. Like my parents who smoked, we're poisoning ourselves and the other species that keep the planet habitable; if we continue for even a few more years, there will be so much poison that we can't stop the worst consequences. My current job, enabling the systematic, sophisticated monitoring of ecosystems, will then merely serve the purpose of documenting the death of a planet.

It's easy to see the growing pervasiveness of entertainment. I've used it myself to keep my stress level down when I get too caught up in the bad stuff that's happening. Our species seems to be like a large, dying patient whose body is overwhelmed and whose mind – aided by technology – is creating delusions to deal with the impending shutdown. Science has already shown that time is running out for deciding whether to cure ourselves or to preside over our own deathwatch. I fervently hope that we choose to salvage reality.