By Dr. Jim Ferguson
My brother sent me a text saying that our friend had “passed-on.” This was not an unexpected announcement since Mitchell was in a Hospice program ending a valiant battle with pancreatic cancer. In forty years of medical care I’ve only known two patients who have survived this scourge, and unfortunately Mitchell was not the third.
I first met Mitchell on a trek to Mount LeConte. You remember perfect moments and that October day was a 10. You learn a lot about someone when you labor together, climb a mountain with him and especially if you spend a night poking him in the ribs or yelling at him to roll over to stifle his snoring for a while. I said good-bye to Mitchell when we went to his funeral last week on a cold and rainy night. Winter temperatures are certainly lower in the Rocky Mountains than in our Smokies, but we have what is known as “southern cold.”
We live in what is called the Bible Belt because a faith perspective is such an important part of our local heritage. I’m glad for these roots, not because I can magically call upon God to fix my problems, but because I trust in something more than I can understand. The Proverbist said it best, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and soul, and not in your own understanding.” During the service the minister said that a loved one is not lost if you know where they’ve gone. I don’t understand this, but I’ve come to accept and embrace this perspective. It’s a better way to live than existentialism.
We southerners often say that people have “passed-on” instead of saying that they died or passed away. The 16th century humanist Rabelais on his death bed was purported to have said, “I go to seek a Great…Perhaps.” No one knows what happens at death, an experience that none of us can escape. Raymond Moody’s book, “Life After Life,” gives us the well known composite glimpses of near-death experiences that appear to be timeless and cross cultural.
My regular readers realize that I love movies though I recoil at much of the Hollywood culture that so often panders to the basest elements of our society. As an art form movies can nuance stories in a way that books sometimes cannot. I realize that I’m not a trained movie critic, but I recently saw the cinema adaptation of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” and it is wondrous. You must go and experience this timeless tale of situational ethics told with marvelous music and evocative acting. While some of the vocals may not be Broadway quality, the story telling and the passion of the characters are magnificent. At the end, the protagonist Jean Val Jean “passes-on” and is led by the spirit Fontine to the other side of the barricade – truly a remarkable depiction of life after death. And if this whets your appetite, I also recommend Brainstorm for another vision of the other side. I believe there is more than we can know and for me this makes the Universe more majestic.
I deal with death and dying every day. As a doctor we want our folks to live long and well. I once told an elderly patient that it was my job to get him to 100 years old and after that it was the Lord’s responsibility. Of course I was kidding because my efforts are minimal in the scope of things. I do encourage people to make healthy choices that will maximize their odds of successful and long life. Some listen and make those tough choices that are rewarding for the doctor and his patient.
Our mortal bodies will one day stop in what we call death. My job is to push death and dying off into the future and, when death is inevitable, help people make the transition as painlessly as possible. There is a saying, “I don’t fear death, only the dying.” How true this is. I’ve always wondered why some women have easy labor bringing life into the world and some have it tough. I have the same question at the end of life, where some go to sleep and hopefully awaken in paradise, and some struggle mightily in the transition. The Hospice movement is helpful in this final transition and serves patients as well as their families – and doctors, who sometimes need to let go.
Life is precious at any age, yet the greatest adventure lies ahead of us. Perhaps some may consider this perspective foolish or maudlin. I would argue that those who say there is nothing more than what they can prove or understand deny the wisdom of luminaries such are Plato, Jesus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Einstein. How limiting and sad this perspective which seems increasingly prevalent in our 21st century.
I heard an interview of an atheist on NPR recently who remains angry and lost twelve years after her husband’s death. I thought to myself, the husband wasn’t the only person lost. Mitchell’s family disagrees with that perspective and because of their faith they can celebrate his life with a quote from Dr. Seuss, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”