Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Dignity is a word that is, I believe, over used. From the time we are children we are told to lose with dignity, live with dignity, to not lose our dignity, and, finally, to die with dignity.

I have always had a vague notion of what that means in some contexts. If you should happen to lose a game, it means show yourself and those with whom you've played respect. Conduct yourself with honor. Bow to your opponent and understand that you can play again another day. Do not, however, throw the Monopoly board across the room when playing games on family night, when you have landed on Boardwalk and your dapper older brother has built a hotel and you find yourself broke and out of the game. Ahem. Little sister.

To live with dignity, I have come to understand, is to recognize that no matter the circumstance in which you find yourself to carry yourself in a way that you have no cause to apologize to others because you have treated the world and yourself with respect, courtesy, and humaneness.

To avoid losing ones dignity, please refer to the rules around living with dignity.

But the one that I have never truly known, or had cause to know, outside of the realm of pop culture and big screen movies, is to die with dignity. In the cinema it means falling on your sword when you have dishonored yourself or refusing to beg for mercy when you are kneeling on the chopping block and the guilloitine is racing for your neck. When I would see those scenes, usually when I was pretending I was a horribly wronged Mary Queen of Scots or a love lost samurai in Ancient Japan, I would watch the Queen/warrior die, without a sound, and a stoic righteous look on their faces.

That is Hollywood for you.

Life is a lot messier, but the dignity I have come to know in the dying is much more powerful. In the last six months I have lost two family members to cancer. One, my cousin, was taken before he reached the age of 30. The other was the mother of my sister, a family member of choice, who was cut down before she could watch her grandchildren grow up. Both my cousin, Jim, and Mrs. Harris were terrified. Both fought for their lives with tenancity and strength. Both had moments of tears, and both asked for and accepted the love and support of family and friends. But neither of them, one young and one older, wanted or accepted pity. Though neither were a burden and both were lovingly given all that those around them had to give, both acted in such a way that it was obvious that even when they needed to ask for love and support and needed to cry and feel their pain and be afraid, tried their damndest to do otherwise. They both spent more of their time worrying about the impact of their health on their families than they did thinking about themselves. And both, in the end, shut their eyes surrounded by love, devotion, and caring---that they did not beg for but were given because of who they were and how they moved through this world.

That is what it means to die with dignity. It does not mean you are unafraid. It does not mean you do not hurt or ask for love and support. It does mean that you fight like hell, keep living and until the very last moment, and do so in a way that does not demand but accepts the love around you.

In life and in death my cousin and Mrs. Harris taught me something about life, showed me the ways in which I need to look more closely at myself, and gave me the opportunity to love them in the way they deserved to loved.

It is cliche to say, but I would quite literally give anything to have Jim and Mrs. Harris back on this earth, healthy, living, and touchable. I am not God, and I can not bring them back, but I can honor them and the lessons that their living and dying have afforded me. I only hope that when it is my time to leave this world, that I leave it with the same strength, love, and dignity with which they departed. Sleep well family. Thank you.

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