In The Midst Of Life We Are In Death

This has been a long and busy week, dominated by death: three deaths in particular.

On Wednesday I conducted the funeral of Diane Campbell-Hunt. Diane was about two weeks younger than me; a still, secure, beautiful woman who was a musician and singer and mother and academic and wife and friend. Look up the word Greenie in the dictionary and there is a photo of Diane. She was passionate about the planet and the life that grows on it in all its forms. She was also passionate about people: about her husband Colin and their melded family of six extraordinary children; about her many friendships; about people who are oppressed and disadvantaged. Ten days ago, she was tramping on Mt. Taranaki with her daughter Katherine. A vastly experienced and sensible mountaineer, she was swept away by a swollen river in one of those absolute accidents to which no blame could ever be set and for which no explanation could ever be given. The shock of her death was, to me, an almost physical blow; she was so alive, so vital. So on Wednesday, with our little church and its two adjacent halls crammed to bursting with similarly shocked people who had gathered from all over the country, we celebrated her and wept.

Later in the week I visited the family of Gwen, an elderly woman I have known for about a decade. Gwen suffered many life threatening illnesses: diabetes, heart conditions and, recently, kidney problems. On Monday night I took the eucharist to her in hospital where she had been rushed earlier in the day. She was very ill, but Gwen had been very ill many times before, and recovered. I left soon after we had prayed together, fully expecting that her quiet strength would pull her through yet again. Not this time. She died early the next morning, and her funeral will be held early next week. She will be surrounded by friends because, as it was with Diane, she was one of those people whom many others admire and trust.

Yesterday the same hospital sent me a letter with an appointment to see yet another medical professional and talk about my options for treatment. I have been reading about prostate cancer which is a complex disease, and the consensus seems to be that with the particular combination of factors my illness has presented to me, the issue is not so much cure as management of symptoms. I have a high Gleason score, the cancer had spread outside the prostate and after radical prostatectomy I have a measurable PSA level. In the giddy world of prostate fashions, this is not a good look. The good news is that, often, the symptoms can be managed, quite effectively and for many years. This is, though, a disease of the urinary and reproductive system and the symptoms are ones which will strike at my self esteem and dignity and sense of manhood. Given the certainty that it will accelerate the advent of these issues, do I want them blasting away with external beam radiation on the off chance that it might - but only might - increase my life span a bit? Should I rely on the diet and meditation which are already having a measurable effect on my waistline, at least? Are the trinkets of my self esteem and dignity and sense of manhood heavy enough to weigh against the real treasures which an extended life might give me?

I have had a recurring fantasy all this week. A blood red Ducati. Panniers in which a minimal amount of belongings are stashed and a stretch of winding open road. I know it is escapist nonsense. I know that I haven't been on a bike for so long that 1100cc of highly tuned Italian motorcycle engine would probably see me off within the month. But I know that given my choices I would rather go like Diane than like Gwen: passionate, full of life and doing something rich and real, rather than having my body fall to bits slowly over the years.

This week I minister at the deaths of two people and say what I know to be true. In the midst of life we are in death, and the choice of when and how is never ours. Knowing this fact, that death is close and unpredictable, and accepting it, is what both Gwen and Diane, in their own ways, managed to do. It was, I think, one of the things that made both of them the compelling people they were. I hope that I, in my turn, can manage it also.

Copyright unknown.
This is a 2006 ST3, a true work of art and the object of lust and fantasy. It is a simply lovely sports tourer, but unfortunately they don't make them any more. Mind you, a Multistrada, ugly though it might be, would do just as well. Better maybe.


Janice said…
Kelvin, that is one thing I like about you, you don't beat around the bush! I understand what you are saying about choices, and as an aging diabetic I have lately been thinking about my own. Having watched a number of people die of cancer, being treated with chemotherapy to the bitter end, sick and bald and miserable, I would not choose this myself. I will never understand why the medical profession (or is that the pharmaceutical profession?) cannot just let people go painlessly and with dignity, but I suspect that money is the real issue, not humanity.

I have always considered suicide to be an option if things became unbearable, but I have never thought of a motorcycle as the method. I think your manhood is quite intact, at least the macho part of it, but what about your family and friends? Certainly none would want you to to suffer, but what if flying off a mountain on a motorbike didn't kill you, but left you a parapalegic or worse? The fantasy of the motorcycle might be much more useful to you than the reality.

The confusing thing about death is that we all have to do it, and mostly none of us want to. You know those stories that people tell of their near-death experiences? What if the long tunnel, the bright light at the end, and the people waiting to greet one was simply the birth process, which, I imagine, is exactly like that, would we cling so hard to this life instead of skipping happily into the next? An Anglican priest friend of mine once told me he hated funerals, and being curious, I asked him why. "I'm afreid of death", he said, and I've seen this over and over again in the Anglican community; i find this remarkable in a community of believers, because even if we can't quite buy the idea of heaven, surely we could hold a personal belief that God has some sort of plan for us?

Taking care of unfinished business is, I think, the most important job we have before we die, Kelvin.
Then, I think, we can pass peacefully into the next life. I recently read somewhere "you cried when you were born while others smiled to see you; live your life so that when you die, you are smiling, and others are crying.
May God bless and keep you, friend.
VenDr said…
Never fear,Janice,I'm not about to top myself, and if I did, I'd choose a more certain and cheaper method and one that didn't involve the sacrilege of totaling a work of automotive art.

Motorcycles are about living. They are about controlling immense amounts of power, and about dancing. They are about great speed felt at about normal walking height and in the open air. They are about the sweep of g-forces felt during tight corners, quick braking and hard accelerations. They are about the satisfaction of knowing you have made great technical choices coming out of a tight and dangerous turn and the adrenalin rush of wondering if you have it right while going into them.Unfortunately, all the above means that motorcycles are also, all too often, about death but that is never but NEVER the reason you climb on board. And for all the "born again riders" of about my age, all the lovely stuff is conducted in memory anyway as we potter tamely but safely about using about 3% of the power of our beautiful and expensive bits of metal. We're all too worried about our hernias and hip replacements and we're all 30 years past believing in our own invincibility.

One of the lovely things I have learned with certainty over this last few months is that I am not afraid of death. Like you, I see it as the dawn of a new life rather than the end of an old one, and the prospect is even, in a way, quite exciting.But I'm quite happy for God to make the choice of how and when. What pulls me up short is not the prospect of death, but the prospect of gradual and increasingly debilitating decay. What occupies me is my now certain knowledge of the finitude of life and a determination to spend what time is left to me wisely. Every last second of it.
Janice said…
One of the other great things about you is your sense of humour! So about the motorcycle, the joys of which I have never understood until recently when I got an electric scooter because of my mobility problems. This little beauty does a whopping 10 mph, allows me to feel the wind in my hair and every bump on the road, and causes me to think technically when I ride across a steeply sloping driveway, so that I lean the other way to avoid tipping over. I find myself wishing that it would go faster, and then I hit a bump that I didn't spot, and I recant. I suppose scooters could be about death too, even with three wheels! Motorists often don't see me, or pretend not to, and I prefer riding on the road because it has fewer bumps than the sidewalk, so I have to trust the motoring public not to drive right over me. I can see how a bike can be exhil1arating (I used to be able to spell too!) and I wish I had tried it when I was young. Ah well, to all things there is a season...

One sure thing is that we have to live until we die, and I'm glad that you choose to do it joyously!
You are an amazing man, and it is my privilege to know even a little of you.
VenDr said…
So, Janice, a mobility scooter, eh? Now you're really talking. How about a bigger battery and rewinding the coils in the engine? Wider tyres for corners? Lowering the suspension just a tad. We'll get that baby up to 25mph no trouble at all, and then you can start looking out for its replacement.

Like one of these for instance
Tillerman said…
I would like to extend my condolences to the immediate families, to you and the community you serve in the loss of the two people you mention (Diane and Gwen). No matter what age someone passes away, it is always keenly felt, but in the case of accidents the shock is palpable and hard to come to terms with. As you allude to, we live in paradox - we live, yet we are dying.
In the end good old Kiwi caring and up holding one another sees us through these difficult times.
Tillerman said…
I am afraid that I am going to have to take you to task regarding the state of denial that you have conjured up for yourself.

Is one of the ballsiest guys I know who once drove a mark something Zephyr over a bridge at night at 110 miles per hour (I know this fact - I was looking at the speedo) and then did the really dumb arse thing of turning the head lights out going to talk about creative notions from the unconscious as "escapist nonsense?"

A "recurring fantasy?" you say! Good God man a blood red Ducati is a passport to middle aged adolescence - you Embrace It! you don't wimp out with statements like "they don't make them anymore" what are yah?

Take a look on TradeMe - there are heaps of Ducatis ST2s and ST4s and HondaVFRs, Triumph STs, BM double yous galore!! And you know what? - compared to the new prices they are relatively cheap.

No I'm not listening to any of this slippers and rug over the knees stuff.
You are making a case of Either / Or on this issue. It’s not a case of “A Ducati AND Death / No Ducati AND Life”, any more than it is a case of “an electric scooter and a long life” - When death comes, it comes like a thief in the night, (in your case you will be hard to find as you will probably be on a bridge somewhere on a motorbike with the lights turned off).

I told you as I left Dunedin the other week that my next visit south will be on a motorbike. If I visit and find you on an electric scooter, a hideous trike of some sort or some other wimpy contraption not befitting your known ballsiness (metaphorical or otherwise) your backside may be kicked (metaphorical or otherwise) all around the church precincts.

When it comes to Ducatis (which can be a symbol of many things to do with embracing a second adolescence)or anything else on your "Bucket List" don't think too hard and long - just go and Carpe Diem. :-)
Janice said…
Mr. Tillerman - when you come back from rampaging through the jungle, all hairy and breast beating, go out and try an electric scooter. Imagine yourself unable to walk more that a few steps, and ask yourself if the scooter is really wimpy, or a very means to an end. And I was not suggesting that Kelvin should get one, I was only identifying with him, in a way. The scooter I have, by the way, is a Fortress Winner; it has two large batteries, and is rather smart looking in silver. Think I'll paint some flames on the sides, and 'death to sissies' on the back, and perhaps I'll bowl over a few pedestrians just to demonstrate how tough I am!!!

Now, before you lose your sense of haha, I'm just having fun with you!
Tillerman said…
"Death to Wimps" has a better ring to it, make the flames orange, red, yellow and blue (running the full length of the scooter) and when you bowl the pededtrians over swear at them in a foreign language (adds to the confusion).

All of that stuff about motorbikes and wimps is only my attempt at a bit of humour, I am at a loss really as to what to say whilst with a lump in my throat I realise that a very dear friend is facing such a big challenge.

But he's tough, all he needs is a red Ducati, a long bridge and a very dark night to prove it.
Tillerman said…
Having said all that I know that mobility scooters must be a real God send for some people and give them such independence.

If I am in a situation some day where I need one I hope I have the good grace to accept the situation without making a scene and insisting on bolting trainer wheels on my motorbike.
VenDr said…
Hey, don't go dissing the mobility scooters. I have great plans for Janice's scooter, and flames along the side is the least of it. As we speak, I'm sourcing one of the spare generators from Benmore to use as an engine. Plug that sucker into the national grid and run it backwards and we'll have like, 2,000 horsepower. We'll need parachutes to stop it. And a very long extension cord.

My father in law had a mobility scooter when he was.... er.... dying from prostate cancer. In his last months he got a bit muddled.Senior moments became senior minutes, hours, days and eventually weeks. On several occasions he confused the scooter for his car and took off down the roadway in it. One time the confusion went the other way, he climbed into his car and drove off down the footpath, until he got wedged between a lamp post and a fence. I only hope that I,in my turn, can provide my own family with such similar moments of harmless hilarity.

And Yes, I've seen the Ducatis on Trademe. There is also a motorcycle importer in Dunedin who has a whole row of Ducatis - the whole range including a couple of low mileage STs. A very well presented ST4, though in a most unfortunate battleship gray; and an ST2 in a dark, rotten plum sort of navy blue. No wonder nobody in Japan wanted them.
janice said…
Are all New Zealanders as funny as you two? Kelvin, you can do whatever you want to my scooter, as long as I don't have to wear one of those stupid helmets (can't feel the wind in my hair with one of those on!), and TM, I knew about the lump in your throat, it's like men punching each other instead of hugging, except in US football, where they blatantly pat each other's rumps!

So, I say lets dash the tears from our eyes, and try to inject as much hilarity into our lives as possible - because, as they say, laugh and the world laughs with you...for perhaps in that way, in the midst of death we can be in life. God love the both of you!
Anonymous said…
Sorry, Kelvin. to use your blog as an intermediary, but I cannot let Janice's comment go unchallenged Yes, chemo made me bald, sick and miserable, but I wanted to live another day. Money didn't come into it. I trusted my medical professionals, and in spite of that dreadful misery, we are still ahead! Thank God and my caregivers.
Verna said…
Blokes and their sheds are okay, but blokes and their bikes could be a whole other stratum of society. However, I watched my fiance, some 30+ years ago, get decapitated while doing the ton round a bend and crashing into a large semi-trailer. Not a pretty picture and a scene I would hate to see repeated by any of my friends. However, I am one Anglican who is not afraid of dying - having had a near-death experience. I would prefer to go out with my boots on rather than as a dribbling, incontinent sufferer of Alzheimer's - just not quite yet!
Janice said…
We're all afraid of ending up drooling idiots with no control over our bodily functions, and for me, being kept alive after all hope of a 'real' life is gone is out of the question. If none of us die of natural causes, what will we die of?
I made my two sons promise to shove me into the next life if I'm gaga, and, oddly enough, neither was reluctant to do so!!

I am, like Kelvin, oddly excited by the prospect of dying/living on the next plane, wherever that may be. If we truly believe in God's plan for us, then why would we be reluctant? By the same token, why do we mourn those who go on first, instead of rejoicing that we knew and loved them while they were here. I know, I know, loss is a terrible thing, and so personal, but to put an objective spin on it, do we trust our God or not?
And I truly, truly believe that the pharmaceutical industry has a vested interest in selling their products whether they are really useful or not. Having worked in several clinics, I do not trust doctors either, I could tell you stories that would curl your hair!
And don't even ask me about breast cancer; all those millions of dollars poured in and still no cure? Pffffft!!!

Verna, things like your boyfriend's death are why I don't much care for motorcycles. The cons heavily outweigh the pros, statistically, but men of all ages, and some women, love them so of course they will ride. Even my scooter is dangerous, because people really don't seem to see me in intersections, and I have to be very watchful when crossing streets.

At any rate, I'm a big fan of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who brought the dying out of our hospitals' back rooms, and taught us how to care for them in their last days. She believed, because of what her patients told her, that we go on after death, and that is my fondest belief.
Anonymous said…
Diane would have hated the bike (noisy, loud) - but she would completely understand why you love it so - and would have smiled (as ever!) and waved you off on your journey, happy for you.
I sat there at her funeral, aware of my own sadness, and the grief of the friends on both sides of me. Then I became aware of a thumping noise. A toddler in the room next to the office, feeling particularly angst-ridden with the duplo? No, it was the builders working on the site across the road from the church, right by the school. At first I was angry - how could they work while we were trying to say goodbye to our friend? But in the midst of life, we ARE in death - and (as Abbess Catherine is reminded, in "In this House of Brede" by Rumer Godden) in the midst of death we are in life.
A death, a new house, endings and beginnings, a blood-red motorbike , wind in the hair and a yell of happiness- and a quiet-soaked, moss-green letting-go.
Ronnie Bray said…
I have sympathy for any that are convinced that what follows death is annihilation.

As to the manner of our deaths, I dare say that we are entitled to consider how it might be effected, but since death is inevitable it is as well to be fatalistic about it and know it is in the hands of God, or, perhaps, in the hands of a fellow earthling with a penchant for danger, or even someone with a gun who feels the need to shoot at someone, or a drunk driver, or Ca, TB, TIA, CI, AC, or any of the exotically named pestilences that the flesh is heir to.

But essentially we should remember that:

'Tis not for us to say when we are done.
This little time we have before the sun
Was bought for us with such a wealth of grief,
Such wasted hopes, such sad, betrayed belief."

Anonymous said…
I came across your blog accidentally - I'm in the Uk and loved the pic of the bike - but here's the thing - yesterday my daughters saw a biker hit by a car and instantly dead. At the same time my husband, coming from a different place, saw another biker hit and killed. I myself am a paraplegic amputee, following, yes, a bike accident when I was hit by a car. I was a lifetime biker of 58. Would I ever ride as motorbike again? Give me two legs and a big kawasaki and I'd be riding in a flash, praying for a different outcome next time. In the midst of life we ARE in death and there's no getting away from it. Let's live, with as much care and love as we can manage, while we can.
Thanks for letting me have my say.
All the very best to you in your own struggles.