On Dying Once

Published in The Arnold P. Gold Foundation, 6th June 2014.

The first time I ever saw a real corpse was when I walked into the Anatomy 201 dissection room as a second year medical student. The image of that preserved, rubbery cadaver, its mouth fixed with formaldehyde in a death scream reminiscent of Munch’s famous painting, is something I still carry with me, even though I’ve seen countless lifeless bodies since then.

On a cool morning in early May just a few years ago, I visited my 80-year-old patient Ray at his home in suburban Melbourne. Something about Ray always brought back the face of that dead man in the dissection room for me. Baggy folds of skin on Ray’s cheeks dragged his lower lids down so that his eyes watered constantly, and the collar of his blue checkered shirt was heavily stained. Only moments after I had walked into his tiny house, his duck tried to nip me.

“Hell, don’t mind her,” he said as the feathered lunatic followed me into the kitchen, snapping at my ankles. “She’s an old bitch.”

Ray sat down at the Laminex kitchen table and pushed some cold baked beans around his plate with a fork. He finally managed to stab one and, with his hand trembling, aimed it at his mouth.

“Ever think about dying, Ray?” I don’t know why I said it out loud.

He looked up at me and smiled, as toothless as his duck. “Nah,” he said, piercing another bean with his fork. “Only wanna die once.”

“How’s that?”

He shot another bean into his mouth and chewed for several moments. “Well, Doc. It’s like this. If I thought about dying all the time, I’d die a thousand deaths a day.”

Ray stood up slowly and carried his plate over to a kitchen sink piled high with dishes. He scraped the leftovers of his meal into a bowl and, bending over slowly, placed it on the floor for his wiry dog. Shuffling over to the fridge, he pulled out a Foster’s Lager bottle filled with milk, placed a rubber teat over its mouth and carried it out to the porch. A black lamb came running over from behind the apple tree to suckle from the beer bottle. Two tabby cats wound their way around Ray’s legs, licking up the drops of milk that spilled on his slippers. The duck, still eyeing me, waddled outside behind us and settled herself into the washing basket under the clothesline. Ray’s backyard was teeming with the cacophony of life.

But the thing that fascinated me most about Ray was that despite never wanting to talk about his own ill health or impending death, he tended lovingly to a miniature pet cemetery down the back of his yard. He carved the name of each animal he had cared for into miniature gravestones and visited each one every day. I began to realize that Ray wasn’t so much avoiding death as he was surrounding himself with life. Caring for his animals was a triumphant act. Instead of clinging precariously to a lonely life devoid of quality, Ray achieved a life-affirming happiness by caring for the creatures he was responsible for and loved. Even the brief nature of their little lives offered him a healthier perspective on mortality, and that may have been the key for him to lead a fruitful life.

On another visit a few weeks later, as I clipped Ray’s neglected toenails, his old kelpie kept nuzzling at me for attention. His cat sat on the kitchen table purring to be petted. It occurred to me then how similar my life was to Ray’s in a way. Caring for someone other than ourselves offers a way out from fears that make us “die a thousand deaths a day,” whether that someone is an animal, a child, a friend or, in my case, a patient. If we strive to immerse ourselves in the lives of others, then maybe we’ll only have to die once.

The above is an excerpt from a forthcoming book to