While I was trawling the Internet one day, I came across this comment on the blog of a jazz musician: “I’ve often joked that every musician’s secret fantasy is to die on the bandstand, at a ripe old age and after a really good solo, and that’s not too far from what I’d actually like to happen a long time from now.”
This made me wonder what a writer’s secret fantasy might be. I was still mulling that over when I remembered William F. Buckley’s obituary. Buckley founded the conservative magazine National Review and wrote more than 50 books. When he died in 2008, he was found at his desk at home. His son thought he might have been working on one of his columns.
Buckley’s strikes me as a really good death, but then I too am a writer. I’m a lifelong workaholic as well.
People who aren’t wedded to their work have good deaths too. When my father was 84, he and my stepmother went to a concert one afternoon, returned home, had dinner and went to bed. In his sleep, he had a massive heart attack. I doubt if he came to for long enough to realize what was happening.
It was hard on the rest of us because it was unexpected—Dad had been pretty healthy up until then—but I was sure it was the way he would have wanted to go: quickly, at the end of a day he’d thoroughly enjoyed. No hanging around for prolonged goodbyes.
On the other hand, hanging around is exactly what my husband did. After a fall and a devastating head injury, he survived in a coma for a week. Our family gathered in his hospice room every day. One by one, we said our goodbyes while alone with him, even though he couldn’t hear us.
We also supported one another in new ways. I felt closer to our children and grandchildren than at any other time in my life.
I think that, for my family, my husband’s was a good death. But he’d have preferred to be conscious, to launch his own opinions into the conversations we had as we sat around his bed and to reminisce with us about good times and bad. He’d also have wanted to say his own goodbyes.
So what is a good death, if there is such a thing? I guess we all have our own ideas about that, if we can bear to think about it. Personally, I’m with Woody Allen, who once wrote, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
I’m not big on goodbyes—they’re too painful—so I’d like to go out the way Buckley did, all of a sudden and in the midst of doing what I love.
As long as I get to finish my last sentence.
Flora Davis has written scores of magazine articles and is the author of five nonfiction books, including the award-winning Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (1991, 1999). She currently lives in a retirement community and continues to work as a writer.