These are excerpts from Dr. Simonton’s talk in Tampa, Florida.
My father did not become ill by accident. I had watched his health deteriorate over the last several years. Three years ago, in the summer of 1979, after having multiple illnesses, heart attacks, end-stage liver disease and encephalitis, and after not being expected to live, he was one of the most exciting medical case histories I had ever known.
I had always referred to him as my favorite patient. This became particularly true after he began using results of my work to improve his own health. At age 67, in 1979, he qualified in the senior men’s timed events in the national finals of the National Rodeo Association. For almost anyone, he was at that point in excellent health, particularly for a 67-year-old man who had been near death.
After that summer, he stopped riding. There were several big events which precipitated this. The largest was the suicide of a grandson in February of 1981, almost to the day 18 months before he died. We always look for special events 6 to 18 months before a diagnosis of cancer. He held himself responsible for his grandson’s suicide, who was only 14 years old.
When we were together that Fourth of July, it was clear to me Pop was dying. I had not seen him between February and July, and it was very clear to me that he was moving toward death. I started including him in my schedule, one weekend a month. He lived 220 miles from me, and I wanted to spend time with him. There was a lot I wanted to get to know prior to his death, and I knew that might not be far off.
Then, in November of 1981, just before Thanksgiving, a great-granddaughter died of crib-death. That was very hard on him. She was about a month old.
I hated to go home that Christmas. There were three major crises going on in the family, and I didn’t want to be spending my Christmas in that turmoil. But I went, and I was ill. I had awakened at four in the morning ill, and by six I was throwing up. I knew that it wasn’t going to keep me from going, that I was just going to be sick, and that I was going to show them how to use illness. The family asked me why I was sick; I knew they would ask me because they are all familiar with my work. My oldest niece said, “Obviously, you’re sick because you don’t want to be here.” “Right,” I said.
It was a very difficult and a very rich Christmas. We held the first of a series of family meetings to discuss Pop’s dying. My older sister said that Pop was having a rough time, but that, after all these many illnesses, he would come out the other side of it. She was the oldest, and she knew best. I liked hearing that. Mom and Dad’s fiftieth wedding anniversary was coming up the following November, and none of us thought he would have the guts to die before then. We were wrong.
His 70th birthday in February was a very big event. He talked about being 70 as being as long as a person ought to live. He continued to go downhill, mostly stayed in the house and continued his retreat from life. He didn’t want any serious discussions — after one major attempt to bring up a serious topic, a terrible experience for me, I decided that I would spend time with him on his terms.
He was worse in June. In July, he was hospitalized with fever of unknown origin. On the 24th, the four of us kids and some of the in-laws met again. No diagnosis had been made. We said that the problem was not what he was dying of, because he had been dying for a long time. The problem was that he was dying. Only a week after that, he was diagnosed with advanced malignancy. We knew that was a distinct possibility.
I didn’t know if Dad would want me to be involved with his care. I was prepared for him not to want me around as he died. But his reaction to the diagnosis was that he wanted to fight to get well, and that he wanted me to help him. Over and over he commented to the family that this would really test me, and my beliefs, and my abilities.
I proceeded to think through all I had learned over the past 12 years, and how it might apply to his treatment. I was pleased with what my work had developed, and excited about going ahead. And I was scared. I knew that it would be a sonofabitch of a job.
He was diagnosed on a Saturday with advanced widespread cancer extensively involving his liver. No treatment was appropriate. On Tuesday we had another family meeting. I saw that it was going to be a difficult time whether he got well or died. He hadn’t gotten sick by accident. I had dealt with many people who had regained health from such a situation, and I knew that it was hell, that it involved real transformations of life stances, that it involved the whole family. I outlined what I wanted the family stance to be. I wanted us to believe that he could get well, though I knew we all had our own beliefs. Having dealt with the recoveries of a lot of people a lot sicker than Dad, it was easy enough for me to believe that he could get well. That was not central, though. What was central was that it was okay with us that he might die, even though we wanted him to get well.
Because I knew him so well, I took the liberty of setting the goals and plans for his program. Meditation was the first thing, because he had used it over and over, and had confidence in his ability to use it. He had incorporated meditation as a health practice and had taught it to patients in hospitals and nursing homes where he was a Baptist chaplain. His physical activities were simple: he was just to get dressed three times every week. We set some goals for his diet, and discussed the important element of purpose in life. Dad was to journal what he was doing.
Six days later he had only gotten dressed once. He had gotten cranky and cantankerous, and hated to have anyone remind him of what he was supposed to be doing. We got together again and had a family meeting. We all agreed that he was making only a token effort at regaining his health. We agreed to confront him with it, and to see whether he wanted to continue. So we did. We presented it to him straight: he wasn’t doing nearly enough to get well. He agreed that he wanted to give it another shot, that he wanted to try to get well. And so he did for another four days.
He had been a boxer in his youth. He began to use a phrase I never heard him use. He said he was going to throw in the towel. And from that time on, he didn’t show the ambivalence I have seen in so many patients. Dad became peaceful, no pain. He was really loving and expressed a lot of love. When I got home the next time, he asked me if it was okay with me for him to die. I said that wasn’t what I wanted for him, and reassured him that I was willing to work with him to die, just as I was willing to work to help him to try to live. He said that he wanted to get it over in a hurry.
It made sense to me that, if he were going to die, he should die quickly, painlessly, and comfortably. He said he didn’t know how to do that. I told him that I thought that one can use the same tools in dying as in living.
Most persons I have dealt with don’t want to ask the questions, don’t want to actively involve themselves in dying. He kept asking me how. I told him that one can meditate on dying just as one can meditate on living. I was amazed that he was asking such important and clear questions. No patient had asked me this; families had, but I had never been forced to formulate a response to a patient. Dad was a preacher. I told him to relax himself, to think about turning loose of life and going to be with God. It seemed to make sense to him.
He proceeded to die comfortably and quietly. He was dead five days later.