Finding Meaning

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Being Mortal

By Skip Hellewell

When we’re young, our days are like waves on the beach—we imagine they’ll roll on forever. With maturity, we grasp the hard fact of mortality—unlike the waves, our days have a number. We don’t exactly know the number, but we accept there is a number. As our days dwindle down to a precious few—using words from “September Song”—the meaning, or lack of meaning, in our lives gains urgency.

I worshipped at the Unitarian Universalist Church last Sunday. In the sharing moment, a long-time member told of just selling her Laguna home, for the purpose of moving to Sacramento to spend her last days near a son and daughter-in-law. It was a poignant moment. A hard decision had been made. Leaving Laguna isn’t easy, but she had chosen what had meaning for her.

There’s an alternative to leaving. Our Susi Q Center offers a program called Lifelong Laguna designed to facilitate staying in your home during those last days. The program, directed by gerontologist John Fay and assisted by 35 volunteers, offers a variety of services. These include arranging home safety modifications and links to counseling and care providers. They also help with transportation and other needs, as well as connections to social groups. Seventy Lagunatics have signed up to be part of Lifelong Laguna. It’s a remarkable program based on mutual trust that can extend your time in Laguna, perhaps to that last precious day.

I’ve been reading the book “Being Mortal” by the gifted medical writer Atul Gawande. The book presents a modern dilemma: medical technology can extend those precious days, which sounds good. But you may spend them stripped of dignity, lying in a hospital hooked up to a respirator with a morphine IV drip to dull the intolerable pain, which definitely doesn’t sound good.

The book begins by citing from Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” Ilyich, you may recall, is dying and no one around him knows what to do. His worried wife calls in a stream of doctors and specialists who poke and prod in search of a cure that doesn’t exist. Family gather, but having never died, they have no sense of how to help. The awkwardness of it all causes his friends to avoid this once “intelligent, polished, lively, and agreeable man.” Ilyich lies dying, helped only by his servant Gerashim’s humble care.

In our time, the problem of knowing what to do for the dying is compounded by our advanced medical technology. Doctors are hard-wired to keep you alive and have a myriad of means at hand. For most of our life this is a blessing. But doctors, according to Gawande, have difficulty helping with the hard decision of how much medical care is too much as our days dwindle. It’s a decision that revolves around what makes that extra time worth living. This triggers personal issues such as the purpose of your remaining life, and what gives meaning to your days.

“Being Mortal” provides examples of people suffering from chronic disease who faced that decision of how much medical care they wanted. Most failed to actually confront it, it’s a difficult thing to balance when it’s your life resting on the scale. The book also tells of a few who did and were able to choose the path that optimized the time that remained. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected]

Places to worship (all on Sunday, unless noted):

Baha’i’s of Laguna Beach—contact [email protected] for events and meetings.

Calvary Chapel Seaside, 21540 Wesley Drive (Lang Park Community Center), 10:30 a.m.

Chabad Jewish Center, 30804 S. Coast Hwy, Fri. 7 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m., Sun. 8 a.m.

Church by the Sea, 468 Legion St., 9 & 10:45 a.m.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 682 Park Ave., 10 a.m.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, 635 High Dr., 10 a.m.

ISKCON (Hare Krishna), 285 Legion St., 5 p.m., with 6:45 feast.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, 20912 Laguna Canyon Rd., 1:00 p.m.

Laguna Beach Net-Works, 286 St. Ann’s Dr., 10 a.m.

Laguna Presbyterian, 415 Forest Ave., 8:30 & 10 a.m.

Neighborhood Congregational Church (UCC), 340 St. Ann’s Drive, 10 a.m.

United Methodist Church, 21632 Wesley, 10 a.m.

St. Catherine of Siena (Catholic), 1042 Temple Terrace, 7:30, 9, 11, 1:30 p.m. (Spanish), 5:30 p.m. There are 8 a.m. masses on other days and Saturday 5:30 p.m. vigils.

St. Francis by the Sea (American Catholic), 430 Park, 9:30 a.m.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 428 Park Ave., 9:30 a.m

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