On February 25, 1964, Muhammad Ali won the heavyweight boxing championship of the world. He appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson many times in the decades that followed that victory.
Urban legend has it that on one of these shows, Johnny Carson asked Ali what he was afraid of and Ali responded by saying something like this: “I’m afraid of dying in an airplane crash, with people screaming all around me, babies crying, people praying, the plane heading to the ground, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Carson responded by saying – “So, you’re afraid of dying?” Ali, a man of great faith, said emphatically, “No, I’m not afraid of dying! I’m afraid of being on the way to dying.”
When working on this blog, I had no problem writing the content, but coming up with a name was difficult. It was more than difficult. I mean, what do you name a blog about preparing and planning for death? How do you name this blog in a way that causes people to want to read it, when it’s about a topic nearly everyone wants to avoid?
Over lunch one day with my friend Ron we were trying to come up with a name for this blog when he told me this story, as best he remembered it, about the Carson interview with Muhummad Ali, and an idea was born. Hearing the story, I came to understand more fully that people generally, like Ali, are not necessarily afraid of dying, they are more often afraid of what is going to happen to them on the way to dying.
I think it’s the illness or infirmity that comes with advanced age, which then makes us dependent on others, that scares us more than the imagination of the pain we may suffer. It’s the lack of control over what is going to happen to us, where we will live, who will make decisions for us, who will take care of us; these are just a few of the unknowns that frighten even the strongest among us.
It’s the loss of self-determination in the course of each day at the end of our lives that worries us so much that we don’t want to make plans for our dying. You could also read two other blog posts on this site called We Die the Way We Live and Why Talk About Death? for more thoughts on why we don’t plan for our incapacity and death at the end of our lives.
The good news is this blog is designed to reduce some of that fear about being “on the way to dying” by helping readers with ideas around planning now for what the end of our years/months/days will look like.
For instance, do you have a disease process that is progressive and will bring you to a point where you need assistance with everyday living, e.g., needing help with meals, laundry, showering, dressing? If so, then you want to plan on researching assisted living facilities and home health care resources in your community sooner rather than later. Go get the information you need, make some calculations around costs, and start make some plans now – not when there is a medical crisis that precipitates an emergency choice, or having that choice made for you. This is a topic for an upcoming post.
This blog, with the weird name that’s kind of scary, is intended to give readers information that helps them maintain as much self-determination, independence, and dignity as possible while aging and dying. This blog is about making choices about where and how we pass from this life, to reduce our own suffering and the suffering of those who love us and care for us.
I am forever grateful to Muhammad Ali for the insightful comments attributed to him while appearing on the Tonight Show all those decades ago; they helped me overcome a major hurdle in bringing this blog into the world with a meaningful name.
Gratitude for this post. I am a physician specializing in hospice and palliative care, and this rings true with what I hear patients and families saying.
Reminds me of what Woody Allen said: I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
Daniel, thank you for your reaffirmation – this is what I hear from my elder law clients and their families as well. I believe good information and access to resources can help reduce these fears and that is the intention of this blog.
I look forward to following your blog, because my hospice volunteering, my real estate work dealing with older folks facing various kinds of crises, and my growing number of elderly friends have all made me keenly aware that a lot of people are afraid of talking about preparing for what comes to and comforting sharing with family and friends and makes it far more likely that we will make wise choices and that we’ll have a voice. Great title.
Mary, first and foremost, thank you for all your service as a hospice volunteer! I know your gift of service is vitally important for all the families you visit and support. Thank you for reading the blog and passing it along to those who might be helped by reading it.
Some people find a nice glide path out of this life. Others leave in a train wreck.
My mother in law had a stroke and takes it all in stride with a matter of fact “when I go I go….” spirit. Has her things in order legally and medically. Not in the “Ali panic.”
My father had a chronic degenerative disease, and yet woke up every day thinking he would one day “beat it…” Cognitive dissonance is a fancy way of saying he was in fantasy land. This attitude was more than a bit challenging for those around him—during his life AND after, since he left a number of loose ends.
I think my dad was on the plane that Ali had in mind.
Anyone notice gender patterns in end-of-life behavior?
I have been browsing online greater than three hours lately, yet I never discovered any attention-grabbing article like yours. It is pretty price enough for me. In my view, if all site owners and bloggers made good content material as you did, the web can be a lot more helpful than ever before.
I’m truly honored, thank you for leaving that comment. You know, I write these pieces and wonder as I send them off to the ethernet whether anyone will find them, read them, whether they will help anyone. Thank you for your encouragement! I hope you will follow along as many more engaging topics are yet to come!