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Deciding what your last days will be like

This week I’m thinking about death and dying — and “Enduring Love,” which is a book of end-of-life photographs compiled by hospice nurse and photographer Mary Landberg.

The unique black-and-white portraits and the accompanying narratives are thoughtfully and beautifully presented. The author portrays what happens in the last weeks of dying with messages about “the wisdom of the dying.” She reminds us to “love fully while allowed.”

If the end-of-life topic is on your mind lately too, there’s another recently published, but quite differently presented, book to consider. It’s called “Fear of Dying.” The 73-year-old author, Erica Jong, stunned and then completely engaged her audiences with the sexually explicit “Fear of Flying” four decades ago. Celebrity reviewers are calling this new book about family dying “sensitive” and “very funny?”

Should your last days have elements of fun and funny?” Yes, hopefully they will.

What should your last days be like? It’s a very personal question. What do you want them to be like? Forty-two states have a “Five Wishes” approach that allows you to predetermine certain possibilities and make, in effect, decisions about decisions (www.agingwithdignity.org).

I have an acquaintance who wrote, as one of her “wishes,” that her children ensure she wears a particular shade of lipstick in her final moments. Another friend wishes to be wrapped in her great-grandmother’s “freshly laundered,” handmade velvet quilt.

All states have individual “advance directive” approaches that allow you to spell out decisions about end-of life care (for information, go to www.caringinfo.org or www.cohoroguevalley.org.) Advance directives ask you to identify an “agent” who will do your bidding if you are not able to. We need agents when we buy homes or insurance; makes sense our end-of-life preparations should have one, too.

End-of-life becomes a more interesting topic as we get closer to it, don’t you think? Although some might say the word to use is probably not “interesting.” Maybe I should simply say, “As we get older, end-of-life gets inevitably closer.”

Anything we can do to prethink and prepare is good. And the process of preparing brings us back to the concept of enduring love. The more we understand and ready ourselves for death, the better we will be at wrapping ourselves in the enduring love that is present in our final moments. There are hospice stories about elders waving a smiling goodbye as they leave this world. My mother asked for a poached egg a few minutes before her death, ate it contentedly — and then peacefully passed with all her children at her bedside.

I have several ailing friends and family members right now. Some who are very close to “drifting to the other side,” as one 90-plus man puts it. People I love are having surgeries that will be hard on their life-worn bodies. I just had a transitional birthday — it is time to review my own preparations.

The book of all books on this topic is Atwal Gwande’s “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.” It’s about having hard conversations, letting go, true courage and enduring love.

And yes, be assured, there are parts of that book that will make you smile.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.