A Request

Ursula Le Guin

[From Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems 1960-2010. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.]

Should my tongue be tied by stroke
listen to me as if I spoke

and said to you, “My dear, my friend,
stay here a while and take my hand;

my voice is hindered by this clot,
but silence says what I cannot,

and you can answer as you please
such undemanding words as these.

Or let our conversation be
a mute and patient amity,

sitting, all the words bygone,
like a stone beside a stone.

It takes a while to learn to talk
the long language of the rock.”

The panel discussion that we hosted in early October to discuss Ballot Question #2 (“Prescribing Medication to End Life”) was a thought-provoking and emotionally-charged experience. As Ursula Le Guin’s poem reminds us, issues surrounding physical incapacity and the events which often befall us at the ends of our lives can be deeply unsettling. Sometimes, if we are lucky–or purposeful–they can spur us to action.

Regardless of how Massachusetts voters resolve Ballot Question #2, the concerns from which it emerged will not go away. End-of-life questions are important for all of us yet, in my pastoral experience, they are all too often shunted aside. Far too many of us will one day find ourselves in extremis without having articulated what it is that we want for ourselves as we approach death, often leaving confused and anguished loved ones to second-guess our desires.

It is no coincidence that winter has, through the ages, served as a poetic metaphor for death. As we slowly make our way into another winter, let us resolve to use this season wisely. A wealth of books, articles and websites exist to support our efforts to clarify for ourselves what we do, and do not, desire at the end of our lives. I can think of few greater gifts we can give our loved ones than a conversation from the heart that addresses these vital issues.

Even as we consider these important issues, we would do well to articulate equally important spiritual matters. How do we wish to be remembered? What do we want our survivors to know about what motivated and inspired us when we lived? What will we bequeath our loved ones that is not material in nature but which is reflective of our deepest and most cherished beliefs? The Jewish tradition of creating an ethical will reflects that impulse. It, too, can be a gift of inestimable value to those who will survive us.

Reb Elias