- In the house made of dawn,
- In the house made of evening twilight,
- In the house made of dark cloud and rain
- In beauty I walk.
- With beauty before and behind me,
- With beauty below and above,
- With beauty all around me, I walk.
That’s a prayer of The Blessing Way of the Navajos, people who ground their lives in personal dignity and self-determination. But Navajos are also people who believe so tenaciously in not thinking negatively that any mention of death or dying is a strong taboo. Given the inroads of modern medicine into their often isolated communities, this leaves them vulnerable to the enormous indignities and powerlessness of “modern” ways of death, because end-of-life discussions to mitigate them fall under the taboo. How then can they maintain their dignity and reconcile mutually exclusive goals?
For the people who traditionally “walk with beauty,” a way of escape between the horns of the dilemma has appeared in the form of a poem, written in both Navajo and English, which has become a vehicle to discuss living wills and advance directives.
Ben Daitz, M.D., in an article in the New York Times, quotes bioethicist James S. Taylor: “Using the poem and open-ended questions allows nuanced and respectful solutions to this problem because it gives people the opportunity to discuss end-of-life planning impersonally. It’s a compassionate approach, and it’s in accord with the twin values that Navajos share with mainstream American culture — individual autonomy and personal dignity.”
I don’t know how many of you have read and examined and grappled with advanced directives. Probably not many. The national average in America is less than 30 percent. My husband and I have. Talk about official-ese; talk about abstract; talk about ugly language making something uglier — Advanced directives rank right up there. They begin from the point of view: here is the set procedure. Do you want to opt out? And if you don’t opt out, you’re in for it. Considering that these procedures are all about your physical person, there is nothing personal allowed for in the directives.
And yet dying is the last action we will perform in our lives: of course we want to die in dignity, perhaps even in beauty. (Our institutions tend to make this nearly impossible, perhaps because they themselves don’t believe it is possible.)
So what does it look like, the Navajo alternative, the poem that unlocks the discussion?
When that time comes,
when my last breath leaves me,
I choose to die in peace to meet Shi-dy-in — the creator.
And isn’t that what we all want? Not just the Diné, The People, but all of us? To walk in beauty until the very end, and then to die in peace —
Why can’t all of us begin from there?