Jane’s Purple Funeral
A friend of mine died in February. Jane Meier was about my age, i.e. too young to die. She was a beloved local theatre teacher and mentor to legions of kids, mine included. She had an platoon of great doctors and an army of prayer warriors and well wishers on her side, but she also had lung cancer, so the outcome was not really a shock. At St. Peter’s Church in Concord, many of the crowd of “mourners” wore purple, Jane’s favorite color. Hymns mixed with Broadway show tunes. My youngest daughter and some of her friends sang “Seasons of Love” from “Rent.” Two of Jane’s best friends sang “For Good” from “Wicked.” The refrain of that Stephen Schwartz song — “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better. Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.” — still echoed as smiling people with damp eyes filed out. Jane’s funeral service, scripted by her, seemed strangely like a victory parade.
Medicine has historically been a battlefield where doctors and health care workers, mere mortals, have pitted themselves against a cosmic enemy: Death. Each year our Top Doctors issue is a salute to some of the men and women on the frontlines of the battle. Dr. Ira Byock, our cover subject, has a slightly different role in this campaign. As a specialist in palliative medicine, or end-of-life care, he might be seen less as a soldier and more as a diplomat, a negotiator.
“In order to affirm life one has to really affirm all of life,” says Byock. “Dying is an inherently difficult but also normal time of human life.” He admits that hospital medicine has often overemphasized the treatments and tests and scans. “Palliative care has emerged as a corrective, to make sure that persons aren’t lost in our focus on the physiology and pharmacology of treatment.” And he has a message for patients as well. “For we boomers, I often say it’s time to grow the rest of the way up. We need to get over it. There are worse things than dying and the main worse thing is dying badly. This time we call dying is actually a time of living. As hard as it is, it is often a very valuable and meaningful time for patients and their families.”
That said, the achievements of the health care field in extending life were certainly not in vain. Adding years to life, and health to those years, has given millions the time they need to figure out what purpose they might have in this world, and to grasp the mature joys of contributing to the lives of others. Thanks to the miracles of medicine, Jane’s life was extended long enough that she could travel from the hospice to enjoy every performance of the last play she directed, a Concord High School production of “Oklahoma,” and receive a standing ovation from the audience and the cast.
“Live free or die,” said New Hampshire’s secular saint, John Stark. “Death is not the worst of evils.” Some Granite Staters still puzzle over those words (note the recent flap over placing them on our official “welcome” signs), but maybe Stark just meant that a life filled with meaning and sacrifice given freely puts even death into perspective. At least, that’s what Jane’s purple funeral meant to me.