When I first started this project, meeting new people posed a bit of a challenge, since social etiquette required engaging in a round of tennis: I lob the conversational ball to them by asking what they do for a living, then they lob it back to me with the very same question, and so on. Given the topic of my project, I felt pretty confident those balls would drop like stones the moment I uttered, oh, I’m writing a book about aging and dying. Turns out I was right, but also wrong.
With few alternatives and not wishing to put off the inevitable, whenever I met someone new I would go for it: I’m a writer and I’m working on a book about aging and dying. Just like that, without any sugar coating. Not surprisingly, my declaration was typically met with a look of dismay, followed by a dip of the head to avoid further eye contact, and then a noncommittal sound that conveyed they’d heard me, but didn’t really know what to do with me.
In an effort to get the conversational ball back in the air, I am quick to explain my reasons. Since aging and dying happen to all of us, why can’t we just talk about it? I describe wanting to help people become comfortable with difficult conversations; to give them information and options so that we, and our loved ones, will have a better chance of experiencing an old age and death of our choosing.
Almost invariably, this is where things start to get interesting. The heads tend come up, the eyes brighten, and without exception, people begin talking freely about their own thoughts and experiences. Maybe it’s about a father who passed away in a hospital, on a ventilator, a situation they knew was the last thing he (or they) ever wanted. Or maybe it’s about a spouse who dealt with a terminal diagnosis, or a grandmother who refused to leave her home, or a parent with dementia that left them with limited options.
As they talk, they become animated and passionate, opening up before my eyes about old age and death, the two-headed dragon. By the time we finish they are often breathless, wholly invested, true believers in this project.
Which tells me I might be on to something.