“Taking Measures” by Mary Stein

A couple of mornings ago I was walking down the street toward the dojo. I had come for the usual morning practice, carrying something that felt unusual and a little uncomfortable. It was what is euphemistically called an “advance health care directive”—one of those papers you sign stating what measures, if any, you’d like taken when you’re dying.

A few days before I had tuned in to a radio program on which a doctor described the experience of seeing his mother through to the end of her life. She had been perfectly clear that she didn’t want to be kept alive at any cost, and he spoke of being relieved that she had fully communicated that. He said it is quite horrible to be put on a ventilator, a torment that can occasionally last for months—that you have to be heavily drugged to keep the body from instinctively trying to rip the thing out.

I am more than old enough to need to communicate my wishes in this matter, and hearing that got me going. Over the weekend I downloaded the template for the directive from the web and added my own phrasing, basically stating that I wanted no extraordinary measures to keep me alive when my time was up. Two witnesses were needed, so I thought I’d take the form with me to the dojo the next time I went there.

And then I hesitated—was this too personal, bringing up my death in this way to unsuspecting folks? Should I just get the form notarized and thus dispense with witnesses? On the other hand, I reasoned, the personal in this case is pretty universal, and it’s part of what underlies my interest in aikido. Warriors like the samurai have been saying it’s a good day to die for thousands of years, and I even like to picture a certain connection to all those brave ones. Most of that connection may be imaginary—and yet I took up aikido with the thought of learning to face danger in its many aspects, and perhaps I do know something about dying from all these years of taking ukemi. Maybe my body has developed a deeper understanding and acceptance of “falling” that the mind hasn’t caught up with yet. And if I’ve learned something about that, then so have the people I practice with, in their own personal ways.

So I took the form with me the next morning. As I neared the dojo, there approached from the other direction a slender, dark-haired young man wearing a black tee-shirt emblazoned with a gaping skull done in calligraphic strokes of brilliant white. He peered in at the still-empty mat through the front window, then walked on. My inner commentator briefly cast about for the meaning of this piece of synchronicity, then fell silent as the door opened and I entered the dojo.

Practice began. James, the instructor, has told me he’d like to keep me on the mat “as long as possible,” and during the warm-up he supervised some adjustments to my back roll, which has become less limber. We’ve been working on my current front roll for some time, and he nodded his tempered approval of the way those measures were working. One of our number was getting ready to test, and our practice for the hour focused on ikkyo through gokyo, so I had plenty of chances to study falling forward onto my belly, and then getting up from that particular landing in an economical, knee-friendly way.

After practice, James and Donald were folding their hakama as I approached with the form, which they were quite willing to sign. James asked if I was asking “not to resuscitate,” and I said no, that I thought the defibrillator was a fine invention. After he and Donald had signed as witnesses, James suggested that I might want to leave a copy of the directive at the dojo. Donald (who had heard the same radio program that I had) wondered if we should require one of these from every new member. We considered, briefly, the prospect of such an interesting welcome, and left it for another day. For that day I felt welcomed, mortality and all.

Mary Stein practices aikido at Suginami Aikikai in San Francisco. Her book The Gift of Danger will be published by North Atlantic Books in August.

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