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Grapevine : September 2011
As time went on, Jim's health deteriorated. At first, the doctors said he had heart failure, but that diagnosis changed. They determined that Jim had multiple-system at- rophy (MSA), a disease that slowly shuts down the body's organs. Un- fortunately, this would be a long and painful dying process. My visits with Jim began to change. Soon, I was driving him to doctor's appointments. He couldn't stand up as quickly as he used to, and he seemed to be searching for words. Jim's wife was doing more for him, eventually taking early retire- ment to spend time and care for him. As Jim's health declined, we be- gan to talk almost exclusively about the importance of "the practice." The practice of living a spiritual life, of being a good person, of being honest, of having a relationship with God, of being a good husband, etc. Discuss- ing the practice taught us the impor- tance of being present. Even when Jim was in extreme physical pain, he would practice be- ing in the moment, focusing on his breathing as a form of meditation. He meditated on the discomfort moving through him and he practiced being present and trying to transform his pain into love. Jim got a cane, then a walker. The oxygen tank followed, and I was trained to fill it up in case I needed to. Unfortunately, the walker was good for only a few months before he got an automatic wheelchair. The wheel- chair had to be customized with hy- draulics, which allowed it to tilt back and keep Jim's body upright. He had lost the energy and strength to sit up. Jim was spending all of his time in bed. He had no strength to move and was constantly dizzy. The pain was unbearable. Our conversation of "the practice" turned to the practice of dying, in the physical and spiritual sense. Like any good alcoholic, Jim had thought plenty about his death, and he was an organized planner. Jim made sure his bills were paid, his im- portant documents were filed away and his wife knew where all his ac- count numbers and passwords were. He arranged for several major repairs to their house so that his wife wouldn't have to fix them after his death. All his amends were made and everything he needed to say had been said. We discussed at length what the final days would look like: Where he would be, who he would call, who would be at his side, what he would be praying and what he would be fo- cusing on. He even practiced dying, letting the muscles in his body relax and focusing on his breaths, know- ing one of them would be his last. I'll never forget the last time I saw Jim alive. I had decided to sur- prise him at the hospital. When I entered, his face lit up with a smile from ear to ear. His weak voice greet- ed me with all the enthusiasm he could muster. Before going into his 18 September 2011