A black-and-white cat strolls down the quiet corridor of Sydneyʼs Sacred Heart Hospice. In thesurrounding rooms, people lie dying. "Death is not something our culture does well," saysAssociative Professor Richard Chye, Sacred Heartʼs Director of Palliative Care. "We approachdying as if it is something that doesnʼt happen very often." For Mark, Katie and Robert it is about to happen now. To them. As they travel towards death, startling truths emerge. In the face of death, they see life. Where they expected to find fear, some will find profound happiness. And all will discover that death is not a light that goes out, but a light that goes on.
Three stories about travelling towards death – and the life-affirming discovery that death is not a light that goes out, but a light that goes on.
When Mark Cherry turned 50 he received a diagnosis of lung cancer with metastasised tumours in the brain, liver and bones. The shock was indescribable. He was a surfer. Physically robust, active. He was at the beginning of a love bigger than he had ever known. A one-year-old daughter called Scout. For Mark, even the possibility of dying will take time to sink in.
Katie Muncie is just 25 years old when diagnosed with diffused systematic scleroderma. An autoimmune disease that is taking away the face she recognises as 'me' and filling up her lungs with suffocating scar tissue. A graphic artist married with two small children, Katie seems wise far beyond her years. She is not afraid of death. For Katie, knowing death has given her life.
Robert Lloyd suspects he has cancer before he is diagnosed. The 79-year-old set designer has been losing weight and energy. Cancer of the lung is a surprise but not a shock. Robert decides against any treatment to prolong his life. He is happy to let nature take its course. Every day will be a gift. A gift he has a duty to enjoy.
Markʼs treatment does not go well. He responds badly to the radiation and chemotherapy and within weeks of his diagnosis he looks and feels like a dead man walking. Bald, gray, legs swollen with oedema, he now needs a walking stick to get around. Mark struggles with his changing physicality. His sense of self crumbles as the myth of control ebbs away like the outgoing tide. The fragility of life is new terrain and Mark is stumbling with regret and unfulfilled dreams.
Although washing the dishes still "sucks", for Katie there is new found peace in the everyday of domestic life. To be at home with her kids, just being a wife and mother is a state of bliss. Her relationship with God has given her shelter. Her inner peace and happiness is so profound she wouldnʼt trade it, not even for her life.
Tidying up the remains of his life is an enjoyable task for Robert. Thinking who will inherit histreasures. He hopes there is a fellow lover of Queen Victoria because "thereʼs quite a bit of her to get rid of." For Robert, death, like childbirth, is a miracle. And heʼs been surprised by the euphoric moments dying has brought him: Tucked up in a warm bed, some "sinful" chocolate biscuits and an awful Doris Day movie. Eight weeks after his 80th birthday, Robert receives his wish and dies at home.
After disappointing treatment results, Mark decides he doesnʼt want to be in bed but in the world. He stops treatment and returns to his daughter and family. Conflicted and struggling to find peace, Mark never really gives up on life. A short eight months after diagnosis, Mark Cherry dies.
For Katie, life it seems is not done with her yet. A radical trial treatment in the form of a stem cell transplant has changed the odds dramatically in her favour. A 90 per cent chance of death is now a 70 per cent chance of survival.
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