Excerpts from a letter by Adam Smith, LL.D., to William Strahan, Esq., about the death of David Hume.
November 9, 1776
It is with a real, though a very melancholy pleasure, that I sit down to give you some account of the behaviour or our late excellent friend, Mr. Hume, during his last illness . . . . His cheerfulness was so great, and his conversation and amusements run so much in their usual strain, that, notwithstanding all bad symptoms, many people could not believe he was dying . . . . But, though Mr. Hume always talked of his approaching dissolution with great cheerfulness, he never affected to make any parade of his magnanimity. He never mentioned the subject but when the conversation naturally led to it, and never dwelt longer upon it than the course of the conversation happened to require: it was a subject indeed which occurred pretty frequently, in consequence of the inquires which these friends, who came to see him, naturally made concerning the state of his health . . . .
Thus died our most excellent, and never to be forgotten friend; concerning whose philosophical opinions men will, no doubt, judge variously, every one approving, or condemning them, according as they happen to coincide or disagree with his own; but concerning whose character and conduct there can scarce be a difference of opinion. His temper, indeed seemed to be more happily balanced, if I may be allowed such an expression, than that perhaps of any other man I have ever known. Even in the lowest state of his fortune, his great and necessary frugality never hindered him from exercising, upon proper occasions, acts both of charity and generosity. It was a frugality founded, not upon avarice, but upon the love of independency. The extreme gentleness of his nature never weakened either the firmness of his mind, or the steadiness of his resolutions. His constant pleasantry was the genuine effusion of good-nature, tempered with delicacy and modesty, and without even the slightest tincture of malignity, so frequently the disagreeable source of what is called wit in other men. It never was the meaning of his raillery to mortify; and therefore, far from offending, it seldom failed to please and delight, even those who were the objects of it. To his friends, who were frequently the objects of it, there was not perhaps any one of all his great and amiable qualities, which contributed more to endear his conversation. And that gaiety of temper, so agreeable in society, but which is so often accompanied with frivolous and superficial qualities, was in him certainly attended with the most severe application, the most extensive learning, the greatest depth of thought, and a capacity in every respect the most comprehensive. Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.
My oldest brother, on the right in this picture, died in his sleep on Friday, April 29, 2016. He was 84. It was a peaceful passing. (My brother Lee is on the left in the photo.) After escaping our violent birth-family as a teenager, Doug was free to create a good life for himself, and he certainly made the best of that opportunity. Ironically, though, along with his three brothers—me included—his initial ticket to a “safer” and happier existence turned out to be a career in the military.
After his service in the army, Doug made a happy marriage that lasted for well over 50 years. His four children, two girls, two boys, turned out well. Doug was a happy man and had a great sense of humor. He was healthy right up to the end. And he was a lucky man, too, in other ways—lucky to be loved by his extended family and a wide range of friends, many of whom dated from his Korean War days in the 1950’s.
It’s not surprising that in many ways, with the exception of marriage, Brother Doug was a roll-model for me. He still is. Doug left this life the way I’d like to go—in bed, asleep, oblivious. A few days after I got the news of Doug’s death, this thought popped into my head: Except for the dreams we have nightly, I believe that deep and contented sleep is the ideal practice for a good death.
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Copyright © 2016 Jim Sizemore.
“Years ago, Charlie, a highly respected orthopedist and a mentor of mine, found a lump in his stomach. He had a surgeon explore the area, and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. This surgeon was one of the best in the country. He had even invented a new procedure for this exact cancer that could triple a patient’s five-year-survival odds—from 5 percent to 15 percent—albeit with a poor quality of life. Charlie was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later, he died at home. He got no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment. Medicare didn’t spend much on him.”
Ken Murray, How Doctors Die, The Best American Essays, 2012
Originally published in Zocalo Public Square
By Oliver Sacks, 1933 – 2015
“When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”
New York Times essay.
(Click image to enlarge.)