Final Jeopardy? Bet It All!

I met Alex Trebek before he knew he was dying, well, at least before he told the world that he was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. In November 2018 I achieved a lifelong goal and made it on JEOPARDY! as a contestant (I finished second, in a close game; air date was 1/8/19 if you want to YouTube it). What impressed me about Alex was that he was genuinely following and interested in what was happening in the game, and in us contestants individually. He didn’t just read the script; he was involved in what was going on.

This week, he said, “I realize that there is an end in sight for me, just as there is for everyone else…when I do pass on, one thing they will not say at my funeral is, ‘Oh, he was taken from us too soon.’” Mr. Trebek, from where I sit, you’re getting this one right.

Why should you bother thinking and reading about dying, especially your own dying? There are plenty of other depressing things to think about every day - national and global issues like dysfunctional  politics or climate change, everyday depressions like the argument you had with your spouse, anxiety about your job security, or the fact that the baseball team you root for stinks this year. Why add one more piece of misery that you can’t control anyway?

Alex Trebek is showing us the answer to this one. The most important reason to think about dying is that you are going to do it, and it just might be the most important thing that you ever do. When someone dies, the culture around them stops in its tracks, pauses other activities and priorities, centers on the one who is newly absent, and takes stock of who that person was and is for them. When you die, everybody’s attention will be on you, they will review things that you said, events they shared with you, and their most recent and vivid memory will be what happened near the end, how you lived your dying.

When they consider their own dying, people differ in their thoughts about good and bad ways of it happening. Sometimes a sudden, unforeseen event, a heart attack or stroke that kills instantly and with minimal or at least brief pain sounds appealing. Others imagine a period of illness or aging, with gradual decline, a recognized ending, with opportunity to wrap up their business, say their good-byes. I suspect that, for most people, these preferences are fluid, influenced by whatever personal experience or news item or movie brought the idea up.

There are some images, though, that are more universal. Multiple polls have shown what we Americans want the end of our lives to be like. Even for us hoping for a sudden ending, we want to die at home, free from pain, clean and dignified, able to be with those we care the most about. But far too many of us end up in hospitals, tethered with tubes and restraints, drugged so we don’t fight the machines we’re tied to, and mostly alone. And a gigantic reason for this disconnect is that if we want our dying to go the way we hope, we must plan for it. And in order to plan for it, we must recognize that it will happen.

The great thing about this FINAL JEOPARDY category and question is that you know the answer. In fact, only you can know the correct answer for yourself. Only you can sort out the most authentic way to live the last part of your own life. Alex Trebek said, “As long as I can walk out and greet the audience and the contestants and run the game, I’m happy.” Happy until the end? Sounds like a winning answer to me.