“Everything is born, it lives, it dies.”
Ronni Bennett’s philosophy, humor, and approach to the end of life is as straightforward as that simple sentence. Her candor is both comforting and challenging, and she understands if her matter-of-fact attitude and blogs about her impending death might make us uncomfortable. But that’s a reflection on the unfortunate modern treatment of death and dying because, she says, not many generations ago, people were often born – and died – at home.
“The culture has hidden the whole idea of death from us. It is part of living.”
Quality Talk Episode 60 presents the remarkable Ronni Bennett, “the dean of older bloggers,” according to the AARP Bulletin. Her Time Goes By blog – the Washington Post calls it “the quintessential seniors’ blog” – got started 15 years ago to explore aging and getting older. Since October 2018, Ronni has been sharing her journey with terminal cancer, examining her own thoughts and emotions – often with a glint of refreshing humor.
Episode 60: Meet Ronni Bennett.
2:22 – After a full career in media and “a remarkably healthy life,” Ronni had pancreatic cancer and surgery about 19 months ago. After a long recovery and being cancer-free for 10 months, two new cancers were discovered in October. “These are not operable and can only be delayed in their growth.”
“They don’t really know how long you have to live.” Anywhere from six months to 12 months seems to be the consensus.
4:24 – “My very first reaction was, ‘Fantastic, I’ll never exercise again.’”… “I don’t think when that happens that you actually believe it right away. It’s impossible to conceive of not being here – being gone.”
The Alex and Ronni Show. "Just a Skype chat between two old friends who were married for awhile about half a century ago."
Time Goes By continues. Readers had already come to know Ronni form the stories she told about her life – “what it’s really like to get old.”
Now she’s chronicling the end of her life.
By Judith Graham - At Death’s Door, Shedding Light on How to Live
6:40 – A much larger percentage of old people have more disease or are approaching their end. “Our bodies wear out.”
“I consider the blog my job.” Time Goes By features an abundance of reader comments; a lot of engagement. “I worked very hard at that over the years.”
One key was setting the ground rules early on: “You can attack ideas, you can argue ideas, but you couldn’t attack me or any of the commenters in a personal way. That kept it civil.”
10:01 – “My readers are really smart. They have a lot of good things to say.”
'The way the world was.'
But cancer was once a forbidden word, not mentioned above a whisper in polite society. “Once upon a time, there were things you didn’t really talk about it. … I think I’ve made it easier for people to talk about it.” After all, 40 percent of us will be affected by cancer. We’ll either get it or have a family member/loved one/friend experience cancer.
12:15 – “Up until the last 75 to 100 years, people were born and died at home. Ehen I was a little kid, where I lived, I would say about half of my friends had a grandparent, sometimes two grandparents, living with them … It was the way the world was. The oldest generation lived with the family … and the whole family helped take care of them. People living and dying and just getting sick was just part of living.”
Time Goes By: I'm pretty sure that just as we each find our own way to live our lives and no two are alike, that applies to dying too – at least for those of us who are privileged to be given some time to contemplate this monumental transition into the unknown. Living and Dying.
Ronni is fascinated with this part of her life, as she approaches the end of her life.
“I think it’s really interesting. I think that being given this time between diagnosis of something that can’t be cured to whatever the point is when I die, how wonderful to have these months. I think it’s fascinating to watch me and see how I change.”
That attitude energizes her blog. There are more good days than bad. “If that changes, then maybe I’ll stop.” She’s also been interested to see the reactions to how her own attitudes are changing. “What a lucky thing ... For me it’s a good thing to have happened.”
Why not me?
16:10 – Ronni’s now ex-husband was a talk show host in the 60s on a rock and roll station in Houston, Later, it was the No. 1 radio talk show in New York City. The marriage ended and Ronni was involved in a series of well-known television productions, including the Dick Cavett Show, 20/20, Barbara Walters Specials, and Lifetime. Then a friend from CBS came along and made Ronni the new managing editor of first CBS News website. She spent the next 10 years there.
19:16 – “I had gotten old and hadn’t realized it. I had great jobs. I traveled the world on somebody else’s dime and was having a load of fun. I didn’t realize all those years had gone by.”
Ronni spent two years collecting “boxes and boxes of material on aging.” This was her conclusion from all the material available: “It was all bad. Getting old was a terrible, terrible thing, and we should do anything we could to avoid it or hide it.”
Early on, I read about some cancer patients who get hung up on “why me?” My response was “why not me?” Answers to reader questions about death and dying
What the aging “experts” didn’t explain or even talk about were daily details about aging. For instance, “I had dropped a knife that came perilously close to my toes.” She wrote about dropping things and the response was resonating. “It turns out that old people do drop more things” because their fingers lose sensitivity to touch. “Yes, me, too, me, too, me, too,” was the cacophony of responses. “There are all kinds of things like that. Your doctor won’t tell you … the little things you’re going to have to accommodate as you get older.”
23:27 – “I don’t care about a family tree. I’m just not interested.” But the mail-in DNA test – normally $99 – was on sale for $49. Her ancestry wasn’t a mystery, though. But the well-why-not whim to mail in a swap of spit led to a dramatically unexpected result.
“After they got it back to me and told exactly where I thought I was from, I got an internal message” on her ancestry page from someone else who was a member: “’Apparently, you and I are intimately related.’ “I thought that was pretty funny.”
It was the son she gave up for adoption in 1963, when she was 21. He’s married with a 4-year-old son.
“I really like him and these are really nice people. And I didn’t even know they were out there. … We found a lot we had in common that you wouldn’t expect.” They finally met in early December.
Talking about death.
28:45 – Ronni gleaned wisdom from a reader who also had a terminal disease. What she wanted to do most now was spend time with friends and family “and talk and talk and talk and talk about everything under the sun … that often leads to talk about my impending death.”
Ronni lives in Oregon, by the way, which has a Death With Dignity law, also known as physician-assisted suicide.
Following my terminal cancer diagnosis, I have gradually come to spend my time now in a middle space between life and death. Or, sometimes, in both places at once.
“I may or may not take advantage of that when the time comes.” She remembers thinking, “If I did that, what should I choose to die in? What would I wear? … Who thinks like this about dying? I laughed my head off. Why do I care?”
32:55 – “This is highly illegal.” Ronni had a Pylocibin mushroom session specifically to address the fear of dying. “It’s an astonishing thing.” She describes the fear reaction as “every cell in my body was vibrating, and not pleasantly.”
The “’mushroom session’ … gave me some great realizations that I’d never had before, about dying just being another side of living. A great peace came over me. I hope to hang onto that.”
36:58 - “I do want to experience dying if it’s possible. It must take a little while for all these organs to shut down. … I am no scientist, okay - there must be a minute or two or three that your brain is still functioning and you’re conscious of what’s going on. I would like to experience that.”
What is on ‘the other side?’
40:03 – “I have no idea. And I don’t care … People who believe in a literal heaven or hell probably have an advantage over the rest of us. You are convinced what happens afterward. I have no idea.”
She’s heard it said that “you go back to where you were before you were before. Well, I don’t know what that was, either … I just don’t have an opinion. There’ll be something - I hope I would be happily pleased - or there will not and I won’t know that.”
“I’ve been incredibly lucky.”
The awful irony is that right now I feel terrific, in as excellent health as I was before I was diagnosed with cancer in mid-2017. Even so, the first decision I made about the rest of my life is to stop my daily workout routine. Immediately. Into the Great Unknown.
“I spent 75 years of my life completely healthy, but for a flu now and then, and then I just fell off the edge with a cancer. Ronni considers herself “terribly lucky to be treated” at Oregon Health and Science University.
“I always said I never wanted to become a ‘professional patient.’ Well, something this big happens to you and you become a professional patient.” Her admiration to the staff at OHSU overflows.
“Every single person at this place … invariably, they are smart, well-trained, knowledgeable, I want to say loving, caring, professional people.” In her 20 months going there, Ronni concludes, “Apparently not one of them ever has a bad day as far as I can tell. Nobody ever brings their personal problems or attitude. I’m just astonished. … I’m awed by how good the service is. I can’t say enough good things. I don’t if other places are like that, too, but if they aren’t, they ought to be.”
Dying is hard work.
45:25 – Ronni has no “bucket list.” But she’s been chipping away for months at gathering all her financial and personal information for her healthcare proxy and beneficiary. Basically, she’s giving the house an extended, final deep cleaning.
“It’s like wading through a swamp.”
“I really like my little life here. Doing my blog, reading a book.”
48:16 – What’s the worst that can happen?
Serious, deep question. So wait for an injection of humor. “I thought the worst that could happen is they tell you you have a terminal disease. … Once that’s happened, what could be hard – well, except cleaning out the house.”
50:56 – Ronni deals with the side effects of chemo as a temporary inconvenience: Tiredness, fatigue. “When the side effects fade from the chemo after a few days, I feel like a normal, healthy person … which is weird, to know that you have a disease that’s actively working on killing you. And you feel fine. How can that be?”
As of mid-January, her blood tests were “within normal ranges” and a more recent CT scan indicated her cancer lesions are getting smaller. That doesn’t mean “cured,” but it’s buying her more time.
But I'm encouraged now that I will still be here for my 78th birthday in April. For a long time I didn't believe that. Cancer Tests and Magic Mushrooms.
Ronni’s lessons about Ronni.
Two things: She’s resilient and not angry. Back in 1992, Ronni moved in with her mother and took care of her during the last four months of her life. “What a great gift my mother gave me. She showed me my own goodness.” Now, since learning in October that her life was in its final season, “I’m pleased at my resilience,” she says. “Somehow, I have accepted what’s happened to me and accepted that I’ve got this time and I’m making good use of it.”
56:30 – When Quality Talk host Jodie Jackson Jr. first contacted Ronni about being a guest, she wasn’t reluctant, but wasn’t sure she’d be much of a guest, opining, “I don’t think I have anything interesting to say.
Dear readers and listeners: We’re sure you agree that Ronni has quite of bit of fascinating, interesting things to say. Let us hear from you. Please consider leaving a comment on this episode or other episodes of Quality Talk.
"It is stunning how little popular writing there is about this. It is shameful how older people are treated by every aspect of American culture. I want to help change that." - Ronni Bennett
Ronni's son, Tom Wark, produces a daily wine blog, Fermentation.
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