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Muhammad Ali’s Poetic Advance Directive?

Muhammad Ali intuitively understood the idea behind advance directives.Reading about and reflecting on the life of Muhammad Ali after his death due to complications of Parkinson’s Disease, I came across his poem about the Attica Prison Riots – particularly with regard to his ideas that touch on the philosophy of dying with dignity and on his own terms. In writing the poem, he assumed the perspective of the prisoners themselves, who were shot by guards in a bloody confrontation over hostages. The riots took place in 1971, Ali was 29 years old. Although he claims to speak for the prisoners, as a black activist,  one cannot help wondering if Ali were not speaking for himself as well:

Better far— from all I see— To die fighting to be free What more fitting end could be? Better surely than in some bed Where in broken health I’m led Lingering until I’m dead Better than with prayers and pleas Or in the clutch of some disease Wasting slowly by degrees…..

Reading those lines and watching him speak them (at the height of his prowess and youth), is arresting from the perspective of anyone who watched him “in the clutch of some disease, wasting slowly by degrees” for so many years. It reminded me of the many times I heard similar statements from healthy people preparing their Directives. Statements like:

I never want to be a burden to my family I do not want to ever go to a nursing home If I cannot bathe/dress/toilet myself, I would not want to continue living If I cannot walk/garden/read/write/work I would not want to continue living

Of course, those eventualities are never desired, but are they avoidable? To a degree, maybe. Saving money toward Long Term Care costs, talking to our families about our wishes, outfitting a home to accommodate frailties and keeping active and fit are ways people can try to live out the lives they desire. However, the poet Robert Burns may have said it best:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley (old Scot for “often go awry”)

In other words, Muhammad Ali would never have chosen a life in the “clutch of some disease, slowly wasting by degrees”, but that is exactly what he got. Nevertheless, by all accounts, he bore the burden of Parkinson’s with grace and humility, with the help of his family.

I watched many video interviews on You Tube with his daughters and wife. What a loving, devoted family he had until the very end. I wondered what conversation they had with his physicians in the last weeks or months of his life when his decline was probably steep. I wondered about the end. Were the words of his younger self, the one who said …”better die fighting to be free..than in some bed, where in broken health I’m led…”? in their minds when they took him to the hospital for the last time?

They probably could not have done more to prolong his life, but were they offered more aggressive measures? What choices had to be made? I’m guessing that whatever they were, Ali’s spirit, as expressed in his poem Be Free showed them how to let him go. Click here for an interview with Ali’s wife Lonnie Ali about caregiving. To start to communicate about your own goals and values, go to our Planning and Tools page and take our Values Survey.

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