Posts Tagged ‘Death’

The Thinker

Searching for the exit

Dad is lying on his bed, half human and half ghost. He is not as pale as he was during his last bout with pneumonia, but he certainly looks ghost-like. His companion machine with its steady pulse is squirting oxygen into his nostrils with each breath. Dad is wearing pants in bed, a linen shirt and a felt shirt on top of that, despite the open door to the balcony letting in the warm moist Mid-Atlantic summer air outside. It doesn’t take much to make you cold when your body fat is gone. My father, who once towered six feet tall, was now diminished, and now weighs about 140 pounds.

He is lying flat because it is hurts less to lie, but also because standing takes work, which means using oxygen. Standing also requires muscles to move and right now it hurts to move his muscles. It probably hurts because he is not eating much, so to stay alive his body is looking for energy elsewhere and is busy converting the protein in his muscles into energy. All his muscles hurt, he tells me. Dad has the appetite of a bird, except that I suspect a bird eats more. A spoon or two of food makes him feel full, and then he wants to lie down. NPR news fills his bedroom while he lies, but mostly he is not listening. He sleeps a lot: all night and most of the day.

Frankly, there is little incentive for him to get out of bed. When he does he hurts and even with oxygen going into his nose it’s easy to feel winded. His left lung is still there but essentially it is non-functional as it is full of fibrous tissue. His stomach hurts a lot, particularly when standing. The good news is he can still stand. Dad can sort of take care of himself. In reality though he has lost a lot of his agility, so he needs someone to help him into clothes and out of clothes. He gets through the night by keeping a urinal next to his bed. Dad is not so much living as he is existing. His wife (my stepmother) provides companionship and helps in the nursing duties, that is until I arrived.

My father is scared but cannot seem to admit it, and depressed, which is something he will grudgingly admit. The Lexapro may help with the depression, but he just started taking it and it takes a few weeks to have an effect. The psychiatrist cannot see him until mid July. Dad needs lots of things, but mostly he needs to eat a whole lot more. It’s not clear if his stomach can process it.

What Dad needs even more is family and that’s why I made the four hundred mile journey to see him and spend four nights with him. I was there out of love and concern, but also because I am retired, so I can spare the time. He needs someone to listen with compassion. He needs someone who understands his whole person. I can do that, as he did the same with me many times growing up. I can hold his hand. I can make gentle suggestions. But mostly I listen. It’s pretty clear that Dad wants to leave his mortal coil. His way of doing so strikes me as passive aggressive: eat very little and spend much of his time in bed.

While he can walk, he walks haltingly. And he cannot walk too far and he walks somewhat unsteadily. When he gets out of his apartment he needs to be in a wheelchair, and generally that means Marie is pushing him. But at least for four nights it can be me. His oxygen bottle is slung from the back of the wheelchair. There is not much to look forward to in his condition, but there is at least dinner in the dining room of his retirement community, where almost everyone knows him by name. He looks diminished but when asked how he is doing he says “okay”.

It’s in the evening when something resembling life reemerges. He is energized around people and can maintain a conversation and at least for a while forget his pain. He eats little of what is on his plate, but takes sustenance from participating in the conversation around him. Returning home, with me there he will sit on the living room sofa and engage in conversation, but most of the time he hurts too much and wants to return to bed.

Getting him ready for bed is a time consuming and tedious process, which involves disrobing him, re-robing him, and cleaning him in between these states. It means assisting him with flossing and brushing and when not his shower day washing his chest, back and face. It means laying out clothes on chairs, shuffling shoes around and getting his urinal ready for night, all while tethered to a fifty-foot oxygen line. For me it means seeing his 88-year-old body so gaunt, with bones practically protruding from his skin and waiting to assist when he stands and sits. It means buttoning and unbuttoning shirts, helping him on with boxer shorts and pajamas. It means getting him a glass of water to use when brushing his teeth. It’s a ritual that varies little every night.

My presence means a lot but it is hard to quantify. On Friday I noticed him eating a little more and felt a bit cheered. I tried to be nonjudgmental as he tells me how he feels. I encourage siblings via email to call him and cheer him up. On Friday after dinner he goes to his desk and sifts through papers for a little while. This small act is actually a hopeful sign.

Fathers Day means company and phone calls, dinner provided by my sister and cookies provided by my nephew. It means love and companionship and, being my family, a discussion of contemporary politics in the living room where my conservative stepmother offers me reasons why she hates President Obama. My father mostly listens passively until I critique Fox News when he offers me a handshake. My Dad makes a point of being apolitical in front of the children, but occasionally a liberal viewpoint will leak out.

By Monday when I leave he is eating more. I encourage him to keep doing so. To start he needs enough calories not to lose any more weight, but his traditional passion foods like chocolate do little to engage him. I leave him with my stepmother who won’t coddle him and wonder if he will improve or regress again after I am gone. I can’t stay with him forever. I have a wife back in Massachusetts with chronic issues that also needs support.

There is always hope for a recovery, but realistically the best we can hope for is that he does not slide further. His pulmonary fibrosis won’t go away. He will be tethered to an oxygen container for the rest of his life. If things get much worse it will be more than my stepmother can handle. Nursing assistance will be needed and perhaps a nursing home. It’s not hard to predict that if he gets into a nursing home that he won’t live too long. He needs a social life to survive and there is none of that there.

Meanwhile, I hope that he will retain enough muscle mass not to fall, and I hope that some infection does not quickly fell him. He is doing far better (at least so far) than my mother did in her decline. Dying however slowly and incrementally is still an ugly process. Love and companionship help, but it’s not quite enough. He slips a bit further away from me with every passing day. It leaves me sad and melancholy.

Dying is not fair, but it must happen. There seem infinite paths for dying and my Dad seems to be choosing his way through it somewhat. All I can do is try to make things better, which may be giving Dad a sponge bath, holding his hand when he is low and letting him know how much I love him.

The Thinker

Dying well

Dear old Dad is dying. It’s been an inference most of us have made based on his condition, which has been slowly but steadily worsening. Yesterday it became more explicit in his email to us. Dad’s left lung basically doesn’t work anymore. In his case it is due to a condition called pulmonary fibrosis. With just the right one working, he doesn’t get as much oxygen as he used to. Consequently he is frequently tired. He now joins a dubious but rather large club at his retirement community of men getting supplemental oxygen. His wife (my stepmother) now gets to wheel him to and from the dining rooms for his evening meals.

That’s not the half of it. He’s lost weight and is continuing to lose weight. For a man that was once six feet tall, he is down to 146 pounds. He looks gaunt. He has little appetite. In fact, his stomach hurts most of the time. It hurts more when standing and less when lying down.

When we saw him last toward the end of April he could walk unassisted. He can still walk but of course it will tire him so it’s not a great idea for him to do too much of it. He could also engage in conversation, although my stepmother was the more articulate of the pair. That he can still type an email means he retains motor skills.

If you have to die he is doing it pretty well. He is still at home, which is his apartment in his retirement community. He may be able to avoid assisted living altogether before he goes. How much longer he has is a mystery, but his time is likely in months, if not weeks. He has clearly given up trying to prolong his life. At 88, his body is simply wearing out. Even if he had extraordinary surgery like a lung transplant, he is very susceptible to infection. Visiting his dying sister last year involved flying cross country, which meant he caught pneumonia somewhere across the country at 35,000 feet. He informed us last month that he won’t be coming to a planned family vacation in July. His driving days are likely over. Unless he needs to see a specialist or go to the hospital, he’ll probably remain inside his retirement community until he dies.

Dad is pragmatic about death. In a retirement community, death is hardly a stranger. It is all around you. It is simply a matter of wondering when your number will be called. The community mailboxes have new death notices posted nearby pretty much every day. People drop out of your life rather mysteriously. It usually means they have passed on but didn’t want to make a fuss over it. You either accept death pragmatically or you let it rule you. My Dad has opted for the former.

His will has long been in order, along with end of life directives. He tries not to look too far ahead and take each day as it comes. He is gracious in his decline and grateful for his life. He realizes his dying could be much worse. He probably won’t lose his motor skills, like my mother did. He probably won’t end up in a nursing home, except possibly at the very end. If he needs hospice there is a good chance it could be done in their apartment. He could die in his bed, which is probably how he would prefer to go, the same bed (moved many times) that he and my mother inhabited over their fifty plus year marriage.

It probably won’t be the pulmonary fibrosis that kills him. Most likely he will succumb to some sort of virus or infection. In the end it was not the Progressive Supranuclear Palsy that killed my mother ten years ago, but a common bladder infection that she could not fight off. At this stage of life, what once you could fight off now is more likely to kill your overwhelmed body. His last bout with pneumonia required a hospitalization, but he survived it. Another one would likely kill him.

Still, he is grateful. He is grateful for his long and mostly healthy life. He is grateful for all of his eight children who turned out to be all good eggs. He is grateful for my mother and grateful to find a new partner in marriage late in life. He is grateful for having his wits together, being able to speak, being able to think clearly and being able to participate in much of what makes life enjoyable. He has lived a long life but he senses his end is not too far away. He neither wants to postpone it nor accelerate its end. He is tired of fighting what he cannot change. He is dying and he is content to die when he is called.

I can’t speak for all of his children but in general we are content to let him go in his own way and his own time. Of course it saddens us that he is dying and of course we will grieve when he is gone, and probably a lot before then too. But he has lived a long and rich life. He has done all those things that good people are supposed to do and much more. While my mother was dying, when he wasn’t caring for her he was tutoring one of the staff in the nursing home in math. Until very recently he ushered at church. He gave generously of his limited treasure. He loves us all and treated us all with kindness and respect, which we returned. He retains a serene confidence in his Catholic faith and his belief that he will be in heaven soon. His issues are not so much dying, which is inevitable, but day to day issues. Like most aging men he has an enlarged prostate. He needs convenient and frequent access to a bathroom.

Still, it is hard not to feel some grief as he declines. Some parts of him simply are no longer there. He took enormous comfort in food. Chocolate cakes used to be his passion. Chocolate anything was largely unsafe in his house. With so little appetite, chocolate is no longer a passion. He most likely has eaten his last slice of chocolate cake. He hasn’t the interest or the appetite for it.

I’ve urged my siblings to go see him and tell him what he has meant in their lives, although I think he already knows. I need to see him again soon too. Now that I live in New England it is not as easy, but I can probably drive down monthly to spend time with him. It’s unclear to me how much handholding he needs. It may be that I simply need to hold his hand a few more times. He is serene in his decline and accepting of it, seemingly without apprehension, taking one day at a time and eking out whatever remaining joy it will offer him in the time he has left.

The Thinker

R.I.P. Arthur Belvedere Dent, 2003-2014

He’s like the son I might have known
If God had granted me a son.

“Bring them home”
From the musical Les Miserables

Eight years to the day after we put our cat Sprite to sleep, today our cat Arthur also went to that great big clover patch in the sky as well. It’s like the gods are trying to tell us something.



Like most of these feline-human relationships, the end, when it came, came rather abruptly, although not unexpectedly. Arthur Belvedere Dent (usually it was just “Arthur”) had been a kitty in decline for more than a year. Like most cats with a terminal condition, he soldiered on with life, likely in discomfort and pain but mostly without obvious complaint. It’s hard to know exactly what his condition was, but lots of cats die from tumors or inflammation of their digestive tracks, and it was likely he had at least one of those. The only surprise with Arthur was that he was taken from us while relatively young. We were told he was three years old when we got him in 2006, but likely that was just a wild estimate, as stray cats don’t come with birth certificates. Our cat Squeaky made it to seventeen; her brother Sprite nearly hit 20 before he passed on. Shorter lifespans is part of the problem with many strays, not to mention purebred cats. That seems to have been true with Arthur.

Sprite, as I expressed in a moving eulogy after he passed away (and which still usually gets a couple of hits a day) was an angel. I will never be as bonded to a cat as I was to Sprite. I don’t dance, but somehow Sprite and I could dance together. We understood each other intuitively and bonded in a perfect symbiotic relationship. Arthur, on the other hand, was my son.

It’s true that I called Sprite my son too, but Arthur earned the title. I don’t have a son in real life, so I look for substitutes. The only substitutes close at hand are male felines in the house. While I have never had a son, I understand what a father-son relationship should feel like. Sons generally respect their father, but they are still very much apart from their father. That’s the way it was with Arthur. We loved each other and enjoyed each other’s company, but we could not dance together. However, we could enjoy our time together and we did.

Strays are hard to socialize so unsurprisingly Arthur was too. It took a year, but he settled down. It finally occurred to him that this was his home, and we weren’t going to get rid of him so he could stop peeing in the vents and running away from strangers. One of our most memorable times with Arthur was when we brought him home after his first visit to the vet. He was totally floored. He was back to the same place and he told us all about it. He was not a particularly vocal cat, but that day he certainly was. If a cat could show joy, Arthur showed joy that day. Trips to the vet were never fun, but they got easier as he aged. He knew he would always come home. Well, at least until today.

Those of us who have cats love them because they are like fingerprints. They often look alike, particularly the ubiquitous tabbies like Arthur, but none are alike and each will project personalities that are distinct. If you find people interesting, it’s hard not to find cats interesting as well. While they cannot speak a word of English, somehow you know pretty well what they are feeling and what they are saying. Purrs usually give away how they are feeling.

As cats go though, Arthur was a simple kitty. He liked his humans (us), could warm to the occasional stranger but mostly kept his distance from them. He didn’t expect that much out of life except some amusement from his humans, a place to sit in the sun and when the weather was warmer, access to our screened in deck. There in safety he could bliss out in the sun, let the wind waft through his fur, or let the local birds and squirrels keep his attention. There was something about the tall tree next to our house that held his attention when he was on the deck.

He had to be taught to sit on laps but enjoyed it once he got the hang of it. Once the inflammation started in his tummy though, lap sits were too uncomfortable. Life became simpler: endless days on the top of the cushy chair behind the ottoman in our TV room, with a prime view of the outside including our comings and goings. It meant daily shots from my wife, which he hated and consequently meant that he grew to distrust her. It meant us finding ever more creative foods that he might actually eat; otherwise he was doomed to waste away. Toward the end we went through many variants of Fancy Feast, verboten to most cats whose owners listen to their vets, but for cats with a limited lifespan, why not? He mostly ate the Fancy Feast mixed with baby food (with meat) in it. He seemed to like the baby food part the best. It was gentler on his stomach. Still there was lots of diarrhea, an inability to sit comfortably due to the inflammation, and awkwardly stumbling up and down stairs to his kitty boxes with his legs abnormally splayed. Since he wasn’t absorbing much food, more food became very important. He would let us know about it when we came near the kitchen, and would wait patiently in the kitchen until someone fed him. The telltale sign of his health, his unusual tail that curved up behind him, disappeared some eighteen months ago and never returned. That was our first clue we had a sick kitty.

With the help of our vet we gave him a pretty good quality of life in spite of these issues. We probably got a year more of his company thanks to special foods and medicines. We knew it could not last forever. Today his life abruptly came to an end. After I went to work our daughter found him on the floor unable to move his front left leg, and howling in pain. This brought me home from work to assess the situation. It was clear that this was the end. He tried awkwardly to move with one good paw and two ineffectual back legs. It didn’t work. He twisted himself up like a pretzel. The time had come. All we could do is minimize his pain.

A quick assessment by the vet confirmed our diagnosis: there was no good quality of life left. It was time. They gave him a tranquilizer while we petted him. It definitely calmed him down to the point where he seemed dead. His eyes lost focus and the edges looked black. We said we loved him, stroked him continuously, made sure to watch him and then let them take him from us. It was not the ideal way for him to go, but it didn’t last that long. He went we believe knowing that he was loved.

Particularly during his decline I made a point of going by his spot behind the ottoman several times a day and spending time petting him and talking to him and assuring him that we loved him. And he always purred. My message was consistent and loving. All you can really do is love your pet to the extent you can. And then on one heartbreaking day, you have to let them go.

It’s the yin and yang of owning a pet. There is the joy of having a pet, and the sorrow of putting them down. It has to be this way, it’s not fair but it is what it is. I can’t read my son’s mind, but I do believe he knows he was loved, and he was, very dearly. This father sure has had his share of heartache today, putting down his adopted son.

Rest in peace, Arthur. And thank you for seven and a half years of gentle love and heartfelt genuineness. I told you a million times that I love you and will always hold you in my heart. I still do and I always will.



The Thinker

You’re dying. So what else is new?

The inescapable implication of being alive is that you will die. Most of us accept our mortality in a kind of abstract way. We are aware of it but choose not to dwell on it. Fortunately, life offers us plenty of reasons to ignore it. For most of us, simply surviving is a full time struggle. Contemplating your eventual death is easier to ignore when you are young but less so as you age.

Retirement is one way I grapple indirectly with death. I am fortunate enough to be able to retire this year at age 55 if I choose to do so. I coped with this fact by assuming I would pick up some other job. It so happened that an instructor position opened up at the community college where I teach as an adjunct. However, when they finally offered me an interview, I turned them down. I had my reasons but one of them was that I wasn’t ready to kiss a demanding but enjoyable full time job I love goodbye, at least not quite yet. Retiring, even if it is to another job, made me feel old. Being employed and well moneyed makes me feel needed and validated.

A terminal illness should make you confront your mortality at last. My mother in law was diagnosed as terminally ill last week. She has stage-four lung cancer and her prognosis is four to 6 more months of living. There is some hope that a $6000 pill might extend her life another year, but its success rate is marginal. Operating is out of the question. Her heart is operating at twenty percent of normal and she had part of her left lung removed a few years ago in a previous attempt to get rid of lung cancer.  She still gets around but now needs supplemental oxygen day and night. Her blood oxygen levels are now so low that she will need a blood transfusion this week.

She seemed to have an inkling that the biopsy would give her this terminal news. Even without the lung cancer, her life is precarious because of her heart disease. A combination of factors that come with age and poor choices earlier in life (like smoking) have caught up with her. However, she has managed to live into her eighties. Given her health history, this in itself is remarkable.

Long time readers know that I lost my mother in 2005, but spent about five years witnessing her decline. The whole experience was wrenching for me, my family and of course my mother. (Her eulogy however has proven to be immortal, since six years later it is my most frequently read post, averaging about thirty five page views per day.) Now I get to watch the process indirectly and somewhat more dispassionately, as she is my wife’s mother, not mine and she lives two thousand miles away instead of thirty miles away.

My wife is discovering that it makes a difference when your own parent is the one who is dying. To say the least she is distressed and feels pulled many ways. Should she immediately fly to Phoenix where her mother lives? What would she do there that is not already being done? For now she has the lifeline of the telephone, an imperfect way of communicating concern, until she figures out an optimal time to fly across the country to see her. So far they have not really talked about the elephant in the room.

What can you really say to someone who is dying that does any good? There is really nothing you can say or do that will change the fact that her death is staring her in the face. You can say you love her, which is undeniably true, but love by itself is not strong enough to repel death. You ache with all your heart to take this millstone off her neck, but there is no way to do so. You want to be a positive presence in her life but at the same time you are wracked with turmoil. It’s useless to pretend otherwise, but some amount of pretense seems to be required in order to keep you from becoming a weeping, sobbing mess. If you are brave enough, particularly in their last weeks, you hover by their deathbed as they slowly slip from this world and maybe hold their hand and stroke their forehead as they pass.

That comes at the very end. Meanwhile there are months of a slow decline, with small triumphs and setbacks. The whole family stays on edge. Tempers are likely to flair; this is our mother we are talking about. And yet there are conversations that need to happen. Is there a living will? Has Power of Attorney been granted? Where does she want to be buried? Is she okay with cremation? It seems uncharitable to bring up these topics, but they really need to be discussed. The American way of dying is often laborious and filled with paperwork.

My wife won’t go alone to Phoenix, at least not for all of her visits. I plan to visit at least once, likely as she moves closer to death. Just as my wife’s perspective of my mother was vastly different than my own, so is my perspective of my mother in law different than my wife’s. To me, she was mostly a kind-hearted sweetheart, deserving of my love and respect. From the day of our marriage I called her “Mom”, for she became an honorary mother in my life as well as something of a substitute mother after my own mother died. I enjoyed calling her on Mothers Day, and chatting with her on the phone and even sending her cards on birthdays and holidays, particularly after my mother was gone. It was easy to do and heartfelt. Before she dies she certainly deserves to hear from my own mouth my love for her, and my appreciation for having her in my life. To the extent she wants me and I have time available, I can be near her and simply listen to her. My role may be invaluable, because I do not come with the baggage of a biological relationship. I can serve as an independent reference of her self worth and validate her existence on this planet. In short, I can act sort of as a minister and will be glad to do so. And should she want to confess her fears and failures to me, I will be glad to listen with an open heart.

My own mother departed this world with some baggage not resolved between us. She alluded to it before she died but we never quite had the conversation we should have had. We all must meet death, but death must be a little sweeter and easier to endure if your heart is not troubled by sorrow for past mistakes.

In the end, helping her reach this stage honestly is probably the best use of my time, and hers.

The Thinker

Thoughts on death and dying

Should dying be scary? Should being dead be scary? It seems for most of us the gut answer to both questions is yes. There is a lot of money to be made feeding our fears and phobias around death and dying. The beauty industry depends on its ability to sell us on, if not on the illusion of immortality, at least looking much younger than your age. Dying is steady business, if not a growth business, for a burgeoning network of service providers from retirement communities, to nursing homes, to funeral homes. Hollywood’s revenue stream would be severely diminished if the powerful emotions inherent in these topics lost their lure. Would there be a video game industry of note if we did not use their virtual worlds to work out of death anxieties by blasting various bad guys, aliens, zombies and assorted creatures from the id? Our prosperity may be measured, to some extent, on our obsessions with death and dying.

A former creative writing teacher of mine, doubtless echoing someone else, posited that there were only two great mysteries of life: sex and death. As a fifty-something gentlemen, sex is no longer a mystery to me, but relationships remain as puzzling as ever. After seeing my mother go through her long decline, dying is less of a mystery to me as well. On a typical day, my top rated post of the day will be a eulogy I wrote for her over five years ago. My creative writing teacher must have been on to something then, because my blog statistics show that sex and death are what people care about. In the last thirty days, 1253 out of 10,573 page views (nearly 12%) were for the eulogy I posted about my mother. However, there were at least 1534 page views were for a half dozen sex related topics. Even at age fifty something, I am still interested in sex, although significantly less that I used to be, and even though there is little mystery in sex anymore.

As I age, I find that my feelings and thoughts on death are changing too. My greatest nightmare traditionally goes something like this: I go see the doctor and he discovers I have some dreadful disease. He tells me that I will have a painful and debilitating decline and in six months I am likely to be dead. Today, I don’t find that nightmare nearly as frightening. This is because one of the consequences of aging, at least for me, is that I both know and feel that I will die. To go from being alive to being dead, I will go through a dying process. Dying may be a very short process or a very long process. But I will die regardless. In short, dying is entirely natural, as natural as birth. At some point it is unreasonable to be too afraid of a natural process.

The late Timothy Leary, always a bit of a contrarian, was bizarrely thrilled to learn that he was dying. He saw dying as something of an adventure, presumably something akin to the many trips he took with acid (LSD) in the 1960s. Leary, who died in 1996, kept fans appraised of all aspects of his death on his web site. He even had his death videotaped for posterity. While the dying days of many are hardly memorable, and are often painful and humiliating, they do not have to be bad. For some, particularly those who receive professional hospice care, dying becomes an experience in extreme living, as drugs keep them from much pain and the tender and compassionate relationships developed in hospice care leave them feeling loved and listened to, sometimes for the first time in their lives.

My own mother’s dying process was wrenching for her as well as for us, but some part of it was wrenching because of her attitude toward death. She could not accept her death, even though she knew she was dying. Her attitude may be because she helped care for her own mother during her dying process, and her mother was mentally ill and reportedly cantankerous through it. It may be that dying, like any other life experience, is what you make of it.

Occasionally I run across remarkable stories about people dying. One of the most remarkable was the death of my friend Lisa’s niece Lauren back in 2006. Lauren, who I never met, died at age 19. She remained chipper and compassionate with everyone through her long dying process. She rarely complained. In some ways, the process of dying and her decision on how she would cope with it defined a remarkable part of her life. She chose for it to be a positive experience and so it was.

I hope when my turn comes I can be this way, but I won’t know until that time arrives. I hope the essence of who I am will be stronger than the scary and bitter feelings that are natural from many during the dying process. I hope when the time comes I will not be full of regrets and disappointments, but realistic and grateful for the time I did have, and for the experiences I have enjoyed. I hope I find the courage to die well, perhaps doing a better job at the end of the life than the many missteps I made through life itself.

Death itself is no longer scary to me. Part of it is because I sense I do have a spirit, and thus a certain immortality. If I were physically immortal, like Robert Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long, I suspect I would find it mostly a downer, because those I loved would not share my immortality, and the world would change so much. A lifespan of eighty to a hundred years, should I live that long, is very long in itself. If dying is a property of life, then it is also true that the one constant in life in the universe is change. The universe is always recreating itself. In death in some ways I will be recreating as well, either through some sort of reincarnation process or I will help give life to new forms of life. Either outcome is good. I hope I find that my life was a glorious, and perhaps undeserved gift. I hope this knowledge will fill me with gratitude, wonder of my limited understanding of the universe, and a realization that through death I allow more life to emerge.

The Thinker

Death – much ado about nothing?

There is nothing like a long three-week convalescence to focus your mind on the impermanence of all things. Our bodies are infinitely complex biological machines. They work with freaky regularity and excellence until one day when, of course, they do not. In my case, it stopped on January 14th when I had tarsal tunnel surgery on my right foot and nerve release surgery on the right leg.

For the first week, I spent a lot of time hobbling from place to place either in crutches or gingerly on my right leg, wrapped in multiple layers of cotton and ace bandages. Since then, the crutches have been unnecessary. I walk where I need to go slowly but mostly stay indoors. The layers of cotton surrounding my leg and foot are gone. They were replaced with two layers of ace bandages on the foot, and now just a single layer. As I end this convalescence, my final accommodations are to keep an ace bandage on the foot and not to drive.

Thanks to the charity of friends and family, I have been fortunate enough to get to the office twice. Mostly I work from my dining room table using my employer provided laptop computer. Getting through our firewall at work remotely now means inserting my smart card into a USB smart card reader and authenticating myself using a PIN, although it hardly seems any more secure than using an ID and password. Conference calls are also more restful. I can hold the receiver in one hand while lying on the couch. Dagwood Bumstead would love working from home. Yet, despite its creature comforts, I still prefer the familiarity of the office.

As regular readers know, it is my belief that I have a soul, there likely is an afterlife of some sort and I am probably stuck in some circle of life, death and rebirth. Billions would probably agree with me. Millions would not. The latter believe that life is a highly improbable cosmic accident and the consequence of billions of years of evolution. When death arrives, all the lights go out. My friend Wendy, as well as one of my brothers, are in this group. For those of us who find life worth living, nonexistence is a depressing thought. However, because of my surgery, I am thinking maybe death (or non-existence) is not such a big deal. Maybe it means nothing at all. Instead, maybe we may choose to give it a status far larger than it deserves.

Life and death are interwoven into the universe whether we like it or not. As the Buddhists and others have long asserted, the only constant in the universe is change, so you might as well accept it. There are larger forces at work that can be lumped into one world: reality. Time is real, or is at least an aspect of living that cannot be denied. Even stars are born, age and die. Sometimes when they die, they throw their detritus out into the universe in the form of more complex matter. We are all literally the product of this star stuff. Moreover, we are destined to return to star stuff. Some part of our matter and energy was once in a star somewhere. Our matter and energy will once again be part of a star someday. In that sense, we are immortal and have been since the universe was created.

We have all already traversed the universe. Should mankind make it to another solar system someday, we will simply be retracing our inorganic roots. We are not just tied to our planet and solar system; we are tied to the universe. If some day we warp around space like they do in Star Trek, we are not exploring strange new worlds, we are returning home.

During my surgery, I was under general anesthesia for about two hours. Clearly, I did not die in those two hours. Whatever anesthesia I was given had the property of shutting down my consciousness for those two hours (or gave me the inability to recall any of it). I remember being on the surgical table and then, just as in death, the lights went out. Two hours later I was in another room, I was awake and the lights went on. During those two hours, I assume I was alive, but I might as well have been dead. Those two hours of non-existence, which might be more accurately described as an inability to remember anything or to act in any manner whatsoever, perhaps prove a point made by my atheist friends and siblings: death really does not matter.

While fear of death seems to be a human characteristic, perhaps it is all wasted energy. Not that it is easy to do, but perhaps we would all be much happier if we spent our time alive concentrating on living and forgetting all about death. After all, you cannot change the fabric of the universe or its rules. We are all caught in this incredibly complex space-time matrix. If being unconscious during my surgery is any guide, death, which for us humans seems to equate to non-consciousness, really does not matter.

Being infirmed of course matters, as I discovered. Dying matters as well as it is a progressively worse state of being infirmed. In either case, you are losing your tether to your known reality. Our species takes comfort in the known, safe and predictable. In my case, I missed the comfortable ritual of driving to and from the office, and inhabiting an office with a nice view of the Shenandoah Mountains five floors up. Working from home with one foot propped up was convenient and facilitated my recovery, but was awkward and different. Hobbling around in crutches for a week was also difficult, inconvenient and at times painful. It is understandable that I would have some petty grievances over my convalescence. However, when it ends on Friday, I should be back to better health than I was before the surgery. I hope that my life will become more comfortable and less painful.

I take some comfort in this expectation. I also take some comfort in the experience of being unconscious during my surgery, because the universe is also teaching me a lesson: neither my lack of consciousness during surgery nor death in itself are worth worrying about. Hopefully I will fully absorb these lessons and live my remaining life to its fullest in the time ahead of me.

The Thinker

On the movable walkway called life

As you may have noticed, one consequence of being born is that you eventually must die. It may seem unfair, but that’s just the way it is. We are all prisoners in our own unique time stream. We step onto our time stream (we assume) at birth, although some part of it begins at conception.

Yes, our life is undoubtedly a time stream. It is like one of those very long movable walkways that you find in large airports that carry you inside or between concourses. Its speed is constant. During the time you stand on the walkway, you stay in one place while things move around you. Eventually the walkway ends and the journey stops. We get off the walkway when we die but while we are on the walkway, we are its prisoner.

Unlike the movable walkway, we are not entirely sure how we got on it in the first place. The walkway behind us is quickly shrouded in mist and the walkway ahead, except for the first couple of feet, remains a dense fog. However, we can look to our left and our right and enjoy our limited view.

Unlike walkways in airports, this walkway is very wide. In fact, we cannot see either of its sides. Yet we know we are on the walkway because things are happening all around us. Suns rise and set. Seasons pass and return. Things that looked shiny and new last year lose their luster this year and in a dozen years are often dysfunctional or obsolete. Trying to find the edges of the walkway is as futile as trying to sail off the edge of the world. Space and time curve all around us. We cannot see the curve but we sense it is there. We feel its truth: that we are a singularity in a matrix called space-time. Ephemeral things, some alive and some not surround us. They are often beautiful. At its best life resembles a magnificent kaleidoscope. We often feel like we are sitting in a theater and our life is unfolding on the screen.

It is natural to wonder what happens when the movie that is our life ends. Are there credits? Were we really its producer and director, or just the unknowing actors? These may be impenetrable questions, but sages and common people have pondered them for time immemorial. The atheist believes that when our movie comes to and end, the lights go out and we are simply nothingness. The theist believes there is a producer. Some believe there is a producer and director. The producer is called God. The Christians call the director Jesus. The Muslims call him Muhammad. The Hindus believe there are many producers and directors and they often slip between their roles. Some of these directors coach us more than they coach others. The Buddhists think that like the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, when you pull back the curtain you find another human like yourself (perhaps yourself) at the control directing the special effects. The agnostic doesn’t know if there are producers or directors. He does not exclude them but has a hard time trusting what he cannot see. The humanists are unconcerned about how we got on the walkway or where it will end, but is only concerned about the state of the walkway right now and how we can all live more happily in the present

In general, the longer you stay on the walkway the more you feel the past fade. You see the collection of things you have surrounded yourself with disintegrate before your eyes. You watch people, many of them loved ones, mysteriously drop off the walkway altogether, particularly as they age. The more you witness these events, the more certain you become that your walkway will end for you too at some murky time in the future. A relative handful finds the walkway very annoying. They take their own lives, figuring wherever they end up, if anywhere, is less painful than the present.

How should you spend your time while you remain on the walkway? This too is a topic of great concern for the people on the walkway. Some people are much more concerned about the next walkway. They advise that we should spend much of our time on this walkway preparing the next one. For theists there are generally two walkways that occur after death: one toward heaven, glory and salvation and the other toward hell and misery. To the Buddhist, our walkways sort of cycle backs on itself. They are confident that after death we are quickly deposited into another walkway. While our memories of our last life will be erased, we will carry our personalities and predispositions into the next life. Nirvana is the act of getting off the time stream altogether. Meditation and living simply are the keys. Enlightenment is the goal. You reach nirvana when you have achieved full enlightenment. Then they assert the carousel finally stops, you can dismount, exit and see what, if anything, is real.

Sometime in my early 20s, I remember being profoundly shaken that I was aging. Before entering adulthood, old age was so far enough away that it was abstract and hence nothing to worry about. Grabbing the reins of adulthood made me feel that life was in reality fleeting. Now in my 50s, I still feel the steady passage of the years. It feels like I am at the bow of a ship heading into the wind. The wind tears across my face but the infinite sea ahead is as mysterious and impenetrable as ever.

Strangely at age 52, while I remain leery of death, it no longer seems as fearful while at the same time it feels more tangible. I now accept that I am born to die and that’s just the way it is. It is natural to be inquisitive about dying and death, but to be obsessive about it the way I was in my twenties now seems a great waste of my life’s energies. Whatever movie I am in, it is not a bad movie and it gets more engrossing as the years pass.

Today, it feels more natural to be in the moment than to peer into an impenetrable far future. I see progress in myself and in my life. Some part of me longs for the immortal feeling of youth again, but some other part of me is also glad it is in my far past. I am more comfortable, more ordered and find more meaning now than I did thirty or forty years in my past. I feel grounded, but not rooted. My feelings will probably continue to change as I age, but right now, I accept life for what it is. I accept that it must end and feel that embracing the present is the healthiest thing for me. The movable walkway is my home, so I had better enjoy it and take care of it as best my limited skills will allow.

The Thinker

A grave business

Life is about living, right? So why spend any time at all planning for death? After all, there are few things more certain in life than death and taxes. Once you are dead, unless you are Jesus Christ, you can forget about coming back to life. The best use of my corpse will be pushing up some daisies somewhere.

Alas, my passing is of interest to my financial adviser. For the two years I have had him he has been pushing my wife and I to plan for being dead. These days though, just writing a will is not good enough. You need many documents, all of which are vital for keeping lawyers in Birkenstock and driving their Mercedes Benz. Apparently, in addition to a legally enforceable will, I need Power of Attorney statements, a trust until our daughter is old enough to spend her inheritance wisely and a life support directive. Death is apparently a very complicated thing, at least for those you leave behind.

Just because I am dead, I would not want to burden my loved ones, would I? Hmm, maybe I would. I mean, I do love my loved ones. That comes with the definition. However, from my jaundiced perspective, I have given more love to them in love than I have gotten back in return. Yeah, I know, it’s good to give more than you get. But isn’t the least they can do for me when I am departed to deal with a few inheritance squabbles and tax issues? Knowing my future deceased state, does it require an extra level of love while I am alive beyond which I have already borne out in my fifty-two years of devoted service?

How do I know that this world is real anyhow? It sure feels fleeting. Maybe nonexistence is real and life is surreal. Maybe I am like Neo in The Matrix and when I die, I wake up to find my life was just a wild dream. If life is a dream, why bother with the drudgery like wills and such? Why not just live in the moment and get as much enjoyment as you can from life?

Maybe that’s why I’ve dragged my feet on updating my will. The last one is nearly fifteen years old and was done by a friend, and just so my wife and I could feel comfortable going out of town without our daughter. Because it turns out that planning for your mortality is a complex business. Naturally, this being the United States of America, there is no simple way to make your wishes known. Instead, you need either pricey software or a good attorney or two, and likely both witnesses and a notary too.

Here is my idea of how it should be done: each state and/or county would have a web site. When you want to complete your will, you they would provide you with a way to legally authenticate yourself. You would go onto the web site and be presented with a standard will complete with a number of “most popular” checkboxes and open text fields. For 95% of us, this would work fine. Since I am married, if I die first, I want my wife to get all my stuff. The same is true with her. If we both died at the same time, our daughter would get the bulk of our estate. She’s no longer a minor, but if she were I should be able to fill in that part of the web form where I indicate who would be the custodian of our child, who would oversee the estate, and enter the disposition of important heirlooms. It should take a half an hour maximum, be all done electronically and remain on file in the county clerk’s office. It would be accessible if necessary so properly credentialed officials, like the doctor in the emergency room, could also get the information.

You can write some things in your will that will have no practical effect. For example, do you want your body buried or cremated? Where should your remains go or be placed? Should your body go to medical science? Wills are read weeks or months after the deceased passes, so it is best to tell your family your wishes on what to do with your corpse. Yet, the county could easily collect this information in a central database. Every five or ten years, say whenever you renew your driver’s license, you would be required to recertify your electronic will. All this strikes me as a perfectly logical way the government could become more citizen-centric.

However, because I suspect that my survivors will otherwise engrave, “The bastard didn’t even bother to leave a will” on my gravestone, I have much belatedly decided to work on all these death documents. I quickly discovered why I dragged my feet. They are expensive to get right, particularly if you have lots of money and assets. After all, you do not want your loved ones to deal with complex things like probate taxes. No, you want to create a trust instead and screw Uncle Sam. I called one of the more prominent firms around us and found out that a modest set of these documents cost in the $3000-$5000 range. How many of us has that kind of money to throw around?

There is software you can buy, like WillMaker, but I remain a bit leery that it will not write the proper words or know precisely how to have forms properly notarized, witnessed and filed. So I did the next best thing, and shopped for a discount lawyer. It turns out that if you have to hire a lawyer, this is a good time. Many have been downsized and are scrambling for work, working from offices in their home. I found one via the user comments on Washington Consumers Checkbook. (Warning: you must subscribe to see the user comments, and they are not of much use if you live outside the Washington D.C. metropolitan area.) The lawyer even offered me a recession special: all the right documents done for a little under a grand. This still seemed like a lot of money, but it did not seem outrageous.

It turns out that what matters most is likely not the will itself, but various power of attorney statements and emergency medical directives. Do I want the plug pulled if three doctors agree that I am a goner but I cannot speak for myself? Who should speak for me when I cannot? Who can and should pay the bills or act when I cannot? Like most Americans, these obligations would fall to my spouse, but if she is not available, then who? For now, it seems safer to entrust this decision with a sibling. That may change as we age.

It will probably be money well spent, but in my deceased condition, it will mean nothing to me. We invited Carrie (the attorney) out to our house.  She told us much about the legal business of death and dying that we needed to know but about which we would have preferred to remain ignorant. We have been marking up drafts of documents she has cranked out, plodded through other verbose documents and keep trying to remember why we are doing this in the first place.

The good news is that when she is done we will have a set of PDF documents that we can easily update at any time, to name new executors and the like. We hope to have a final signing in our living room a week from Friday.

Dying is ordinarily a messy and depressing business, as is handling the estate of someone. Wills provide some comfort that the process may be less messy. As I discovered watching my mother decline, it is bound to be both messy and heartbreaking for those who go through it. Given these facts, much can and should be done to make it less onerous and expensive. With major economic crises underway, straightening out the business of death and dying is probably on no one’s radar. I hope someday someone will tackle it because the current process is unnecessarily complex and expensive, making it hard for the many who need these documents to acquire them. In the end, it is of most use to those who profit from it.

While death is inevitable, estate planning need not be the equivalent of rocket science. Instead, we could use the time and the money on worthier endeavors like enjoying the short life we were given.

The Thinker

Consciousness as a two-way mirror

I haven’t written about metaphysics for quite a while, mainly because I did not have much to say. Principally, I was losing interest in the subject but also I have been busy engaging in life, which I suspect is its natural purpose. Yet, occasionally something comes up in the press on metaphysics that piques my curiosity. Yesterday this article on The Human Consciousness Project was published on Time Magazine’s website. The project, led by Dr. Sam Parnia of the Weill-Cornell Medical Center involves an in-depth worldwide coordinated study into out of body experiences that some claim to have while they are technically dead, but who are later successfully revived.

I have occasional disagreements with my brother on the afterlife or lack thereof. My brother is a scientist and is trained to be skeptical, which is to his credit. Unsurprisingly, he categorizes himself as an atheist. Studies underway like this one though raise reasonable doubt. Says Dr. Parnia:

There was a cardiologist that I spoke with who said he hasn’t told anyone else about it because he has no explanation for how this patient could have been able to describe in detail what he had said and done. He was so freaked out by it that he just decided not to think about it anymore.

I think it is great that what many would consider loony science is getting some clinical study again. It may be simply my natural fear of mortality, but I have come to believe that I have a soul or spirit that is external and transcends death. For the most part, it is just a feeling, but I am glad to know there have been and are continuing scientifically rigorous studies into out of body experiences.

One obvious question is whether a person who had such an experience was truly dead. Dr. Parnia points out that death is not instantaneous and that it takes a long time for our cells to actually die after being deprived of oxygen. Most of us assume though that if there are no brain waves, no reflexes and no heart is beating that you must be dead. If our brain is not working it should not be possible for those ten percent who experience out of body experiences while being clinically dead to later report in such detail actual experiences they observed while dead. Yet, unless there is a huge conspiracy taking place (something that flunks the Occam’s Razor test) that appears to be the case. Something, let us call it consciousness, can survive the clinical definition of death and is aware.

More to the point though is Dr. Parnia’s speculation on how this could be happening:

Now, if you look at the mind, consciousness, and the brain, the assumption that the mind and brain are the same thing is fine for most circumstances, because in 99% of circumstances we can’t separate the mind and brain, they work at the exactly the same time. But then there are certain extreme examples, like when the brain shuts down, that we see that that this assumption may no longer seem to hold true. So a new science is needed in the same way that we had to have a new quantum physics.

My suspicion, as is also true with Dr. Parnia, is that as we get a better understanding of quantum physics we may begin to understand that consciousness and brain activity are actually two aspects of the same thing. Indeed, I speculated as much in this post. The better our understanding of quantum physics becomes, the more our fundamental assumptions of what is reality seem undermined.

We are all subject to our own biases, and I am no exception. The renowned physicist Dr. Albert Einstein came up with the groundbreaking theories of General and Special Relativity, which opened our eyes to a reality that we could not see. It is hard for us to believe in the reality he described: that we are bound in a finite warped matrix called space-time and that it is the relationship of objects inside this continuum that warps time and space. It’s all so abstract, like algebra, to seem real. Yet, Einstein utterly rejected the then emerging science of quantum physics because he was philosophically opposed to its nondeterministic pinnings. “God does not play dice with the universe,” he once famously said. Like relativity, quantum physics seems impossible for us to grasp. It is hard to grasp that at some small level that time does not have any meaning; that everything is probable but nothing is certain; that a wave consists of both particles and energy simultaneously and that Schrodinger’s Cat could be both dead and alive at the same instant. These are all paradoxical truths of our universe at a certain level and perspective. Our instinct is to reject notions at variance with our common experience.

We do know, as Einstein articulated, that energy and mass are interchangeable. What I am beginning to understand is that everything we perceive as real is energy in some form or another, and what we perceive as mass or matter is merely a transitory property of energy made possible by the unique arrangement of certain physical conditions in the space-time continuum.

So what we experience as our life and perception appears to be a combination of both mass and energy. Yet, since mass and energy are essentially interchangeable, it is not wholly beyond possibility that at brain death consciousness survives. The difference is that since the energy that makes up our consciousness cannot be accessed through the matter that is our brain, that those of us trapped in the mass-energy concoction we call consciousness cannot perceive it.

Death may be and I think likely is nothing more than a door from one variant of experience to another. Einstein also taught us that energy could never be destroyed. It could only change in form. Perhaps death then is like a two-way mirror. When a person stands behind a two-way mirror and he is in a lighted room, another person outside the room looking at the mirror can see him because the mirror becomes semi-transparent. Turn off the light and you just see your reflection. In both cases, two people are present. In only one case can you perceive the other.

Our soul may be like that. Our soul though may be what we really are, and our body may simply be like its shadow, a part of us and inseparable from us. Well documented after death out of body experiences suggest that something like this is occurring, as crazy as it may seem in our current reality frame. Perhaps the skeptics among us simply need to widen their lens, much like Einstein did to more perfectly describe the Newtonian universe. Perhaps we need to acknowledge a universe that is far more real than our limited intellects can grasp.

The Thinker

Suicide’s devastation and odd harvest

Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see…
that suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.

From the movie M*A*S*H

To me, suicide is one of these impenetrable mysteries. I think I can understand how someone who has had the bottom dropped out of their lives might want to take their own life. What is there to live for if, for example, all your living relatives were killed in a car bomb attack? Nonetheless, feeling as if you want to kill yourself and actually doing it are two different things. Our life force is incredibly strong. No matter how much pain we have in our lives, no matter how bleak our future looks, almost always something will pull us back from the ultimate act. Instead, we seem to prefer to kill ourselves slowly through the usual vices like drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, food and risky behavior.

Nonetheless, suicide happens. In 2001, approximately 30,000 of my fellow Americans killed themselves. The favorite method is to use a firearm. You are most likely to kill yourself if you are male, white and age 75 or older. You do not expect someone who is relatively young and very gifted around 6:30 one morning to plunge head first from her eighth floor dorm room. This young woman, age 18 and from a good home, was a close friend of my daughter. She, along with her many friends and her devastated family are left to grieve, wonder if there was something they should have done to prevent it and to struggle with the powerful feelings a suicide will surface.

At first, the story of her friend’s death came in muddled. We heard that she fell down a stairway. Where? At home or at college? It must have been a very long stairway to cause massive brain death. There was no hint that the death was a suicide. That came later during a gathering of friends of the young woman. At the gathering were a school counselor, friends and parents of friends and many, many suicide notes that she had written, including one to our daughter.

I met Taylor a couple times. Like most of my daughter’s friends, she was bright, goofy and artistic and she had a skewed perspective on life. She showed up most recently early last month when she attended her belated 18th birthday party. She had come home from a university out of state for the occasion. They laughed, ate pizza and a birthday cake, and watched videos. It felt somewhat quaint. Here was my daughter, a high school graduate taking a gap year between high school and college and she was still able to muster a small coterie of close friends for a birthday party.

Six weeks later Taylor was suddenly, tragically and pointlessly dead. She left few tangible memories: a long missive in our daughter’s yearbook, a few gifts received over the years, and one last unfathomable suicide note. My daughter is mostly quiet but we know that she is wracked with pain. She feels great anger at her friend, but in her final act, Taylor left no way for her to reply. Suicide closed all channels of communication. She feels survivor guilt. Should she have noticed her suicidal tendencies? She also feels a prematurely early brush with mortality. When you are 18, you should think of life as limitless and the possibilities boundless. Death is an abstraction. No more. Here is one more radioactive thing to sort out as she struggles into adulthood. Fortunately, her boss cut her some slack. She did not lose her job while she struggled to sort out her feelings. Three days later, she headed back to work, in part in the hope that it will distract her from her constant circular thoughts.

Most likely, her pain will linger. At 18, my daughter has to try to make meaning from an act that really has no meaning. She has to figure out how get beyond survivor’s guilt. In the end, she has to find a way (if it is possible at all) to move beyond her anger and her feelings that her friend was a coward, into acceptance. More likely though her feelings about Taylor’s death will forever linger, rising its angry head during moments of stress in her life. She has no choice but to come to terms with her loss. She lost a close friend, someone she thought she knew intimately but apparently not well enough.

We are keeping a close eye on our daughter. At some point, she may need grief counseling. I can imagine but not really understand the magnitude of the pain her family is going through, particularly today when family becomes the center of our lives. A million charitable acts, a thousand hugs and expressions of sympathy can never wipe away the devastation her family must feel. An amputee can learn to have a productive life again, but can never erase the memory of life before the amputation. So too a family struck by suicide will never be the same again. It can go on, but it will never be the same.

Taylor was declared brain dead, but her young organs were still alive and were harvested. I presume that many of her organs are now occupying new bodies. Likely, her organs are helping others live better and more hopeful lives. While nothing can erase the devastation of her death, some small measure of good came from it nonetheless. Perhaps her youthful heart now beats inside the chest of a woman with severe heart disease. Perhaps her kidneys will mean that two lucky people will no longer have to make twice-weekly trips for dialysis. I cannot help but honor her family for making these were painful but correct choices during a time of utter devastation.

Taylor’s mind and spirit are gone. Yet pieces of her body are still alive in others. While her family and friends remain devastated on this Thanksgiving holiday, other families are probably celebrating their perverse good fortune. I do not know if Taylor would have wanted her body used this way or not. Perhaps she chose to fall in a way to kill her brain so other parts of her body could be used to bring others happiness that she did not feel. Her tragic death is more evidence that life itself is utterly baffling. Yet even in a death this bizarre and tragic, a few are getting the chance to live again.


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