Scared to death

The Thinker by Rodin

Did you see the video of Donald Trump’s hair (or more accurately his lack of it)? It looks like on February 6th Trump had a really bad hair day. The camera caught these moments when he was ascending into Air Force One. Trump of course goes through great length to hide his thinning hair. While only his hairstylist knows some of his secrets (and I’m not sure he has one), it looks like he’s getting by by letting his sideburns grow to great lengths and sweeping them back.

Frankly it looks stupid. It’s rumored that Trump has had scalp reduction surgery, presumably to pull back and make the most what he has left of his hair. It’s obviously dyed and lacquered with something to make it thicker than it is. It’s also obvious that Trump wears dentures. No one has quite that perfect teeth. But when you are 71 all you can do is make the best of what you’ve got or in Trump’s case, fake it … bigly. Trump wants to pretend he’s much younger than he is and full of vigor, but if anything he looks older than his age.

Since two posts ago I turned 61. I’m doing relatively well hair-wise, at least compared to my younger brother. But like Trump I have a lot less of it on the top of my head and what’s left is a lot thinner as well. My former hairstylist assured me I would always have a full head of hair, but I doubt it. In the sun it’s pretty obvious it’s going. Like it or not I too am aging. And while like Trump I don’t particularly want to look older than my age and would prefer to look younger than my age, I don’t intend to fake it.

Still, Trump and I share one undeniable fact: were both aging and it’s only going to get worse. I have no illusions that I’m handsome enough to attract some younger babe. Unlike a lot of the men in the news these days I’m not in the mood to try. I like the woman I married 32 years ago, faults and all. She loves me. If I were to hitch up with some younger babe I’d never really believe she loves me anyhow.

I can’t read Melania Trump but I really doubt she loves her husband. She now has more reason not to love him if these Stormy Daniels rumors are true. Even if not true, she surely knew she was marrying a man with issues and infidelities. My guess is Melania knew poverty as a child, or enough discomfort that she wanted to be kept warm and in opulence for the rest of her life. At least she got that with Trump. If he dumped her like he did with his other wives there would be a fat alimony and a big bonus: not having to endure her husband anymore.

Aside from 46 chromosomes, humans share one important thing: we are all destined to die. One way to measure a person is to see how they respond to this knowledge. I try not to think about it too much but I live in a strange family. My daughter says she is not death-phobic. She’s converting my wife who is spending her time on YouTube watching the Ask the Mortician channel, and enjoying it. For the last few years my main way with dealing with death is to live robustly. Make every day count and stay engaged. For me life is about living. Death will take care of itself, since it is inescapable.

I do get this much from listening to my wife and daughter: many of us are trained to fear death. It’s not like this in all cultures, Japan for instance. But here in the west we are in the death-denying business. Some take it to crazy lengths, and Donald Trump must be near the top of the list. Trump’s reputed recent physical was crazy. He’s 239 pounds, and was probably holding helium balloons while he was weighed. He also inflated his height to 6’3” so he can technically claim not to be obese. His doctor, the White House physician, said he was in fabulous health. But the doctor was clearly lying. You don’t need to be a doctor to see it for yourself. Trump looks terrible, gets no exercise of note, requires statins to keep his cholesterol in check and has a diet that consists of a lot of McDonalds takeout food.

Many religions teach us there is an afterlife which if true is a good reason to not be worried about death. The problem is that most of us in our hearts don’t believe it. We can’t acknowledge to ourselves that we don’t believe it and that feeds a lot of anxiety, anxiety that seems to grow worse as we age. Trump is denying his mortality bigly. So did my mom when she was dying. Her faith was pretty useless to her. She was scared out of her mind.

Only two aunts (one of them in a mental hospital) stand between me and everyone in the generation before me related to me dead. Both my parents are gone, my father most recently two years ago on my birthday. The one aunt who is still of sound mine is taking lots of supplements, is carefully watching her nutrition and is getting lots of exercise. She is the youngest of twelve. All the rest are gone. She reports it’s sad and scary to see all those you loved die. What are left are mostly children and grandchildren if you are lucky to have them. She’s got the children, but both her husband and daughter are dead and died just weeks apart in misery. Of the three boys, two are married and none produced heirs.

Being a middle child I am likely to see some of my older siblings die before me and they will experience my absence from their lives when I die. That too is part of aging and dying, at least in a large family (I have seven siblings), if you live long enough. In some ways it is better to die sooner so you don’t have to go through that crap.

With six decades to ponder death though I’ve realized a few things. Death does not scare me. I don’t want to die by having my head chopped off with an axe or from a gunshot wound but that’s a logical fear to a particularly horrible way of dying. Having watched two parents die though death is no longer a mystery. It’s natural and it’s a consequence of living. I should no more be afraid of being dead than I should be scared that there was no me before I was conceived.

I am afraid of dying a miserable death like my mother endured. I can and will take sensible precautions to avoid those kinds of death. The major cause of her death was Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. I am taking COQ-10 to make it less likely that this will kill me, although it might. Parkinson’s runs in her family. My father died primarily of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Basically his lungs died before the rest of him. I have a physical in two weeks and on my agenda is to ask my physician how I can avoid COPD. (Obviously I don’t smoke, and neither did my father. This is often where it begins.)

Something’s going to get me though and it will get Donald Trump too. You play the game, you do your best to stack the odds in your favor so you can at least optimally enjoy what time you have left, but a certain amount is left to fate. COPD is not a bad way to go if you have to go. My father was able to stay at home until nearly the very end.

So perhaps watching Ask the Mortician is not a bad idea. Maybe we have such phobias about death because we don’t want to confront our mortality. And yet there is nothing more natural than death. We will all experience dying but I suspect even in dying there is some living there. We will all find out in time if we can get suppress our fear of dying enough to enjoy living. That’s how I intend to go.

I don’t know how Donald Trump will go when his time comes, but I am confident he will fight it, lose like all of us do and maybe for the first time in his life feel humbled by forces outside of his control.

Eulogy for my father

The Thinker by Rodin

Grace: (in Christian belief) is the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.

My sister Mary related an anecdote about my father, who passed away on Monday at age 89. Two days before his death, she had to return to Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland to retrieve her cell phone. He was rapidly losing his war on pneumonia and pulmonary fibrosis. So she trudged back through Washington’s daunting traffic, through security and back to his room on the sixth floor. Dad looked zonked out but she did explain to Dad why she was there just in case he was listening. As she was heading out the door he heard him say in a calm and soothing voice, “Good night, dear.” It was the last coherent thing he said to her.

My father at his 80th birthday celebration
My father at his 80th birthday celebration

That was my father: so full of the milk of human kindness that even on his deathbed with hardly enough breath to form a sentence, he took the time to be kind. This was actually my father all through his 89 years and nearly four months of life: a kind, gentle and heartfelt man. It was who he was and it was apparently as reflexive as breathing.

He was this way with everyone and harsh with no one. When you were with him you felt special, heard, listened to and deeply appreciated for the unique soul that you were. It didn’t matter whether you were related to him, whether you were some momentary encounter on a bus or saw him every day. That’s the kind of father I was fortunate enough to grow up with, a true Mr. Rogers who took honest joy and interest in everyone he met, warts and all. While you were with him you thought here’s someone who really gets me and when you left him you felt the warm glow of connection.

Such empathy is sometimes expected in women, but it often feels forced. It is rare to find this in a man, but he took real joy in your presence. He was never judgmental, but always accepting, always open with a loving heart, and always happy to pass on his love to whoever he encountered in life.

A devout Catholic, he was catholic in the best sense of the world. The definition of catholic is universal, but you rarely see this kind of catholicism from Catholics. Instead you get dogmatists. Do this, don’t do that, avoid sin, lead a clean life and you will get into heaven. And my father did all of that, just absent the in-your-face dogmatism. He was about modeling the religious life than preaching it. He was abstemious to the point of fanaticism. Communion wine was as close as he ever got to drinking, and most of the time he only took the host. He never smoked. Despite having served in the Navy, he never learned the art of swearing. I only recall hearing him swear twice in his whole life, and only under the greatest duress.

He might have been seen as queer or effeminate but as best I can tell he was never perceived this way. It was not that he did not enjoy sports: he could toss the football with us and often coaxed us to do so. He was more interested in spending time with us than being outdoors or getting exercise. He was an engineer by trade, quiet and bookish, freakishly sober but gentle beyond words. Dad had to be experienced, and once experienced you rarely forgot it or him.

Dad never had grand ambitions. He never ran for political office or spoke that much about politics in general. One of the great mysteries of his marriage is where he fell politically. All we knew is that he and my mother were in different parties, but they wouldn’t discuss their feelings on candidates or elections with us. Late in his life I deciphered his quiet political leanings. He was where I thought he was all along: a Democrat, not so much because of its ideology but because he aligned with candidates that felt we needed to be compassionate to people. Curiously, in his second marriage he married a Republican, a woman who admired Bill O’Reilly but who was also a devout Catholic. They made it work somehow. My mother was the submissive in his first marriage. In the second one, his new wife was the brass and outspoken one. Dad just kept being dad, but I think he enjoyed the change of pace.

As I said in this post, Dad was saint-like, but not a saint. He did have some human foibles. Gluttony perhaps was one of his sins, although he was never obese. He enjoyed chocolate and baked goods too much, although it seemed to have no effect on his lifespan. My mom was the submissive in their marriage, but the dominant with the children. She was a harsh disciplinarian. She was in fact emotionally and physically abusive to some of us. For some of my siblings it simply washed over them like rain on a duck’s back. In my case it hurt and nearly crippled me psychologically, perhaps because I never saw it modeled in Dad. It took months of therapy after my Mom’s death to make sense of it. I was a victim of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD); at least I had all the symptoms. Perhaps Dad should have stepped up to the plate and stopped my mother’s behavior, or maybe he was unaware of it because it happened when he was at work.

When Dad came home from work all his children were tickled pink to see him. We’d yell “Daddy’s home!” and run around the house excitedly. My mother was jealous of the attention he got. Sometimes a few of us would hide in the back of his closet and pretend to sneak up when he came in the bedroom to change clothes. (Our giggles generally gave us away.) We loved Dad with an honest and sincere intensity, counted our time alone with him as precious, and looked up to him.

I certainly looked up to him. Compassion forms a major part of whom I am, although I inherited a lot of my mom’s judgmental ways, so I am quick to scold. I will never be as good a man on my best day as my father was on his worst. But he taught me volumes: how to be thrifty, how to plan our finances, an engineering outlook where you make your future predictable, the importance of science and the value of empathy. I picked up some of his passions too: musicals, theater in general and an appreciation for classical music.

My friend Tom whose own father passed away recently related his relationship with his father, which was much different and much more challenging. I took my father for granted but he always wowed me. I just assumed most fathers were like mine. They were not. My father was exceptional in just about every way a human being can be exceptional. His religion gave him a frame for living his life that fit him like a comfortable glove, and amplified his native tendencies. He was not saintly but he was saint-like who intuitively and effortlessly touched people’s souls. He is a tough act for anyone to follow.

He lived a long, happy, healthy and productive life. I am convinced his life was so long in part because he was at peace with himself, and so few of us are. Like all of us, he was one soul adrift in a sea of many souls; he was just never lost. He reveled in the love all around him and drew it near him effortlessly. He lived the life that matters: not of power, or material possessions but of character, of love and the value of relationships.

I am so blessed to have spent 59 years with the man. His passing of course is a great sorrow, but bittersweet. He touched my soul so many times and I am an infinitely better and more humane person because of him. He was a gift of grace to all who knew him. I am humbled and full of gratitude to have known him.

What a man! What a life! He was a father indeed, a father in deed.

Searching for the exit

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Dying well

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Deathwatch

The Thinker by Rodin

My mother passed away ten years ago this November. Her decline and death and the vivid memories it brought back (many of which are cataloged here in my archives) were on my mind yesterday as our car, facing stiff headwinds scurried west on I-70. For we were on our way to say goodbye to another loved one. As we exited onto I-68 toward Cumberland, Maryland the wind tried to push us off the road while we also gained altitude. By the time we exited on U.S. 40 toward Uniontown, Pennsylvania there was snow on the ground in spite of the bright sunshine, while the temperature kept steadily dropping. When we pulled off the road toward Aunt Pat and Uncle Paul’s house on the Youghiogheny Reservoir the winds were still brisk and the early afternoon temperature registered a frigid 10 degrees Fahrenheit. With my warmest coat and hat on, it still felt cold outside in the sun. The dry snow crunched below our feet as we ascended stairs to knock on their door.

Cousin Beverly had phoned us a few days earlier to let us know that her mother had a stroke late last year. It paralyzed the left half of her body and left her largely unable to move or say anything clearly. Since then it had been all downhill, which meant of course a hospitalization, a nursing home, and now hospice care in the lower level of their home. We steeled ourselves. She may be on a deathwatch, but the house was warm and Aunt Pat had plenty of company. There was Chris, a good-hearted friend of Bev who had moved up for the duration. There was a nurse’s aid and later a LPN. There was Uncle Paul, Pat’s husband, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, but was reasonably alert and chatty, and who greeted us warmly. There was a small friendly dog, as well as another friend of the family who seemed to be there for the duration, driven up from North Carolina by Chris. Those Adventists know how to stick together.

Except for all the attention to Aunt Pat at first our visit seemed sort of normal. She was in a reclining wheelchair, placed into it by Chris, her mouth now perpetually wide open, with just slits to show her eyes. Her body was a mess of bedsores and infections. A catheter drained her bladder. A tube going through her abdomen into her stomach provided nutrition of a sort. The LPN applied dressing to her wounds. When Pat chose to talk it came out as a moan but her meaning was clear: she was in pain. Her vision had been declining for years due to macular degeneration. She could no longer make out faces, but only see light and colors. She could hear what was around her, at least when she was awake, but had virtually no other ways to be understood. The stroke had largely taken away her speech. The guttural sounds that occasionally came out were hard to interpret.

She was ready to die, that much we knew through our phone conversation with Beverly. From seeing her up close and hearing her moans, death seemed to be something to hasten, not postpone. Her face was pallid. The stroke had stolen with it any sign of animation. Pat had always been a forceful woman, kindly but stubborn, and a woman of deep faith and conviction. Part of her faith required her family to do all they could to keep her alive. It was clear to me that these extraordinary efforts while well intentioned had the effect of being cruel. My own mother eventually died from a bladder infection due to having a catheter in her 24/7, but like Pat she also had congestive heart failure. Pat’s heart was having a hard time meeting her body’s needs. She was retaining water (not a good sign) and her oxygen levels were dropping too. And she was often moaning. This brought calls to a registered nurse and the injection of a rescue drug to alleviate her pain. It also brought a major decision. She was gently lifted from the wheelchair and into her bed. There she will stay until she passes.

In the living room with Uncle Paul, he seemed inured to his wife’s suffering. It might have been the Alzheimer’s, it might have been that her condition was very old news, so he was eloquent with us instead, anxious to hear how we were doing although it had been more than seven years since we last visited. A little dog bounded from lap to lap happily. Paul shared pictures of their life together while other adults fussed over Pat’s condition. Like his wife, Paul is a passionate Adventist. He can’t drive anymore, which means he can’t drive an hour each way to Cumberland on the Sabbath to attend church. There is, he happily reported, an Adventist channel on the satellite TV. Ministers come by regularly to provide pastoral care to both Pat and Paul. While the moans from his wife waffled from her bedroom, he informed us that in all the universe Satan lived only here on Earth, and we must resist Satan and follow Christ. (I didn’t ask why God put us here and if that made God a sadist, but I wanted to.) He had tried to convert us the last time we were here. We nodded dutifully but did not agree with his thesis. This was no time to disagree about theology, but Paul is too kindly a man to disagree with in any event.

Meanwhile Pat drifted in and out of consciousness. It was not clear much of the time if she was conscious, but when she moaned we at least knew that she was hurting. We weren’t sure what if anything she could say to us, but when she seemed reasonably alert and we listened closely, it sounds like “hurt”. No doubt. I touched her gently not wishing to start yet another bedsore. Her skin was paper thin and easily injured. “Aunt Pat,” I said, “they gave you a medicine for the pain. It should stop soon.”

My wife talked to her and tried to listen but it was mostly a one sided conversation. She told her how grateful she was to her. It was Pat that had took her in when she had to leave college. There were opportunities in Washington D.C. that did not exist in Flint, Michigan. Pat had hosted her and Pat had also pushed her out. She had the courage her mother seemed to lack to tell her it was time to stand on her own two feet. After leaving their house, my wife lived in a fleabag apartment, then in a high rise with a roommate and not much after that she ran into me. It was Aunt Pat that indirectly brought her into my life. As I held Pat gently I told her how sad I was to see her suffer, but how profoundly grateful I was that by choosing kindness for my wife, I found the woman I love.

I watched while the nurse’s aide frequently hydrated her lips and mouth. Tubes were periodically sent down her sinuses to remove mucus. All sorts of things were being done to keep her alive, but her systems were failing. The nurse told Paul that much. Her body was shutting down. Medicines would not work much longer.

My wife promised Pat that she would come back but I don’t see how it is possible. I can’t imagine that Pat will live much longer and we are three hours away by car. I never had the emotional attachment to Pat that I had to my mother, but I certainly grew to respect both her and Paul. When my time comes I simply don’t want these sorts of extraordinary procedures to keep me alive. She was suffering pointlessly and needlessly. It would be more humane to simply do the best to manage her pain but otherwise let her die a gentle death. For now she was living the script that her faith taught her: to keep her body alive as long as possible, even though there seemed literally nothing to live for except more discomfort and pain.

My wife was crying of course when we left and began another three-hour journey home. I felt it best to drive while she sat in her seat mostly quietly, a sad and vacant look in her eyes. I don’t expect Aunt Pat to last more than a few more days. I am certainly grateful to have known her. I wish her (if it is possible to state this without sounding callous) a swift but gentle death. May it come soon.

You’re dying. So what else is new?

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Thoughts on death and dying

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Acts of mercy

The Thinker by Rodin

For every Walter Cronkite who passes on, there are thousands of prominent people who warrant obituaries but rarely make the national news. Two notables in the Washington region passed recently, both of them developers. Abe Pollin was perhaps best known as the longtime owner of The Washington Wizards, but he made his fortune in the construction business. Pollin’s most notable achievement was probably building The Verizon Center in downtown Washington where his beloved Wizards played. Robert H. Smith though probably made a larger architectural impact. His buildings were rarely noteworthy, but he built so many of them (mostly look-alike upper end office buildings with marble faces, large windows and with adjacent multilevel parking garages) that they became ubiquitous. They house lobbyists along K Street and beltway bandits out in McLean, Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland. Crystal City (which is not an incorporated city) is perhaps his best-known creation. The huge complex of office and residential high rises goes on for more than a mile. It frames the west side of the Potomac River and offers prime view of our federal city.

Of course, for every prominent obituary, there are many other thousands whose lives do not seem to merit an obituary. Sometimes the family will not even bother to pay for a death notice. Dying is rarely a tidy business. Fortunately, there is usually someone around responsible enough to do the hard work of caring for someone nearing the end of life. They are usually family. This is true in the case of my friend Lynn (not her real name).

More than eight years ago, she noticed that her sister was becoming difficult to reason with. Her sister has always been somewhat difficult and irascible. She did not take care of herself and smoked like a chimney, which unsurprisingly caused her to also develop emphysema. Still, giving up her cigarettes was unthinkable. Lynn has one brother who has family problems of his own. Since Lynn is sixty something, her parents have long passed on. As her sister’s faculties declined, she started to become a danger to herself. For example, she would forget that she was leaving lit cigarettes lying around.

Her sister also inconveniently lived fifteen hundred miles away in Colorado. Lynn had two choices: to let her sister to fend for herself or to rescue her. Her sister smoked constantly and everything she owned reeked of tobacco. To say the least, taking on the chore of acting as her sister’s guardian was not appealing, but love won out. Largely by herself, she relocated her sister to Northern Virginia, amongst much crying and cursing by her sister.

Her confused sister felt upset and betrayed. She did not want to come to the east coast; the Rocky Mountains were her home. For a while, they were uncomfortable roommates in her modest house. Finally, she found her an apartment in an assisted living facility a few miles from her house. Meanwhile, Lynn grappled to find her sister the medical and psychiatric care that she needed, with few ideas on how to do so other than to call the county’s office on aging. It took months to find her the right social workers and specialists so that her care was adequate and she was safe. For a few months, she visited her sister weekly and relaxed. However, with each visit her sister was more confused.

Recognizing that she could not depend on assisted living much longer, Lynn began searching for a nursing home for her sister. She discovered that most of the nursing homes were not suitable for her sister, or even most of the patients that lived there. Staffing was short. The staff looked hassled, overworked and underpaid. Care was substandard. She finally found one that she thought would work for her sister, but her sister refused to go. So they paid periodic visits until she began to feel more comfortable with the place. The nursing home felt more like home in part because she had trouble retaining long-term memories. Her mind was going. She recognized her sister less and less.

Eventually she settled into the nursing home. For a while, it was like scenes out of the movie Away From Her. She seemed quite happy and for a few more months, Lynn could relax and visit weekly. Yet, with each visit her sister seemed a little more distant. After a while, she forgot her name entirely. Surprisingly, she stopped smoking, in part because she forgot it was something she wanted to do.

She began drawing on the walls and sleeping in until noon. Then one day she fell out of bed. For hours, no one noticed until someone found her on the floor. She was in great pain. Lynn was summoned. Her sister’s hip was broken. She was quickly taken into surgery. The hip was replaced but she immediately made a turn for the worse. Her surgical pain was horrendous. She screamed for hours and no one in the hospital cared. Lynn spent hours trying to get the attention of doctors and nurses and was largely ignored. She stopped eating and drinking. They tried to force feed her but it all came out through her nose and mouth. There was also blood in her urine. By this time, she weighed less than ninety pounds.

Lynn eventually got her sister some excellent narcotics, but the doctors kept wanting to do more invasive tests and force feed her. Lynn retrieved copies of her sister’s living will, but it took over a week before she could convince her doctors that she would not sue them for negligence and that her sister did not want her life artificially prolonged. Tonight, her sister is in the final stages of dying. She hasn’t eaten in more than a week. Her body is rapidly failing.

Lynn chose to speak for her sister. At great personal pain, she made the awful decision to not artificially prolong her life. At great expense to herself, she stood by her sister, the same sister who so often treated her shabbily. There was no one else to do the dirty work. She did it both out of a sense of compassion and duty.

She cried last night in my covenant group while relaying her story. We held her hands, gave her hugs, and made sure she had all the time she needed to share her feelings and her story. It is ironic that at this very time a new man has entered her life, someone she met at the hospice whose wife died some months back. Sometimes moral support comes from the oddest directions.

As drawn out as her sister’s dying has been, her sister is blessed. Despite the odds, she has a compassionate and loving sister who cares for her for years while knowing that her end was destined to be bleak. Some of us die on street corners, others of hypothermia, and some alone in our apartments, unable to dial 911 and with no one to notice until the rent is past due and the landlord busts down the door. Some like my wife’s wayward father end up as an indigent in a hospital room with no one to notice their passing. Lynn’s sister at least had her.

Lynn’s hard work these last years is as notable as Robert H. Smith and Abe Pollin’s building and stadiums, if not more so. If no one else will do it when it’s Lynn’s turn go, I will do my best to be there for her, for she is childless and will likely be the last of her generation. Compassion should always be given out indiscriminately, but even with family, it is hard to summon the courage and make the commitment. Lynn has earned the compassion she too will need some day. I and the other members of her covenant group will make sure she receives it.

A grave business

The Thinker by Rodin

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.

Trapped in the portal called life

The Thinker by Rodin

I had a creative writing teacher in college. He was one of these intense, bearded, Birkenstock types who, doubtlessly parroting someone else, said there are only two seismic mysteries in life: sex and death.

At the time, as I was only 18, I was far more focused on the sex part than the death part. For me the sex part was more about actually having sex. Now, at age 50 sex is no longer a mystery. My bearded professor though did not mean sex as in sexual intercourse, but sex as in procreation. Sexual intercourse (at least until recently) is the event which causes human life to start. The flip side of life is of course, death. I think that was my professor’s point. Death was as equally mysterious as creation. Death was also an inescapable fact of being alive. It came with the territory.

My professor was likely 50-something at the time I sat in his class in 1975. Which means if he still alive he is probably eighty something now. More likely, he is pushing up the daisies. Now it just so happened that I turned 50 not too long ago. Given that sex is no longer quite the consuming mystery it once was (although relationships in general remain baffling and mysterious) it should not be too surprising that I spend a lot more time these days thinking about death.

Just because death is an unfathomable mystery does not mean that I, like most aging humans on the planet, isn’t trying to fathom it anyhow. This angst was doubtless at least partially responsible for my delving into metaphysics the way I did when I was in my forties. It may also explain society’s general fascination with TV shows like Ghost Hunters, not to mention TV psychics like John Edward.

When you are 50-something you tend to have had the experience of witnessing the dying process at least once. As frequent readers know, my mother passed away in 2005. Since she was living close to me at the time, I got the dubious privilege of witnessing the American style of death. In my Mom’s case, dying meant progressively worse congestive heart failure, falling a lot, long stays in ICUs, and finally a parking spot at a very pretty but still dispiriting nursing home. Over five months she was there, I had an intimate look watching the life forces slowly drain out of her. I have many memories of visiting her in the nursing home and finding her parked in the TV room in a wheelchair with a dozen other short timers, none of whom had the least bit of interest in watching TV. Most were asleep. It seemed like their major daily activity consisted of remembering to breathe regularly. My beloved mother eventually died directly of a kidney infection and indirectly of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy while attached to a noisy nonstop machine feeding oxygen through her nostrils and an uncomfortable catheter buried deep in her private parts.

So naturally, those of us who witnessed someone dying like this are hoping that when our time comes things will go better, with less angst and fuss and without having to surrender our dignity. I personally am hoping I am one of the fortunate few that die suddenly and peacefully in their sleep, perhaps in the middle of a dream. Failing that, I would prefer to be unexpectedly run over by a bus, providing I died very quickly. Naturally, I do not want to die at all, but if I must die, I do not want to do it before I have lived a long, fully engaged and quintessential American life.

In some ways, every day that I now wake up in good health I take as a blessing. The older I get though the more surreal it feels. I am waiting for some sure sign that I too am mortal. There are many indirect signs such as age spots and poorer vision. I have yet to have that serious, life threatening traumatic event that will cement my mortality in my forebrain. Something like a coronary bypass would do it. My goal, of course, is to get through life minus such an event. However, I am sure there will be other signs to remind me that my life is finite. Perhaps it will be arthritic joints. All I can really do is hope that with a combination of good genetics, diet and exercise that I can enjoy a fully engaged and relatively pain free life as long as possible. I know in time the bell will toll for me too.

For being 50-something is also a time when you notice that others in your age group are not as fortunate. I know a number of people my age, some former classmates and some friends and coworkers who have gone to their great premature reward. As the ranks of your peers begin to thin, however slowly, it is natural to wonder how much longer you have.

The optimist says that the glass is half-full. The pessimist says it is half-empty. My problem is that I know my glass is no longer even half-full, which may be why my inner pessimist is coming out more. The good news is that I cannot see where the bottom of the glass is exactly. Suspense is a natural byproduct of mystery, and some of us are better at dealing with suspense than others are. Those of us who like our lives planned might almost prefer to know precisely when we will die. Then we would at least know how to spend our remaining time wisely. Perhaps we would then spend more of our time enjoying life rather than engaging in all this necessary but tedious exercise. Because what is the point in living if you are so engaged in prolonging life that it becomes harder to enjoy?

The good part about this stage of my life is that life I feel life more acutely. For example, when I go somewhere like Yellowstone I wonder, will I ever come back here again before I am, well, dead? So you try to revel in that moment when you dip your feet into a wild mountain stream. At the same time, your brain (or at least mine) is also participating in the experience as a dispassionate spectator. I find that the less I frame an experience the better it becomes. Unfortunately, it is hard not to apply the mortal frame to life events when your cup of life is less than half-full.

Perhaps successful living at my time of life comes from suspending disbelief about your own mortality. Perhaps it comes from laughing in the face of death, even though death at age 50 is likely many decades away. Perhaps it comes from thinking less and feeling more. For me I find it helps to stay engaged in tasks. For us older Americans, idleness can be deadly.

The only problem with full engagement is that while you are arguably having a great time the years go by so quickly. I have reached that age where I have a devilish time putting time into its proper perspective. Some months back I wrote a review about the movie made of the hit Broadway musical The Producers. I said I first saw it (likely on TV) some 25 years ago. I had to do the math. 2007-25 would be 1982 or so. That sounds right. However, the first movie of The Producers came out in 1968, which was almost forty years ago. I was too young to see it in the theaters yet still I remember 1968 fairly well, since I was 11 at the time. It is almost as if 1968 happened yesterday, not forty years ago. Memory does this to you. At my age, I have to think hard about the sequence and time between past events. Just when did I graduate from college? How long ago was that? What was the world like in 1978? How can it be 2007 when I feel it is more like 1987?

The world is always changing but my brain does not appear to be changing. It is stuck at a certain mental age, say age 30. I got a sense of this in Denver recently. A group of us went to a Whole Foods store for lunch. We noshed on very tasty, overpriced but organically certified sandwiches. I was overwhelmed by the size of the place. The varieties of choices blew my little 1960s-framed mind. It made my head ache just trying to wrap my brain around the vast supply chain created to bring all this choice to me, all of it wholesome and fresh. The supply chain had evolved in the last forty years, but my brain was still back in the 1960s. Back then, you felt lucky to find a couple dozen kinds of cereal at the local grocer. The closest cereal to being a health food was Kellogg’s All Bran. Whole Foods, rather than feeling all-natural, felt extremely surreal. To a twenty something wandering the store though, it was completely ordinary.

I am beginning to suspect that by a certain age that because of the way the world actually is compared with your frame of it that death can be seen as a blessing. I suspect that by the time old age arrives, you feel like you are living on an alien planet. I felt that way with my poor suffering mother. She could never quite grasp the computer. Superficially, it looked a bit like a typewriter, and she knew how to type, but certain things would not work like with a typewriter and mentally she could not get past them. She could not adopt. She was incapable of not hitting the enter key when she reached the end of a line. She could not comprehend the idea of copying and pasting. She was the sort who wanted to fix mistakes by using whiteout on the monitor.

I suspect as geeky as I am that I will think like this at some point. Maybe I am halfway there already. Like all of us, I am trapped in this portal called life whose beginnings are as mysterious as its ending is certain. The mystery of life is everywhere and pervasive, but as I age the apprehension is often there too. Therefore, like most 50-something Americans I keep engaging, generally happy with where I am in life, but somewhat apprehensive nonetheless. I keep wondering when my inner Energizer battery will slow down. While apprehensive I am still appreciative and more than a little wowed that I still have it all together. A hundred years ago I would likely be dead by now.

For me modern life is slowly becoming more and more surreal. Perhaps when it becomes totally surreal, life ends and, like Neo in The Matrix, you wake in a stupor to find that your entire existence was nothing but a complex simulation.

That is when I want to get hit by the bus.