Warning: This post is not for sissies.
In two months I will turn 81. Despite a few health issues here and there (Does anyone recall my “Too Long Covid” or my “BVS” blogs?), I am in good health for someone my age. My “new” knee is bothering me a bit, but I still get in my 15-20 miles of urban walks every week, albeit at a lot slower pace than they were ten years ago, and I am facing no death sentences that I know of. I have already outlived my life expectancy by several years and counting. Embry is in better shape than I am, and our children, their spouses, and grandchildren are doing fine. As the saying goes, I have been blessed.
But like practically everyone in their 80s, I have lost my parents. I also have lost good friends, and a younger brother, and I know people who are struggling with very serious health issues. Many of our friends in the apartment house where we now live are widows. We octogenarians are aware we are mortal. I confess I now read more obituaries than I used to and make a mental note of the age of people when they died. There are a whole bunch of 80 something-year-olds in the obituaries/death notices every day.
So, two questions face us old folks. The first is how we get the most out of the limited time we have left on this wonderful but fragile planet. I will save that for a later post (“Squeezing the Last Drops Out of the Lemon.”) The second is what the checking out process is going to look like for us. This post is about the second question.
I recall my first “death awareness” experience. In 1966 Embry and I were attending a weekend retreat at Wake Forest Seminary in North Carolina. I was a student at Union Seminary in New York City, and we were preparing for a summer-long experience working in the Civil Rights Movement in southwest Georgia. The conference was conducted by a “radical” Christian organization called the Ecumenical Institute, which described its mission as using the principles of Marxism–and particularly those of Mao Tsung–to convert the entire world to Christianity. Bizarre to say the least, but there Embry and I were, along with a dozen or so apprehensive Union Seminary students, preparing to go to the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. There were probably over 100 others from other seminaries all over the country attending, who I presumed were preparing for similar adventures. I supposed the idea of sending us to this conference was to harden us up.
One of the exercises of the conference was to put groups of 25 or 30 people together in a room, lock the door, and forbid them to leave until they had answered “profound religious questions.” The event I attended happened around seven in the morning before anyone had had any breakfast. The subject of my first (and only) closed-door, locked session was death. (Embry was assigned to another room with another subject.) A thin guy in his 30s—”the Inquisitor” — with a crew cut and wearing a gray suit and thin tie, walked around the room and would stop behind someone arbitrarily, jerk the cowering person out of a chair and ask a profound question dealing with death—the person’s own death. The method worked. Some people broke down in tears, trying unsuccessfully to say something profound and avoid humiliation. Others were scolded by the Inquisitor for remaining silent. Everyone there was a seminary student someplace, so there were occasional praises of Jesus, and asking forgiveness to avoid going to hell, but most people just wept, begged for mercy, or kept their mouths shut.
I was terrified. I had no idea what I would say. I was something of a skeptic even during my seminary days (or perhaps because of them); but more important, I was an Episcopalian. Episcopalians do not do or say such things. Ever.
I noticed that he seemed to be picking on every third person. As he got nearer to me as the moaning and weeping continued, I did the arithmetic and figured out that within a minute or two I was in line to be jerked up out of my seat. I could feel my heart pounding. I glanced at the door. I could bolt, but the door was supposed to be locked. Besides I would look like a fool and a wimp.
I looked up and there he was standing over me and frowning with an evil look in his eye. I clinched my fists and held my breath as his hands headed toward my shoulders. But instead of landing on my shoulders, they landed on the guy sitting next to me. The Inquisitor screamed in his ear, “What do you want on your tombstone? What do you want on your tombstone? Tell me now. Now!”
The poor guy, who was about my age, turned his head to the Inquisitor and with a smirk replied in a calm voice but in a stage whisper loud enough for everyone to hear, “You want to know what I want on my tombstone? You want to know that? This is what I want on my tombstone: ‘Bury me upside down so you can kiss my ass, you sonofabitch!’’”
The room exploded with laughter. Everyone got up and headed to the door, which it turned out was not locked afterall, and that was pretty much it for the conference.
“What do I want on my tombstone?” Gosh, I still can’t answer that question, and besides I plan to be cremated anyway.
But the question that I—and I suspect many others my age—do ask is whether I will have to suffer and for how long, and what will my checking out process be like. The experience of the million or so Americans who died from covid, most alone, has meant that almost all these people died without their families or loved ones present. How terrible was this? Nobody would want this! Will this continue as covid persists? Please, no. Not that for me!
And what about people who spend months and even years in nursing homes and who suffer from dementia? This week I visited several such facilities in trying to find a spot for a dear relative. Please, no. Not that for me. Anything but that!
Or people who suffer great pain? Hospice has made a huge difference here, and modern drugs can ease the suffering, but still….
Yet the checking out process is not our call—at least not our call most of the time. California and Oregon and a handful of other states (including the District of Columbia) have what I call “death with dignity” laws—not “physician-assisted suicide”! — but the criteria for using these laws is pretty strict as indeed it should be. For one thing you have to be of sound mind and have a life-threatening disease. However, that leaves out dementia patients and those with severe mental illness and profound depression. These are often the ones who suffer the most.
Several decades ago we had a college student staying with us who had summer jobs working part time in the National Zoo and part time in a neighborhood nursing home. She told us no one would allow an animal in the zoo to suffer the way we allow people to suffer in nursing homes. When I took our aging cat to the vet a couple of years ago, the vet’s comments were very clear: please, please, do not let your cat suffer needlessly. I felt like responding, “You mean, the way we let human beings do?”
There is no easy answer to the death and dying question. To ease the pain and suffering by broadening death with dignity regulations could help but also they could be abused. But there has to be a better way. I do not know what the answer is though certainly hospice has made a huge contribution in easing the checking out process for many. Death is as much a part of the human condition as birth. One could argue that without a beginning and an end life itself would have no meaning.
A number of years ago, Embry’s aunt, who was one day short of her 99th birthday, and had been a widow for decades (married to a Methodist minister and professor of religion), laid out the ground rules for her children regarding her own checking out process. She had been nearly blind for several years, recently diagnosed with a particularly painful type of cancer and was very sharp mentally. She had been living for many years in the independent living section of a very good retirement community in the Bay Area. Following her explicit instructions, all three of her children and their spouses gathered around her bed. She was by no means a serious drinker but had instructed someone to make a pitcher of martinis and to sing a robust version of “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain When She Comes,” make appropriate toasts, and hold hands as she consumed what appeared to be a peanut butter cracker. Smiling, she dozed off to sleep and never woke up.
Does the checking out process get any better than this?