Oh That We Could Choose a Good Death

    May 2011          
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Good and Bad Deaths

By David Fisher

Once your father and mother have died there is no one between you and death. You know you will probably be next. It is in the natural course of events. It is tragic if any of your descendents die before you do. Father died a good death. Mother didnít.

You feel the distance between you and death lessen when a sibling of your parents dies or even when someone you knew of their generation dies. My uncle had almost as good a death as my father. His wife didnít.

Father was a mournful jokester. In one of his moods he said, ďIf I were an undertaker people would stop dying.Ē I thought he was a wit, and maybe he was. However, in my reading I found this:

If I sold shrouds
No-one would die.
If I sold lamps
Then, in the sky
The sun, for spite
Would shine at night

    Abraham Ibn Ezra, Spanish scholar, scientist and poet (1089-1164)

Possibly itís a standard lament. A pessimist can really enjoy the good things of life because he realises the darkling depths of what could be. Schopenhauer (1788-1860), the pessimist philosopher, had a great appreciation for wit, good food and music. His philosophy consoles us for the inevitability of death.

I write about good and bad deaths because at 85 I think of mine. I have lived longer than Abraham Ibn Ezra and Schopenhauer.

My father at 92 still liked to appear dapper so I took him to Learburyís, a custom tailor in Syracuse, N. Y., to have a suit made. After the tailor took my fatherís measure he told my father that the suit would be ready in two weeks.

Father: Maybe it will be ready, but you wonít give it to me.

Tailor: What do you mean we wonít give it to you?

Father: Just what I said. You wonít give it to me.

Tailor: Why do you keep insisting we wonít give it to you? You have dealt with us before, and you know we are reliable.

Father: Because two weeks from today is Labor Day, and youíll be closed.

In less than two weeks I got a call from my cousin that my father had been feeling bad, and my cousin had taken him to the hospital. By the time I got to the hospital my father was dead. The doctor said he was cracking jokes almost until his time of death. Thatís probably the way he would have wanted to go. I saw him lying in bed with his mouth open Ė an undignified but peaceful death.

My motherís death was a long, drawn out process. My father kept picking her up and putting her to bed after her fainting spells. It was hard on both of them, and, finally, he gave up and put her in a nursing home. The weekend before she went to the nursing home she went out and bought $600 worth of clothing most of which she never wore. In the nursing home she was mostly lucid for about a year. When my father and I visited her father looked healthy and alive compared to most of the nursing home residents even though he was older than most of them.

I resented it when an aide bathing my mother talked about getting her a rubber duckie. She was not a child. She was an old woman who once had been a young woman and once had been a child.

My mother realised that she was losing her rationality and said she wanted to die. She did not want to linger and deteriorate. She retained her strength and raised a heavy chair over her head apparently intending to bring it down on another old lady. The alert staff at the nursing home stopped her.

Finally she was taken to bed and could no longer communicate. The last time I visited the nursing home I saw the muddy green, unseeing eyes. I remember her telling me when I was a child, "I've got eyes like a cat" but they were bright when she said it. I saw the aristocratic nose with gently flaring nostrils. When I was a child she would call attention to the shapely nose, "Isn't it a beautiful nose?" Sometimes she would say that in front of visitors, and I would cringe. The last time I saw the nose, it was the same chalky colour as the rest of the face.

My cousin from Syracuse had called me. Somehow an attendant had let her fall from the bed. Mother landed on her face and broke her nose. The beautiful nose was broken, and there were dark circles under the eyes. She looked more alive than in years. Change. What would be the use of moving her to another nursing home? That could happen anyplace. Her nursing home had a good reputation. The nose was set, the bruises disappeared, and mother stayed at the nursing home.

My mother hadn't worn glasses for so long that the little dents on the sides of the bridge had disappeared. She used to rub her nose so the dents would go away when she took off her glasses. I saw her lashes. They were whiter than the chalky skin. The fine hair was neatly brushed. White sheets, white blanket, chalky skin, silky white hair, pale lips around a black hole, black nostril openings. I saw them as I would those of a dentist. I saw the long white hairs on the chin (if she had been aware of them, she would have been horrified), the slight bulge under the blanket and the arthritic hand clutching a roll of cloth. White and black. For years I thought of my mother as already dead.

It was anticlimactic when the nursing home called to tell me that she died, and I had to go to Syracuse to arrange for the funeral.

My motherís brother lived with us when I was a child. We shared a bedroom with twin beds. He liked to tell stories which I think he made up. There was the legendary Bortle family in Canastota whose four boys had no names only double initials. When the stories got too ridiculous or grotesque with heads rolling around the railroad tracks my mother would cry out, ďOh, Leon!Ē

Uncle Leon would roll into bed in the wee hours of the morning after a night of carousing. One night he made too much noise around 6 am, and my mother woke up.

Mother: Leon, what time is it?

Leon: Itís a little after midnight, Martha.

Mother: It canít be. I can hear birds chirping.

Leon: That damn fool bird hasnít gone to bed yet.

Sometimes he wouldnít go to sleep right away but would lie on the bed and intone poetry for which he had a tremendous memory. I enjoyed hearing it and still have a love of poetry. When he died his widow, Aunt Rae, gave me his well worn copies of Milton and Byron.

Uncle Leon eventually married in his fifties. Aunt Rae was a business woman and couldnít cook. Uncle Leon said, ďIíll keep her for a pet.Ē In his younger days he was a mountain guide and used to cook for his clients. He was handy in the woods and the kitchen.

Aunt Rae had an impish sense of humour. She gave ordinary expressions her own little spin. Eg. Itís as simple as 1,2,6. Her delivery was reminiscent of Jane Ace. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Ace for those of you under 75)

One time at a New Yearís party Uncle Leon showed up in a diaper as the New Year. Leon had a bit much to drink, and I insisted on driving Aunt Rae and him home. When we got to his house he said in a dignified manner, ďI donít know why you did that. I am perfectly capable of driving us home.Ē He opened the door, got out and fell on his face.

The years of carousing had taken its toll, and the lining of Uncle Leonís stomach was shot. He was operated on, and I went to the hospital to visit him in the evening after the operation. His handsome face lit up when he saw us, but he was not able to speak. He pointed to his wrist and nodded to his brother, Louis. It was obvious that he expected to die and wanted his brother to have his watch. During the night he haemorrhaged and bled to death.

Uncle Leon had a full life, was greatly loved and had a fairly quick death. My cousin named his three sons with variants of Uncle Leonís name.

Uncle Louis and I went to the undertaker to arrange for the funeral. Aunt Rae was too broken up to do anything.

The undertaker was proud of his work. ďI buried my father three years ago. I could dig him up today, and he would look as good as when we laid him away.Ē Death on the lay away plan. I would like to be buried in a shroud in a wooden box with no embalming. Why make it difficult for the worms?

Aunt Rae went on living. She told how she went to the Veteranís Administration to get help with the payments for Uncle Leonís funeral as he was a veteran of the US army in WW1. He got into the army toward the end of the war and was discharged after the Armistice so he was two days short of the required length of service. Aunt Rae remarked, ďIím sure he didnít anticipate this or he would have stayed in a little longer.Ē

Aunt Raeís cancerous death was neither quick nor easy. I visited her in the hospital. Like Uncle Leon she could no longer talk. Many wires and tubes were stuck into her prolonging her agony and measuring its progress. She rolled her eyes toward the electric outlet wanting me to pull the plug.

I was unwilling to suffer the penalties.

You can outlive being young, but you canít outlive being old. Old is terminal. I know I will not die young. Sophocles claimed that itís better not to be born at all. Not everyone is that lucky. However, I would like to have a good death.

I wish my mother and Aunt Rae could have died when they wanted to. When one can only look forward to rapid deterioration and death or horrible agony and death one should have the chance to die like a dog. Beloved dogs can be taken to the vet and put to death quickly when it becomes obvious that their life is no longer worth living.

After I wrote the above I realized how much Jewishness there is in the above. The four people whose deaths were recounted were Jewish. Abraham Ibn Ezra was a Jewish polymath during the Spanish Golden Age. Jane Ace was born Jane Epstein. I would like to be buried in a shroud in a wooden box with no embalming possibly because thatís consistent with Jewish practice.

Although Schopenhauer was not Jewish his outlook seems Jewish to me. His pessimistic view of life is that humankind is confronted with the two alternatives - misery and boredom. Those humans who don't have enough of the necessities are generally preoccupied with needs. Those humans who have enough to satisfy their needs don't know what to do with themselves and suffer from boredom. He seems to be a philosopher for the current age where people are rioting and rebelling in the Middle East and suffering from obesity along with filling their minds with garbage in sitcoms and rock & roll in the 'developed' world. He, himself, lived a very good life and enjoyed the humanities - especially music. I wish that for everybody.


from the May 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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