They took the table in the morning. Two hefty moving men who were working in a nearby apartment and agreed to find it a new home. I had had it on Craigslist (for best offer) but got nothing but scammers, so the appearance of these gracious gentle giants was a blessing. The new furniture was scheduled for delivery at 12:30. Carefully they lifted the table around the living room corner and out the door – and only then did I realize I was not ready to say goodbye. Most of life had been lived around that table for the past 26 years. I wanted to run after the moving men and say, “No! Wait!! I changed my mind!!”
Who knew grief could come with such a wallop?
And why was I so unprepared? Had I not had the table on Craigslist for a week, and had I not talked with a half-dozen nonprofits who might be able to pick it up next month?
The table needs to go today, though, because the new furniture is arriving. New furniture chosen in the early weeks of this thing called widowhood. When images of a quarter-century of happiness around a clunky old oak table were an unformed abstract.
As I remarked to countless friends in recent weeks, the only big, clunky thing I ever really loved was Bud. I did not love our big, clunky old furniture. So it had seemed perfectly reasonable to send the aged sofa, chair, giant oblong desk/table etc off to new homes via the San Francisco Recology people and go select some lovely new pieces at Pottery Barn. (“You want to spend a lot of money fast?” I also remarked more than once; “get my daughter Sandy to go with you to Pottery Barn.”)
Before the new furniture arrived I had a long-scheduled interview for a newspaper story I was writing. As soon as it was in place there was a San Francisco Contemporary Music Players concert – with the weekend’s concerts dedicated to my good husband. There was very little time to mourn the table. Life goes on, and it is a wonderful life.
Still. At that table for happy decades every morning started with coffee and the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle (print editions.)
Around that table friends gathered for drinks, meals, conversation. Bud posed Tonto, his 1930s childhood doll, for a portrait. Martinis were served. Grandchildren now grown sat in highchairs while the grown-ups had a cold beer. Hands were held as prayers (multi-faith grace at meals for the most part) were said. Goodnights were declared.
Somewhere, for sure, the sturdy oak table is finding a new, happy home for its next half-century or so. May it rest in peace.
I can say this with some authority, having inhabited this strange new realm for roughly two months now. And though I concede probably 90% of the widows of the world – more, if you count Syria, Afghanistan, Mozambique, etc – are way worse off than I, still I can feel pretty pitiful about it with very little effort at all. Because:
No matter how independent you might have been for how long – and in six wearying years as a caregiver I have surely gotten used to flying solo – there is a weird stigma thing one now feels, as if an indelible W had been surreptitiously stamped onto one’s forehead. Accented by a gray veil that is technically invisible, but all-enveloping. The status is distinctly different from being single, or divorced, on both of which I can also speak with authority. Singlehood and divorce imply a chosen freedom, an aura of devil-may-care, if you will. Unless one all but takes out an ad proclaiming I don’t want this! I need a partner! (been there done that too, I’m afraid) the solo by choice can have a pretty good time doing exactly as he or she pleases.
Widowhood, on the other hand, is the Great Unchosen. (Well, unless you do in an unloved spouse with an axe or something, and choose to spend your widowhood in the penitentiary.)
It is like being suddenly halved. The other side of the bed is too vast and cold; the placemat on the left too perpetually vacant. The ability to spread out the New York Times without knocking over the adjacent morning coffee does not compensate for the darkness spoken by that empty space. Half of you reads the paper and sips coffee; the other half of you waits in vain for commentary on today’s breaking news or for the request for another piece of toast. The toaster isn’t even half functional any more; it only grudgingly accepts the new reality.
Widowhood is forever opening doors onto sadness. Occasional doors open to rooms full of people who feel sorry for you. They’re only being kind, but still. Many doors open into areas of couplehood where you no longer belong. And who can predict how many zillion times you open the door on coming home, calling out greeting and overflowing with tales that can no longer be told — because who can tell tales into a void?
The world shifts and resettles. Life goes on. Widowhood – even for the young, who lose husbands to stupid wars or senseless tragedies – is likely forever, since we females have an unnerving habit of outliving the males of the species. One adjusts, explores new avenues of finding joy.
“I promise,” I said, “that I will not let them admit you; we’ll come back home today.”
My husband, who had lived with congestive heart failure for decades, was so filled with fluids that he was like a walking (sitting; he was wheelchair-bound) waterbed. This was a Monday. I am not medically competent, but I’ve been a hospice, AIDS/HIV and Compassion & Choices volunteer, and I knew enough to know he was sliding toward end-stage CHF.
In the ER I mentioned to assorted intake people that we would not agree to hospitalization. The physician who eventually arrived looked my husband in the eye and outlined the ways she could help him feel better and perhaps live longer (he was 89.) “But it will involve being in the hospital for a few days,” she said; “and I think that is not what you want.”
“That is not what I want,” said my husband, looking her in the eye.
“Fine,” said this saintly, beautiful doctor (name on request; I’ve already sent her a thank-you letter copying everyone I can think of.) “We will do what we can, and send you home today.”
So we went home. It was a long day, and my husband was too weary even to finish his martini (an indication to me that he really didn’t feel well. The nightly martini was important.) He said he didn’t want even a bowl of soup. Bed sounded good, he said, but he was beyond cooperation. I then had to summon the Wellness people in our retirement condo building to help.
“Old person. Unresponsive. Call 911” said the Wellness people, as they helped me get him into bed.
“Do not call 911,” I said.
“We understand,” they said. “We love him too. But we have to call 911.”
The paramedics arrived. Paramedics are invariably the most gorgeous hunks. Two of the six who arrived had been to our apartment months before when my husband landed on the floor – he was 6’4” (at his peak) so it took paramedics to get him from floor to bed. “I remember talking to him about all this art,” one said. “And he was a Marine,” said the other. What’s not to love about paramedics? But. “We must take him to the ER,” they said.
“You may not take him out of this apartment,” said I.
It became an interesting battle.
“We understand,” they said. “We agree with you, ma’am. But we have protocols.”
Finally I said to the guy in charge: “You call your head person at San Francisco General and tell him you have this little old lady standing here with her husband’s DNR, POLST form and DPOA and she says we may not remove him from their apartment.” Actually, I was prepared to go over that person’s head. I have friends at SF General. But to his eternal credit, the in-charge physician (may he survive and prosper) said, “Fine. Get him in bed and leave him there.”
One of the paramedics saluted my husband as he left the bedroom.
My husband died three days later, in his own home where he wanted to be, with me scrinched into the hospital bed hugging him into the hereafter.
Had I not argued against the retirement home 911 protocols, and fought against the EMR protocols, he would have died in a cold, bright-lit hospital room with strangers poking and probing him and we the taxpayers spending thousands and thousands of dollars to make his last several days miserable.
What’s wrong with this picture? Only the caption.
The caption 99% of us would want is the one below the snapshot of my husband’s death, at home, with someone we love best hugging us into the hereafter.
Fully 60 percent of the U.S. population get the hospital caption — the one that goes with that blurry photo above — instead . (Another 20 percent get the nursing home caption.) One should not have to have a ferocious on-site advocate to let one die at home in one’s own bed. In addition to the DNR, the POLST and the DPOA there should be a JLMA form: Just Leave Me Alone, for those of us who concede that we’re actually going to die some day and work to keep our end-times as inexpensive and comfortable as possible.
Until such time, I am grateful for the forms we do have, and for the two compassionate physicians who helped my good husband die the death he preferred. May he rest in well-earned peace.
John McCain did it right. Not just carefully constructing the last word in his acrimonious exchange with Mr. Trump, or in the countless ways he demonstrated patriotism, dignity & courage and pointed out how democracy is now being threatened. I disagreed with his political positions more than I agreed with them, but in the last few years I’ve sent him more than one thank-you letter. The thumbs-down elicited my most enthusiastic note. But here’s what else he did right:
John McCain kept control of his dying – which is to say, the last piece of his living. In so doing, he left one more gift to America: some suggestions about how to die.
We spend untold energies, and untold billions of dollars, on the national obsession with avoiding death. In exremis we go to the Emergency Room – where tests and procedures are undergone, suffering is often prolonged and increased, and costs skyrocket.
Here is some food for thought from a recent Arcadia Healthcare study: Just looking at the costs (forget the pain & suffering) of the final months of care according to where that final month took place – for the 42% who died at home, $4,760. Another 40% died in the hospital: $32,379. Dying in a nursing facility came in second from the top at $21,221.
I have no idea where John McCain was when he died, but I’d be willing to bet he was at home. Home is where 99% of us say we want to die – but we don’t work very hard at making that happen. Instead, we put off making plans, writing advance directives, talking to friends and family about what we want, planning our funerals. Seriously now, do you have anything written down about what you’d like for your memorial service? Senator McCain reportedly spent eight months at the end of his life lining up eulogizers, specifying music, contacting speakers, saving his family that often burdensome task.
But it’s the business of dying – living as one chooses right up until the time of death – that McCain seemed to do so well. Not many of us pay such attention. He apparently didn’t need to hasten his dying, but we would all do well to know about hastening, whether we choose it or not. Even in states where medical aid in dying is legal, dying patients put off making their own decisions, or find out too late that their physician will not participate. Fortunately for us all, there are people like Kathryn Tucker, Executive Director of the End of Life Liberty Project, fighting to protect and build the movement toward death with dignity. (I was privileged to host an event for the distinguished Ms. Tucker recently, hence the photos.)
So maybe you’re not as strong-willed as John McCain. Maybe you don’t have access to the Navy Band for your memorial service. But you can acknowledge that dying is something we humans do and write down what you want (or don’t want, like painful, expensive last-minute heroic measures) for yourself as you’re doing it. You can TALK to family and friends. You can send a contribution to ELLP. Or Death with Dignity or any on the other organizations working to make death with dignity possible.
This column is about guns, and the fact that I do not like them.
I wrote about all this once long ago, on the late lamented news aggregate site True/Slant, and the vitriol that landed upon my page in response made me very glad that my T/S readers didn’t know where I lived. I mean, it was if the NRA had put out a worldwide hit on me. I’m now counting on the belief that most of my current readers are kinder and gentler – since you can sure find out where I live if you don’t already know. And I’m satisfied that most of my angry T/S readers long ago quit following this blog. We’ll see.
What has my dander up is the recent ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that somebody’s right to carry – and show off – guns in public overrides my right to live in peace without having to worry about people swaggering around with their guns in my face. Say what?
I have a lot of gun friends whom I love and admire. They use their guns to hunt legal game, and I think that’s good and proper. As far as I know, none of them feel compelled to strut around their local Starbucks with pistols on their hips.
My dislike of guns could be more correctly defined as fear. I’m not afraid of guns in the holsters of law enforcement officers, believing that their carriers are properly trained (and having grown up white I never had to fear police.) I’m just afraid of guns on the hips of unknown macho guys. If they’re swaggering around at Starbucks, I will definitely throw up my latte. Do I not have ANY right to drink a latte in public without throwing up?
When I was a child of about 12 someone broke into our home – well, nobody locked their doors in Ashland, VA in 1945 so he probably just opened the door and walked in – and made his way to the second-floor bedroom of my oldest sister Jane, who let out a mighty scream. The intruder left multiple hand prints on the newly painted walls as he swiftly descended the stairs (and left by another door.) But by the time the Richmond police arrived they pronounced the fingerprints too dim to be of use, so our nocturnal visitor was never identified. My family (4 girls + parents) that night morphed from 6 people in five beds to 6 people in two beds – Jane in between my mother and father; the other three of us in one double bed. (It took us several weeks to expand back into our individual beds.) The next day, our father bought a gun. It went to reside on a shelf in the closet of our parents’ bedroom. We all knew where it was; once or twice my sister Mimi and I stood on a lower shelf and looked at it. But instead of making us feel safer and protected, the thing created more fear. Despite all his stories about working on somebody’s ranch in Texas as a boy, my sisters and I (and our mother, I regret to report) feared our father’s probable ineptitude with a gun more than we feared another intruder. We had belatedly also begun to lock the doors. All five of us – mother + 4 daughters – also feared the fearsome instrument on the closet shelf more than we feared anyone who might be confronted by it. Overruled by us all, my father soon (I think it took less than a couple of weeks) took the gun back to wherever it came from.
I had one more encounter with a gun. Working as a reporter for local newspapers in Decatur, GA in the early 1960s, I was convinced by some misguided other newsperson to go to a shooting range, in conjunction with some sort of story. The people there convinced me everything was just fine and I would see how easy it was to hit the target. Eventually I fired the stupid thing, and the noise, jolt and whatever nearly frightened me to death. I probably missed the target by more miles than was ever before known.
I submit the above only as argument that people who fear guns should have SOME rights to balance whatever the “Open Carry” (read: people who want to strut around showing off their representative lethal weapons) Second Amendment rights purportedly are.
You need to swagger manfully around with a pistol on your hip? Fine. Swagger somewhere else – like, on a shooting range. Just stay out of my Starbucks. All I want is to drink my latte in gun-free peace.
Third & final report on a few highlights of the global conference ‘The End of Life Experience: Dying, Death & Culture in the 21st Century’ in Lisbon, March 2018
What are the tough end-of-life questions facing the people of Australia? Pretty much the same as those facing the people of the U.S. Or the U.K., or Canada, or Portugal. A few of those discussed at the recent End of Life Experience interdisciplinary conference in Lisbon would include:
How, exactly, do we define death after all? Iona College Professor Vincent Maher, who holds a variety of degrees and whose career has included broad based legal, health care and non-profit sector experiences, presented a paper on the complex case of Jahi McMath. McMath was declared brain dead following surgery to correct a sleep apnea condition at Children’s Hospital, Oakland CA in 2013. She was 13 years old. Her family refused to accept the declaration of death and insisted she be kept on a ventilator. “Court interventions, news and social media exposure ensued,” Maher explains. “Fingers were pointed. What should have been a difficult but straightforward medical decision became a management, ethical and legal fiasco.” Eventually the family succeeded in having Jahi flown to New Jersey, one of two states (New York being the other) which follow a family’s definition of death. This policy was designed to accommodate Orthodox Jews, some of whom believe that the presence of breath signifies life. Jahi remains on a ventilator and feeding tube, with 24-hour care covered by Medicaid; her family still hopes to bring her back to California – where the coroner issued her death certificate in 2014.
Set aside the ethical, racial (McMath is African American,) financial and other questions, what is death? When the heart stops? When breathing stops? Or when the brain is dead? Medical technology can now keep a body functioning after brain death – organ donation is benefiting from this – but at some point, death takes over.
Can we keep control of our lives as they are ending? Increasingly, no, says Dr. Peter Saul, Senior Specialist, Intensive Care Unit, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW, Australia. “Dying in the 21st century in a wealthy country,” Saul says, “is now dominated by elderly people with significant disability, sometimes cognitively impaired, faced with making complex end of life care choices.” And those choices commonly follow “standard (medical) protocols and (are) in line with family wishes regardless of preferences recorded in advance care directives.” Australians, like the majority of people everywhere, would choose to die at home, Saul says; but “the entire structure and funding model of Western medicine greatly favors tertiary and hospital care over that provided in the community.”
Saul suggests that “the medical system at all levels would need to become proactive in creating genuine opportunities for choices to be available. This means asking more, offering more education, taking choice seriously and pushing back against a legal system that favors defensive medicine and over-treatment even in the same breath as pushing ‘patient autonomy.’”
So, is there anything hopeful on the horizon for the end-of-life experience? Definitely. Ottowa, Canada psychologist Morry Appelle and his wife, therapist Christine Appelle presented a paper on a discussion group they started five years ago “in an attempt to address more consciously and formally our own concerns of death.” They were surprised to find eager participants who became faithful, regular attendees, and who agreed to allow videos of some of their meetings to be shared. It is a remarkably effective way to confront mortality.
This writer left Lisbon urging the Appelles to publish a book about their novel idea, but you don’t really have to wait for the book. A group of friends or strangers willing to meet together for an extended period of time and simply talk through everyone’s fears and concerns offers an invaluable way to face, and embrace, life’s end. Such an experience could well lead to the patient autonomy and personal choice currently under threat in wealthier nations around the globe. It would undoubtedly help to have someone like Morry &/or Christine Appelle as facilitator. “Mostly,” they said about their experimental group, “we wished to look more intimately at the mystery of life and death, thereby dispelling some of its associated anxiety and fear. To the extent we could live out this life as fully and consciously as possible, we proposed that lifting the veil on death was a reasonable place to begin.”
The Lisbon conference did a lot of veil-lifting. Also lifted up? Questions worth pondering, wherever on this fragile planet we happen to be sharing our fleeting mortality.
Say you have a daughter or granddaughter who flunked out of her expensive school and caused severe friction between you. Now imagine you’ve been dead for a few years – OK, this page is all about imagination just now – and that errant offspring just finished a PhD program, with honors. She creates a hologram of you, calls it into being and holds up the graduation photos. “What do you think!,” she asks? “Oh,” you say, in your formerly mortal voice, “I’m so terribly proud of you. Congratulations!” You smile broadly, and your offspring smiles back.
Welcome to the 2030s. Or probably early 2020s. Holograms are here, and the potential for use in after-death encounters is just one element of this technological wonder. That vision of the end-of-life/afterlife was offered by Sierra College professor Kim Bateman, at the recent conference I was privileged to attend, in a fascinating presentation titled “Dialogues with the Digital Dead.” Bateman suggested useful possibilities such as “allowing the dying to finish unfinished business and the bereaved to more vividly imagine their loved ones without a physical body.” But her intent was also to look at “ethical concerns about consent, privacy, and the emotional safety of those participating” in what today seems more science fiction than potentially useful technology. Conference participants had a lot to say.
If you watched the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl (I did not, so this is hearsay) you saw a performance by the wildly popular artist Prince. Since he has been dead for some time now, it was not really possible to book him – but it was possible to create a hologram, and that was what you saw. Someone at our conference said Prince had actually been opposed to holograms – which raises ethical issues he is no longer able to discuss.
But here we are. These incredibly realistic holograms can be digitally, posthumously, created by, say, your children or grandchildren, Bateman explained. The computer digs through your electronic history: every email, voice mail, text, Facebook post, Instagram picture, etc, etc, etc. What emerges is the pre-death you.
Should this bring about a posthumous reconciliation between you and your formerly deadbeat offspring, that seems a clear benefit of the technology. But as with most questions surrounding end-of-life issues today, a lot is not so clear. Your surviving friends and relations will continue to grow and change after you die. Not so the holographic you. It has you frozen in time as the pre-death you. What if you had lived a little longer and decided a college education wasn’t all that important? Here’s your hologram being pleasant, but reconfirming the mortal you as a judgmental grandma.
As with other contemporary end-of-life issues covered at the Lisbon conference, this one raised a long list of questions. Would you want to be recreated in a hologram after you die? For how long after you’ve been gone? To whom should you leave instructions pro or con – or should you stay out of it and hope for the best? If a holograph of you is created, with whom would you want it to interact? Or are there those with whom you would specifically not want to interact, holographically speaking? Should you have the right to make these decisions yourself, while you’re still in the flesh?
If these questions seem all too spooky and futuristic, I apologize – but the spooky future is upon us.
Three things you and I have in common with the rest of the world: We are born, we live, we die.
Dying being so universal, it seems appropriate to talk about it. But the truth is we seldom do that, unless it’s happening to somebody else. An interesting group of people who do talk about it got together recently for a global conference in Lisbon I was lucky enough to attend, The End of Life Experience: Dying, Death and Culture in the 21st Century. It was put on by Progressive Connexions – Interdisciplinary Life, a not-for-profit network registered in the U.K. (Freeland, Oxfordshire) and a successor to the organization that ran earlier conferences I attended in Prague and Budapest. Full disclosure: Part of my motivation for the hard work of creating papers for these events is the mesmerizing pull of Prague, Budapest and Lisbon. That mea culpa is now out of the way.
As end-of life conferences go, this was the best. Not because any great, existential questions were answered, but simply because it proved so eloquently that we’re all in this life (and death) together. We struggle with the same questions about pain, loss and grief; we face the same dilemmas about aging, illness and dying itself. Whatever corner of the planet, whoever we are.
In my group in Lisbon were a couple of anthropologists, professors of everything from Philosophy to Nursing to English Literature, an actress/storyteller, some doctors & nurses & clinical psychologists, an interfaith chaplain, a textile artist – just lovely people from corners of the planet like Portugal, the U.S., Canada, Malaysia, U.K., Australia. Ordinary people sharing extraordinary insights shared below (and in subsequent posts on this page.) No attention was paid to titles and degrees – a very good thing for me, since an MFA in short fiction wouldn’t exactly be at the top of the list; attention was paid only to the voices, insights and generously shared thoughts. Here’s the first report:
Pain. Nobody gets out of life without pain, and since it’s often a big factor in end-of-life experiences, pain got its share of attention in Lisbon. Conference chair Nate Hinerman (a professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco) submitted a paper titled “The Death of Hospice” which was in the first conference segment. Because he was committed to keeping to a strict time schedule – and this was a talkative group not easy to settle down – Hinerman skipped the actual presentation of his own paper. But it was appropriate to the broader issues addressed in the first segment, of which I was a part. There are some big questions here.
“I argue that as boundaries blur between palliative care, hospice care, and patient-centered curative care,” Hinerman writes, “ultimately, palliative care ought to the goal.” Palliative care means, essentially, do everything to alleviate pain – for patient and family alike. Focus on quality of life rather than life-extending treatments and technologies. “Patients do not benefit,” Hinerman says, “from boundaries like those, say between disease-centered care and palliative care. Or say between palliative care and complex chronic conditions management. Or again, especially between palliative care and hospice.”
In other words, are these fine points (which are eternally argued by professional groups – as well as insurance companies) focused on you and me – patient and patient-advocate – or somewhere else? Boundaries get blurred. “We still need policy changes to support this (palliative care) work, and payment structures to ensure coverage of palliative care.” Hinerman says.
Which brings us to another common theme: money. In both the formal sessions and in casual conversations throughout the conference, the issue of the almighty dollar was often raised. The problem of how to pay for healthcare needs is not confined to the U.S. But more common, and more complicated, is the also-universal question of distribution of finances. Such as: if we spent less on the last few days of life – emergency room and intensive care unit costs are significant especially in the U.S. – could we put those dollars to better use somewhere else?
My own paper looked at two different models of Continuing Care Retirement Communities in the U.S. One is a church-related not-for-profit community with independent living, assisted living, nursing and dementia units. Newcomers must be mobile and reasonably healthy, and pay a substantial entry fee, but – as my brother-in-law remarked when he and my sister moved into a similar facility in another state, “the advantage is, they can’t throw us out.” The other is a condominium building in which residents own their apartments but buy into the management company, a national for-profit corporation which furnishes meals, assisted living in owners’ apartments, activities, etc. Both have substantial monthly fees; the condominium community’s are higher, but when a resident dies at least the heirs profit from the unit’s sale. CCRCs now number almost 2,000 across the country – and, while fairly well regulated, none of them are cheap. It is a very big business. One of my questions is: should these populations of aging and dying Americans, among the most vulnerable of groups, be caught up in a multi-billion-dollar enterprise? If something comes up that requires a choice between the aging residents and the bottom line, which direction do giant corporations usually go?
After my presentation, which was mostly a group discussion about such choices, a conference speaker from Malaysia approached me to apologize for not having participated. “In my home,” she explained, “if I were to allow my parent to live in one of those places, no matter how nice it might be, it would bring great shame on my family. Our culture mandates that the family take care of its aging members.” Ah, so. In our U.S. culture, that was also true as recently as two or three generations ago; but we have become so scattered, and so technologically and institutionally advanced, that living with family through dying is a rarity today.
All of the above offers more questions than answers. But they are universal questions and worth pondering: When you’re seriously ill and in pain, what kind of care would you choose? Where would you prefer to die, ICU or at home? Where will you spend the retirement years leading until you die? Pondering – and creating written plans – could avoid a lot of grief for you and loved ones alike.
Next week: The Lisbon Conference: Appearances from beyond the grave
in addition to supplying trained providers, and maintaining ongoing public engagement.We need to increase the consumer demand, and at the same time, continue to pursue palliative care with hospital administrators, so that those services can be bolstered.