The irony of man’s condition,” writes Ernest Becker, “is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety JL of death...but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”
To explore that paradox, I recently spoke with a random sampling of San Diego seniors, many of whom maintain the illusion of control by planning assisted suicide to avoid pain and extreme dependency.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, Becker speaks of the need to repress the terror of death and quotes Gregory Zilbourg:
- If this fear were...constantly conscious, we should be unable to function normally. It must be properly repressed to keep us living with any modicum of comfort. We know very well that to repress means more than to put away and to forget.... It means also to maintain a constant psychological effort to keep the lid on and inwardly never relax our watchfulness.
My goal was to pry the lid loose, and it seemed that retirement communities would be a good place to start.
Before approaching the managers of HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) housing, I decide to visit the Senior Community Center (Downtown Senior Center) at 928 Broadway on the chance of learning how to gain access to residential complexes. The center looks forbidding behind its high metal fence, but it’s a convenient haven for the physically and socially hungry.
Breakfast is served at 10:00 a.m. and a hot lunch in two seatings — 11:30 and 12:30. Today’s menu calls for chicken breasts, which have turned to drumsticks by the second serving.
My plan to attend the early lunch fails because I haven’t been told that my name must be on a list. After several attempts to sign up for 12:30, my name is called. I deposit my donation and start upstairs. One poor man, who thought his name was on the list, is turned away.
“I told you to come at 12, and 3 minutes to 12 is not 11 I’m not going to be responsible for putting somebody ahead of somebody.”
A musical program by faculty from San Diego City College, a sing-along, and endless breathing and physical exercises follow lunch.
When the woman across from me exits to keep a doctor’s appointment, I follow her to freedom.
Only the freeway and the convent are more fond of sign language: the center displays a QUIET, please in the small library. Impossible because the TV is going full tilt on an old movie. The TV reminds us not to touch the controls. Staff will do, and another placard forbids food and drink in this room.
Marvin Amundsen, who sits across from me at lunch, lives at the Luther Tower. I try talking to him as part of my assignment, but he’s a bit taciturn. Besides, it’s difficult in a crowd, so I settle for finding out the cross street for the Luther Tower and the requirements for living there. Marvin does tell me that Death is an occasional visitor there.
As usual when I walk, I choose a poem for my companion. This time it is by Dylan Thomas, and I’m struck by how neatly he incorporates Becker’s paradox with which this story opens:
- The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
- Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
- Is my destroyer.
- And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
- My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
The Luther Tower rises high above its neighbors at Second and Ash, with its name emblazoned in huge letters near the top. Together with the church, it occupies nearly a city block. As I circle the two structures, looking for the main entrance, I approach a postman and ask its whereabouts.
“Follow me,” the mailman says, and when we reach the front door, he produces a key. I have every intention of going through proper channels, but inside the building I find the office closed. It’s not quite noon, so I go into the first occupied space where two women are visiting and a third wandering around. They tell me that the office will open at two o’clock. When I tell them why I’m here and ask whether they will talk with me, one of the women promptly leaves.
Daisy, an attractive woman of 86 — very sharp—and elegantly dressed and accessorized, is friendly and helpful. Our attempts to converse are often interrupted by the 89-year-old wanderer, who wants someone to buy some packets of cocoa mix for her. Daisy tells her that the managers will take care of the errand when the office opens. Daisy was born in New Jersey. Her father, a stem German, fought in the Span-ish-American War. She dropped out of high school after her third year and landed a job with the telephone company. Afraid to tell her father, she finally summoned the courage. He asked how much she would earn, then told her to give her mother $8.50 a month for household expeases and not to expect to “lay around the house” if she lost her job.
After Daisy’s marriage and the birth of two daughters, her alcoholic husband left them. Daisy supported her children as a single parent, eventually becoming director of a retirement community in San Francisco similar to the one she now lives in. Although she is Episcopalian, she attends Lutheran services because of convenience—even serves on committees— but has so far resisted converting to Lutheranism. She has willed her body to the UCSD medical school.
At two o’clock I find the maintenance man holding down the fort. I tell him my mission, and he suggests writing a note to post on the bulletin board where residents willing to be interviewed can sign up. I prefer to give the matter more careful thought, so I say that I will call when the managers are in.
“Call between 10 and 12 tomorrow morning,” he says.
I do, but the man who answers the phone says that his wife Doreen handles such requests. He tells me to call back after two. On my fourth attempt, Doreen comes on the phone. I explain what I’d like to do, and she answers curtly, “I don’t think so. We don’t like to talk about that subject around here.” My next stop is (Cathedral Plaza, in the same neighborhood. Virginia, the manager, says that such matters must be cleared with Kate Weissman, who does not live on the premises. She gives me Kate’s card. Working three days a week, Kate is counselor/advocate for nine retirement communities. I call from my hotel explaining to Kate that I’m in the city for only a week.
Kate will need time to think about the project. She asks me to meet her between 1:00 and 1:30 p.m. the next day at Cathedral Plaza. Returning, I feel like a veteran as I buzz the office, give my name, and am admitted. I take a seat in full view of the front door.
After 15 to 20 minutes, I go back to the office and ask whether Kate Weissman will have to come through the front door.
“Oh, she’s already here,” Virginia says. “She’s seeing clients.”
I sit down feeing the office. After a few minutes, somebody I’m pretty sure is my appointment bustles about the office, filing documents. Whispered consultations with Virginia. A glance in my direction. I try to look preoccupied. A male resident is summoned to speak with Weissman. Finally, she turns her attention to me, invites me into an inner office. “Well, there are a number of people you could probably see,” she says, “but you don’t have transportation.” “I can get transportation,” I say grimly.
“Oh well, then. Call me, let’s see...next Tuesday.”
“That’s too late!” I say with emphasis. I feel as if I’m getting the runaround, and I find myself in the second stage of grief anger. I elaborate on how much time I’ve already lost, how many miles I’ve walked, how I don’t have forever. “Can’t you find even one person right here I could talk to?” I conclude.
Kate softens a little. “Well, there is one...” She looks into the door of a darkened room where residents are watching a movie.
“I’ll be leaving between 3:00 and 3:15 today,” she says. “If you’re back before I go, I think I can get someone to talk to you.”
Just to make sure, I come back at 235 and wait another half hour. Finally, Kate introduces me to Lucile, who will be glad to talk with me in her apartment after she retrieves her clothes from the dryer. We go to the laundry, then up to the sixth floor.
Inside Lucile’s apartment. I’m a little surprised by its smallness. It has all the essentials. She sleeps on a futon to keep her space more open. The view of the harbor skyline expands to compensate for the tight floor space. Lucile gives me a small four-color card of the scene and points out her building.
Lucile is relaxed and efficient, casually dressed in slacks, a blue turtleneck, and a cardigan. She wears glasses. Her hair may once have been red or bk>nd; it’s hard to tell. She speaks in a direct colloquial manner, reminiscent of her service in the Navy Hospital Corps. Asked whether she has ever witnessed a death, she says, “Oh yes! I had a lot of that during the war. We did our special watches, and many times, they would die on our watch. And I saw my mother, saw my father die.
“It’s another...another transition of our being, and I think we’re all feeling deeply, we’re wondering.
“Another transition of our being.” Again, I am reminded of Dylan Thomas’s poem:
- The force that drives the water
- through the rocks
- Drives my red blood; that dries
- the mouthing streams
- Turns mine to wax.
- And I am dumb to mouth
- unto my veins
- How at the mountain spring
- the same mouth sucks.
Lucile doesn’t have plans for the embalming referred to in “turns mine to wax.” She is a member of San Diego’s Telophase Cremation Society, the first such organization in the United States. At 79, a five-year cancer survivor (cervical), she no doubt went into radiation and/or chemotherapy with the same can-do spirit she brings to organizing a trip to Barona Casino for Plaza residents.
“You have to give people choices,” she says. "I asked them about the times, then decided on the best one, and I got 25 people signed up without any trouble.”
Remembering her parents’ last hours, how does she imagine her own?
“I don’t know,” Lucile says, “I really don’t because the genes on my father’s side, it would be very young because he was one of the oldest. My mother’s side of the family, good grief, Charlie Brown, if they could have stayed alive until 600 years, they probably would-have, so I’ve got two.. .I wonder.. .so which do I favor now? They always said I favor my father’s side.”
But she has already outlived him, giving the lie to that theory. She mentions a friend, who suffered a stroke last year about this time. “She told me all the little intricacies about it,” Lucile says.
Asked about possible last-minute regrets, Lucile says, “God gave me this temple and I didn’t.. .maybe handle it as well as I should have. I just...general regret because... frailties of humanity, I’m full of them. I think I’m so resigned to the fact that it’s ready that I have no reason to continue and no reason not to continue, so I’ve got to make the best of it. I’m a cancer survivor — five years. I try to block things.”
After boot camp and hospital corps training at Hunter College, Lucile “didn’t bother about a commission.” Officer candidate school had closed. When she left the corps she did a stint in show business as a Hormel girl, singing second soprano in a group that provided musical background for ABC radio ads. Then she contracted pneumonia and was on disability for about a year.
“I went on naval reserve, and they wanted me so bad, they signed me up on a personal recall.” After a month in the reserves, she received a weight waiver (The minimum was % pounds and she weighed 82) s6 that they could call her up. She worked in accounting and bookkeeping.
Like several others, Lucile comments on the escalating cost of living. Subjects tend to connect this with the thought of death, perhaps frightened by the notion of economic dependence and the need for longterm health care. In Lucile’s case, however, this would probably be covered by the veterans’ administration program.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of the classic On Death and Dying, takes note of these monetary worries:
- With the extensive treatment and hospitalization, financial burdens are added; little luxuries at first and necessities later on may not be afforded anymore. The immense sums that such treatments and hospitalizations cost in recent years have forced many patients to sell the only possessions they had; they were unable to keep a house which they built for their old age, unable to send a child through college, and unable perhaps to make many dreams come true.
Lucile gives me a small card with a butterfly, symbol of resurrection, and the legend What you are is God’s gift to you; what you become is your gift to God. A Methodist, she feels a strong affinity for a group called Unity Village. At one point, she tells me of a friend, a retired Army captain, who had raised a family. She didn’t want a memorial service and directed in her will that a champagne party be held instead. “But her daughter didn’t follow through with it,” Lucile says regretfully. “My friend didn’t want any fussing, and I don’t either.”
On the down elevator, Lucile speaks warmly of Kate Weissman and Virginia. Life is much more pleasant than under earlier management, she says, adding, “If we can’t be decent to one another by the time we’re geriatrics, we may as well meet Dr. Kevorkian.”
Unwilling to push my luck further with HUD residents, I go out into the highways and hedges. That’s where I discover “Margie,” a pleasant-looking, substantial woman in a golf cart, sipping a soda in the Farmers Market courtyard at Horton Plaza. I present myself as a hardship case — having lost three days to red tape, unable to find people willing to be interviewed on death and dying. Not Margie.
“People look forward to death when they’ve got one foot on a banana peel and the other on the step going into a nursing home,” Margie says. The brim of her deep salmon straw hat dips seductively over one eye. “I was born on the Day of the Dead.” She asks for a pseudonym to keep from shocking her friends. And her birthday is in June, not November. What she means is that she’s obsessed with death.
Early in our conversation, Margie tells me that she helps out with the block watch in her neighborhood where drug dealers circulate. That’s why she wears a heavy chain around her neck (taken from a Goodwill purse bought for three dollars). On the chain, she carries ID, a whistle to summon help, and a small container of nitroglycerin pills. In the basket attached to her cart, there’s a canister of mace, the weapon of last resort against anyone who fails to keep a proper distance.
“I don’t let anyone come near me... six to eight feet,” she says.
Isn’t she afraid on the block watch, especially after dark?
“I’m more afraid to go to the bank these days. And people worry about me, and it makes me angry because I say, ‘Look, when you’re older you don’t worry about death.’ You know, you’re at the end of the line, you’re freer. I was just thinking today, I don’t have to worry about sun spots, about saving the davenport, and it’s wonderful, and it’s the biggest reward. You don’t care anymore. You can be yourself, and that’s why some of us say dirty things and grouchy things we’d never have said when we were young, but we feel a freedom.
“There’s two things that are dirty words to old people, and I mean it: nursing home and the other one is.. .is.. .a.. .that’s a good one because I’m senile, and that’s the word I’m looking for.”
“Oh!” I say, “Alzheimer's.. “No. No. I meant a childishness,” she says, citing a man caught fighting over a piece of cake. “The other old people will not accept the word childish. Okay, I see myself getting childish. And I’ve written it. I have something going for me. I worked, as young, with old people. I was an unlicensed private-duty nurse.”
Margie gave bedside care to wealthy people with ailments such as Parkinson’s disease.
“Anyway, so I know what to expect and everything, so it’s a little easier for me.”
What isn’t easy is Margie’s current state of helplessness. She suffers from fibromyalgia, a disease causing muscular pain and tenderness, and is supposed to use a wheelchair all the time. Renting the golf cart has left her “flat broke until March 1,” and she cannot buy the little gifts for others that used to give her such joy.
“You know, I tell the young people, there’s only two things that count in life: The one is your health. If you have that, you’ll be able to get a place to live, you’ll be able to eat decently, take care of your health. And the other is a few friends. Nothing else matters. ”
When I suggest that Medicare might cover the cost of rent-ing the golf cart, she says, “Well...no...some people, I think, raise a big fuss, and I can’t do that.”
Margie also suffers from arthritis of the spine. “My one leg, I have two implants,” she says.
When she came to San Diego in 1984, she recalls seeing a little old man on Broadway. “ He was going up the street shuffling, and the man obviously was in such pain and misery and... tears almost came to my eyes. And I said when I get to that stage, I’m going to do away with myself. I don’t want anyone crying on the street corners. And look, he can’t cross. He’s a menace crossing the street. And I don’t think that’s right.”
She believes that doctor-assisted suicide will be legal someday when they get everything sorted out.
“The thing is, there are so many mean, vicious people that would — families that want to get rid of you and so forth, you’d be surprised, that work with old people. The niece and nephew want to get rid of the aunt, taking up all the money they could get.”
Meanwhile, Margie plans her personal escape.
“It’s so simple! Why does everyone complicate things? Look, first of all, I have this theory. I worked this out myself: Fifty percent of us—in neurotic people like myself — God only knows I’m neurotic, and you know, so it makes me more sensitive to people. I get more that way, but I pay for it with my nervous system. Fifty percent are self-destructive and 50 percent, we want to save ourselves. So.. .self- preservation.”
Ironically, Margie appears to consider suicide a form of self-preservation for the elderly. The young, on the other hand, should be “so damn busy living that the>' don’t have to think about death.
“Now, I’m finding it hard, especially when I have a good day,” Margie adds. “I have pain in my feet...crazy, but a couple good things happened that day, but then, at the end of the
day, I said it’s really not even worth that. And so, there’s a book on that. Haven’t you read those books? You’ve got to get..
Assuming that Margie refers to Kubler-Ross, I dig in my bag and produce On Death and Dying.
“Oh, I love her. O-o-o-o-oh she’s my sweetheart. No, no, the society puts one out.”
“The Hemlock Society?”
“Yes, they tell you how to do it.
“I wish, oh God! There’s a woman that’s in the mall here, all the time, in a wheelchair. She’s got the book. They tell you how to do it. She gave it to me once and I didn’t read it. She wanted it back right away, and I’m kind of mad. I have to go to the library' and get it. It even tells you doctors to go to and get medicine, etc., but it’s very simple, the ones I’ve known that committed suicide. Oh! A couple did it, and it’s really beautiful. You see, I saved it, but I didn’t file it. What they did, they planned everything, and they said good-bye to their families and everything, and I don’t know, I think they might have taken pills, and you know what happens is you eliminate and everything, and you pad yourself or something out of consideration and things like that. And I wouldn’t kill myself on the bed because I wouldn’t want to get the bed dirty. It’s very simple, you take some sleeping pills and a few drinks and put a plastic bag over your head. It’s as simple as that. You don’t have any pain. I have one drink, and I’m real drunk.”
Margie’s knee is “completely gone, and I’m walking on the nerves in it, and so it’s nerve pain.” She’s tried medication and doesn’t know why anyone takes drugs. Side effects like dry mouth, constipation, and drowsiness leave you with four or five other problems.
“I tried it. They gave me a bottle of it, and I gave it back. I said, ‘Doctor, why anyone takes drugs I don’t know. It Isn’t worth it.* ”
Even a nonprescription drug like Aleve makes her ankles swell from the sodium. “And today, I had to fight against taking Bufferin or aspirin because then I get hot flashes.”
When Margie was 15, she was present at the death of her mother. “They had her snowed under from cancer pain,” she recalls. “It was 11 o’clock at night. That was interesting because I spent all Friday night with her— all night long, and then I went home Saturday morning. The nurse said not to come back, but at 9 o’clock that night, I had to go see my mother, and I threw some clothes on, didn’t even put a belt on my dress. I ran out into this tough neighborhood where the city hospital was, and I was the only one with her when she passed away, and that made me feel good. Three months later, I was so brokenhearted that I tried to commit suicide, slit my wrists. It was hard. It was my mother, and I was her favorite.”
Later on, Margie witnessed several deaths in the hospital. Were they hard? What were they like?
“Well, they have these chain strokes...breathing...” She demonstrates the death rattle. “And usually their temperature shoots up too. Like 106 degrees and you know it’s the end, and an orderly takes care of them.
“We took this little old man up on the gurney, up to where they do the autopsies, you know — this is a small hospital. We had to go up over a step like that, and my girlfriend and I, the guy flips over. He has rigor mortis and he’s straddling this half-sitting position, and we had to tangle with him. Oh! That was gruesome!"
Like most of us who have outlived our threescore years and ten, Margie feels a recurrent need to sift through her possessions, strip down, and organize her belongings so that someone else won’t have to do it. Mostly, though, she finds it a losing battle, given her pain level and the struggle to keep up with daily demands.
“You know, I told my doctor my mind’s going, but when it comes to trouble I can think of an answer like that! Quicker than lightning. Thank God, I’ve got that. So I haven’t lost that, and I think that must he one little section of your mind.”
Margie started life as a Catholic and “would love to have faith, but I just can’t...”
Icon of perpetual youth John Cabral, who looks Hispanic enjoys an ice cream cone, as he sits near the obelisk at Horton Plaza. Asked whether he’s a tourist or a local resident, John says that he’s an American citizen, born in Arizona, living in Tijuana.
“I come to San Diego when I get mad at my wife,” he says amiably.
Mustached and grandfa-theriy, John wears jeans, a leather jacket, and a tan felt cap. His polyester shirt combines greens and browns in a small geometric pattern.
Does he think much about death and dying? John needs little prompting.
“Oh yes! Oh yeah! Lots. ’Cause I remember when my dad died — he had arthritis — and now I wake up in the morning —at night, sometimes—and say, ‘Well, I don’t have much longer, but I accept it.’ I’m not. I’m not scared or anything like a lotta people. I don’t want to die. I don’t. See, I’m what you call a fatalist. Whatever comes to me.. .I escaped death three times.”
At this point. I’m reminded of Kiibler-Ross’s contention:
- Simple people with less education, sophistication, social ties, and professional obligations seem in general to have somewhat less difficulty in facing this final crisis than people of affluence.... It appears that people who have gone through a life of suffering, hard work, and labor, who have raised their children and been gratified in their work, have shown greater ease in accept-ing death with peace and dignity.
John tells of three narrow escapes — the first in North Africa during World War II when his merchant marine supply ship took a hit from a German bomb: the second, in the undertow at Rosarito Reach; and the third, during the Vietnam War when he was working for civil service, assembling and repairing aircraft.
Of the first, John says, “We got hit, but it wasn’t big enough it would knock us out, so we just waited there, and in the meantime, [the German ships] were gone.... You know what was the funny thing about that? I’m thinking, ‘What am I gonna do after my clothes are gone?’ I had about $300 worth of clothes. I worried about that instead of my death.” He chuckles.
What would John regret if told that he had only 20 minutes to live? And can he guess the last man’s answer to that question? “Being good?” John guesses. “It’s not that I’m scared to die,” John says, “but it’s just the thing, the way I live. ’Cause I was born a Christian. I never practiced. What I mean, my family’s all Catholic. They’re all born, raised Catholic: 80 or 90 percent of the people are Catholic. I never practiced my religion, and now, once in a while, I imagine, if I die where would I go? I’m not really a had person. Never committed sins — too many, Like an average person. I’m not a mean person. I don’t steal, I don’t... I see something is wrong, I tell them.”
A woman with long dishwater blond hair, seated to my left, interjects like a Greek chorus: “No, of course not. You’re a good person.”
“Well,” John continues, “when I first had my home — I won’t tell you where — I hated the town because of discrimination. I told my dad, I’m gonna leave this town and never come back. I’m gonna travel. I had no idea, I was only about 12,13 years old. So when the war broke out, I tried to, like everyone...volunteer for the Army — whatever. They wouldn’t take me ’cause I was 4F, my eyes. And now that I’m 70-some years old, I got operated. I don’t even use glasses.”
“Then you have no regrets?” I prompt him.
“Oh no! I love my life. I love the way I lived."
“Of course...” echoes the Greek chorus.
“Please!” John says firmly, “Let me talk, huh.”
John’s enthusiasm for his job with the merchant marine, his desire to have his ashes scattered on the Pacific Ocean where he spent eight years, calls to mind the poet’s “shroud sail,” just as his tough realism summons the transition from clay to lime:
- The hand that whirls the water
- in the pool
- Stirs the quicksand, that ropes
- the blowing wind
- Hauls my shroud sail
- And I am dumb to tell the
- hanging man
- How of my clay is made the
- hangman’s lime.
John complains about the racism that returned Mexicans to their home country’ where they were often in danger during revolutions. He says that bandits sometimes masqueraded as revolutionaries in order to steal property. His father and grandfather joined others to form a guarda civilia to protect their possessions. “Mygrandfathcrgot shot in the ami, and he made out like he was dead. And the bandits left. Grandfather had a crippled ami, they hit a nerve. That’s how I found out about it.”
When I mention the high cost of funerals and ask whether he has made any plans, John says, “Oh Ciod! Don’t even think about it. I don’t know what I’m going to do about it. It’s expensive. Only thing I can figure out is, I told my wife, put me in a little bottle. Ashes, it’ll cost about $300. Funny thing, but Mexi-caas hate to do that to the body.” His wife has a cemetery plot and a plastic case, “but still the funeral costs about three, four thousand dollars.”
Suddenly John returns to an earlier subject. “You know one thing I regret: I wish I could live another 20 years because things are coming up so fast. I often wonder: What will happen next? With all that computer and all that. I lived a fast life and now...”
Maybe he’ll get his wish, I suggest. It’s not uncommon for people to live a hundred years. John says no, he doesn’t want it. “I don’t want to get to that age where I depend on other people for everything— everything... not just to eat. The way I was, I almost died about three years ago. I had double pneumonia, but walking pneumonia. I felt bad, so bad that my boy...” John trails off, says that he’s still under doctor’s orders. He has high blood pressure, some heart problem. “I don’t feel bad. Only thing is, when I get tired my knees hurt. That’s why I have to carry my cane. I have no regrets, though, because if I d ie tomorrow, so be it. A lot of people are scared, but why? You’ve got to accept it.” John saw his aunt die about four years ago. “She was 94. She looked like she didn’t want to... ” “To live or die?"
“Die! It was a sickness. She was incoherent."
John was far away when both of his parents died, but he still marvels at the fluke that helped him make it home for his mother’s funeral, all because of a time difference that created two Sundays. The funeral was on Monday, and John got there on time.
As for Dr. Kevorkian, John says, “I don’t believe in him. l*t the people themselves do it.” He thinks they ought to legalize aid to those who want to die to end suffering—“all that, but I don’t see why they let him do it. He’s laughin’ at the law.”
Unlike Lucile, George might like a little fuss. At 85, he’s alone in the world except for a second cousin, away on a cruise. He’s wearing a navy baseball cap and horn-rimmed glasses (which he needs only for reading but wears full-time to keep track of them). A bachelor all his life, George lives in a studio apartment at First and Grape and doesn’t own a car.
Waiting for lunch in the billiards room of the Senior Community Center, George is an articulate subject, but his voice is often nearly drowned out by the click of pool balls and the cheers of players. George has a doctorate and had planned to teach, but after he came out of the service, he thought it was too late for that.
George’s chief regret is not having married and had children. He considers himself fortunate to have good health, except for the cataracts that necessitated laser implants.
Reared as a Christian Scientist, George believes that he and other members of his family might have been healed without medical intervention, had they been able to achieve a state of pu re dependence on God. As it was, George’s brother died before 21 of appendicitis that led to nephritis. He blames that early death for leading to his mother’s cancer and death at 59.
After his wife died, George’s father came from Minneapolis to California. “He was very lucky. He found a second wife,” George says, noting that when the time came, he helped both his father and his stepmother find nursing homes.
George has never actually seen anyone die, but in his apartment building, he used to check on an older resident across the hall who was almost bedfast.
“I knew things were bad for him,” he says. “One morning, the lady in the office asked me to see if he were there, and he was dead, hut he looked peaceful and it turned out that he had had not any great pain w-hen he died, so that was good.”
- The lips of time leech to the
- fountain head;
- Love drips and gathers, but
- the fallen blood
- Shall calm her sores.
- And I am dumb to tell a
- weather’s wind
- How time has ticked a heaven
- round the stars.
And not only the stars. Time has also ticked a heaven around the head of Millicent Cumberhatch.
I meet her on my way to Ralphs market—a compact, dignified-looking black woman who asks whether I know the way to G Street. She’s wearing a blue knit dress over a white T-shirt, and a coat over that. Gold hoop earring; and a wide headhand or turban, with her long hair piled high, complete the picture.
I strike a bargain with Millicent. I’ll walk her to Ralphs market if she’ll talk with me about death and dying.
“Oh, I don’t worry about death,” she says, “because I’m living right, I’m living for the Lord. Anytime He knock at my door, I’ll be ready to receive Him. So I don’t let nothin’ bother me these last days.”
“What do you mean by the ‘last days’?”
Well, that’s what the Word of God says, and dis is de last days.”
“How do you know?” “You know because of the time and season. The weather is changin’, and God is tryin’ to get our attention. He wants more people to be saved than more people to be lost. It’s heaven and hell. And if you don’t live right for God, you go to hell when you die.”
Millicent is 72 and lives in Bayview Heights. She came to California from Panama, where her father arrived in 1907 from Barbados to work on the canal. He died at 79.
By the time we reach Ralphs, I suggest that Millicent may want to shop. We can meet at the checkout. But she says she came only to look around. All over the store, food samples and discount coupons are being handed out. Millicent patronizes all of them — sometimes twice.
When we finally settle at one of the outdoor tables, Millicent explains the importance of being saved. “God try to save you if you’re filled with the Holy Ghost. You dress right to serve the Lord. You can’t dress to serve the world, nobody will know that you’re saved. And if two person are walking together, and I, I’m not dressed properly, I don’t dress right, and the other person dress right, they can tell the difference. You see, that’s when you’a living for the Lord.” I make a quick mental inventory of my own attire. “Is this part of some formal church?" I ask.
“It’s God’s Word. It’s in the Bible. If you read your Bible, you see what God’s Word is telling us. God would like everybody to be saved, want the majority of people to be saved.. .to go to heaven whether you’re white or black. He wants us to get together down here first. That’s what He is trying for now.” “Do you worship with other people?”
“Yes. Go to different churches, and if they’re saved, too — the whites are saved and they read God’s Word — they wouldn’t hate the blacks. And the blacks do the same, they wouldn’t hate the whites or dislike the whites. ’Cause when we get up there we can’t have that in us. We all have to be serving Him together, we’re worshipping God together, glorifying God and praising Him.” Millicent hasn’t heard of Dr. Kevorkian, but after a briefing, she answers firmly: “No, that’s not the way, that’s not the way.... Because sometime you can sick unto death, and if God isn’t ready for you, you ain’t gonna die. God will bring you right back up. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. You don’t know if God want you to live. You might be really down to death and you don’t know why God have you down to death. And if God look at your heart and see a motive, and if God see that you don’t mind dying, but He isn’t ready for you yet, God will let you live. But if you wanta get... [I’ve been taping the conversation, and at this point the tape is unclear] in your spirit and your heart because you know you might die and you will start, you know, have bad thoughts and all that kind of stuff, maybe you may go on to die.”
Millicent believes she has good health, “because God touches my body. You know what He did for me?” she asks. “I was hurtin’ real bad, and my children have to take me to the emergency every so often. They give me good x-ravs, all kinda good things, and they could not find out what was wrong with me. And my daughter went to Panama. I stay at my daughter’s home (during her absence, because she has no security system |. And this night in question, I felt that something wanted to come out of my stomach. I fed that something want to come out of me. I run to the kitchen. A big thing like this come right through my stomach to my mouth.”
“And then you were okay?” “I were okay. And, on top of all that, I couldn’t sit down like I’m sittin’ down now, and I couldn’t walk. But I would pray. I go to church every morning. We have a prayer. I say, Lord, You gotta help me now. I wanta walk. I wanta go to prayer. I wanta get on the bus, and God will hear me, and you wouldn’t believe that I was hurtin’ that bad. So God heard me. I got on the bus, and before the bus will stop, I stand up, and I hold on. When the bus stop, I got off the bus. When I get off the bus, I can’t walk right away. I stay there for a while. I say, Lord, I’m gonna cross the street now. Don’t let nothin’ be cornin’. I look both sides, I don’t see anythin’ comin’ and when I get off the sidewalk, I thank God until I reach the other side of the street. I say, Lord, I thank You for bringin’ me across. I thank You that nothin’ was comin’ and I thank Him, and when I realize I was able to walk again, I walk and go to my church. That’s what God did for me. That's why I believe in God so much, because He has done so much for me...and things like that.”
Asked about her husband’s death in 1966, Millicent says, “ They say cancer, they say this, say that.”
It must have been hard to lose him at 45?
“If you’re really serving the Lord and things like that, it’s not so hard because sometime you don’t know why God call him home so early.
“When you’re living for the Lord, that’s all you have to live,” Millicent says. “That thing He brought outta my stomach without a doctor putting the knife on me, I suppose a reward of that faith.”
“I don’t have no regrets in serving the Lord. None whatever."
As for witnessing the death of someone else, Miilicent recalls her mother’s: “When she died, she died in my hands. I give her the last drop of water. She was 90 plus three months” and died on her husband’s birthday.
“If God, He let you live a long time, you have to serve Him in spirit and in truth.”
Trying to cut through the ready-made language, I ask how she feels about nursing homes.
“I don’t like the nursing home either. I don’t wanta go there ’cause I had a lady I used to pray with all the time, and when she got so sick, they put her there, it wasn’t nice at all. They steal all the things. She was a Seven Days Adventist, and all the churches love her so dearly. And oh they love that lady. So nice! They carry nice things for her. Her son, the landlord. I was there. He brought, we call them a barrette [beret]. He brought her a new red one. They stole that.” Millicent gave her a red kerchief, “And they stole that too. All nice housedresses and things they buy for her.”
When I comment on how alert Miilicent seems, she has this explanation:
“Well, I pray every morning; and I ask God to take care of my mind because if you don’t do that, the devil will try to get your mind, that’s the main thing he try to get. Your mind. So you don’t remember or anything like that.”
Back at Horton Plaza, on the second level, a smoker captures my attention. He’s wearing a jeans suit and a cap like that of a naval officer. The cigarette, I soon learn, is part of his daily ration of two packs plus small cigars. He agrees to talk with me if I identify him only by the nickname Mitch.
Mitch lives in south San Diego and has been smoking for about 60 years, since he was 14 or 15.
“I can’t quit,” Mitch says. “Nicotine is highly addictive — worse than heroin and other drugs.”
“Do you ever imagine your own death?”
“Yeah. As you get older, you do. Don’t you?”
Admitting that I do, I add, “But I’m having a hard time to get others to own up to it.” “Well, when you reach a certain age,” Mitch says, “it’s inevitable. You know your life is behind you and there’s very little left in front of you after you hit 75.”
Just how does he picture his own death? Like others before him, Mitch escape* into generalities.
“Well, I would think you might become severely ill and severely handicapped. .And unable to take care of myself, and I would much rather die right then and there. I believe in assisted suicide. I think it should be available to anybody that wants it. It’s their life and if they’re of the right mind to make a choice at the time, they should be allowed to make it.”
“So that would be a simple release?”
“Well, yeah-h-h-h. Especially like I say, if a person was suffering and really handicapped where they couldn’t take care of themselves or — nothing but pain and misery, and they know that there’s not going to be any better days, it’s only going to get worse, why, they should be able to die with assisted suicide. It’s their choice, and they should be allowed to make it.
“If you’re intelligent enough to know that you’re terminal and you’re in misery,” Mitch continues, “and that your time is limited anyway, you should be able to make a choice. It’s nobody’s business but yours.
‘That requires a good doctor to tell you, ‘You have about six months and you’re terminal. You’re not going to get any better, you’re going to get worse, st) go ahead and do it.’ ”
Mitch thinks it’s important to have a doctor assist because a lot of older people botch the attempt. They only make themselves worse than they were.
“With assisted suicide,” he says, “it’s gonna happen, and it happens.”
Asked whether he has made provision for his own death, he says: “No, I’m not concerned about that. That’s just something else to worry you. So don’t worry about it. You don’t see any bodies laying around anywhere, so somebody takes care of it.”
Mitch is married and has two children—a daughter in San Diego and a son in Oregon.
Then death is not a financial worry for him?
“No. I think funerals, personally, and cemetery plots and everything are a waste of money because a dead body’s just nothing. It’s...whatever people remember about you and everything, that’s what you are. A dead body is just so much waste material to be disposed of.”
Mitch doesn’t have a will. The lawyer he consulted told him that, unless he has valuable items to earmark for special heirs, it’s a waste of money. California is a community property state, and Mitch doesn’t have “anything worth a damn” except his property, and that will go to his wife.
Has he given any thought to which of them will die first?
“Well, I undoubtedly will. My wife is younger, and she’s in good health, and women generally live longer, so there’s very little chance unless she got in an accident or something that I would survive her.”
Several persons whose schedules preclude interviews in depth speak with me briefly. Among them is Azalea, known to her friends as Zee, who lives at the Lions Community Manor. She’s enjoying a cup of coffee at Starbucks when I approach her. Born with scoliosis (curvature of the spine). Zee suffers from neurofibromatosis, a congenital disease diagnosed in 1985. She pushes up a sleeve and shows me bumps on her forearm. “And then I have them all over my stomach,” she says. “If you have scoliosis, it makes the scoliosis worse. The nerve endings ‘erupt,’ the doctor told me. If an infant is diagnosed early enough, surgery can cure it. My two brothers and my uncle had it before they knew what it was. My brother passed away. My younger brother has the bumps, but his is not the had kind. I try not to worry about it, but now my hip gives me trouble, and I try to say it’s not that."
Zee has arranged to donate her body to the Loma Linda medical school. “I hope they can learn something about this problem that I have (along with several hundred thousand other persons). If I can do that, I’ll feel that I’ve done something for the world. They found bumps on my spine, and when it gets right on the spine you can have an operation, and there’s no guarantee whether it will make you well or make you worse off.”
According to the Merck Manual, “ These tumors along subcutaneous peripheral nerves.. .may involve spinal nerve roots.... The intraspinal component may cause spinal cord compression.” Deep tumors are treated by surgical removal or radiation.
Zee wears braces and endures a great deal of pain, but she tries to observe her doctor’s recommendation to walk. She can’t get on a bus, but living a block from Ralphs and three from the mall is an advantage. However, one of my other interviewees reports that the Lions’ lease Is about to expire, and rents will rise to market levels because of Ralphs opening nearby.
Because she’s expecting her son from San Francisco to take her to his home for the Thanksgiving holidays. Zee must end our conversation.
Ruth, a retired city worker of 77, Is taking a lunch break in the Nordstrom cafe before returning to be with a friend in a board-and-care home. Instead of allowing her the quiet both of us enjoy, I ask to talk with her about death. Ruth is adamantly opposed to assisted suicide “on all grounds,” she says. “ We didn’t have any choice about coming into this world, and I believe we shouldn’t have any about leaving it.”
Ruth considers board and-care superior to a nursing home and says it’s about $1500 cheaper. As to the high cost of dying, she reports having attended the funeral of a friend whose burial costs were $3000, “and that wasn’t the final bill.”
Ruth’s most useful tip is that I should go to the OASIS office in the mall — a gathering place for seniors. I may get some leads there.
OASIS stands for Older Adult Service and Information System. Funded by the Robin-sons-May Corporation, it offers programs in the arts, humanities, wellness, and volunteer service for residents of San Diego County. The organization is open to persons over 55, regardless of income, sex, race, or religion. Most services are free or of nominal cost.
In the OASIS office, stacks of booklets for the new quarter are being prepared for mailing by volunteers. Milton answers my quest ions and brings me the current brochure for September to Dcember. When I show interest in the “Pep Steppers” walkers, Milton tells me that if I fill out a registration card, I can join the group departing from longs Pharmacy in 20 minutes. I take the brochure with me and head straight for the Pep Steppers. Introducing myself to an approachable-looking blonde wearing a pink top, white jacket, and white sunshade, I ask whether I’d be allowed to tag along on the walk. No problem. And when a list is circulated for signatures, she tells me it’s just a waiver of liability in case I fall.
Her name is Marilyn, and she goes on this walk every Tuesday morning. She taught art for some years, then returned to school and became a librarian. She knows the Seattle area well — still owns property there — so we have something in common. When I get around to telling her why I’m here, she says that Howard, her husband, took a course in Death and Dying at United States International University.
“Do you think he’d be willing to talk with me about that?”
After checking with Howard, Marilyn suggests that we have lunch after the walk with Downtown Sam, who carries the history of San Diego in his head, For the second time that day, I find myself near my hotel in Little Italy.
At Ralphs, Marilyn and Howard insist on taking me to lunch. We find a table outside and, eventually, three chairs. I set the tape recorder on the table and begin. Howard is a third-generation Hawaiian of Chinese descent — tall, lithe, suntanned, and gentle. He and Marilyn met at the University of Arizona. Howard taught math for many years and holds a doctorate in education. He is a recreational flyer with an avid interest in the history of all things Hawaiian.
Howard says that funerals in the islands assemble the entire extended family, children included. Everyone wears special clothing: opaque white gauze in the form of robes for the men, dresses for the women. They spread mats on the floor — women on one side, men on the other.
“Children attend funerals from about the age of six,” Howard says. “It was frightful. But you know what saved me? I was not tall enough to see into the open casket, and no one lifted me up.” Kubler Ross would probably approve of this custom. She writes:
- The fact that children are allowed to stay at home when a fatality has struck and are included in the talk, discussions, and fears gives them the feeling that they are not alone in their grief and gives them the comfort of shared responsibility and shared mourning. It prepares them gradually and helps them view death as part of life, an experience which may help them grow and mature.
When Howard was about 16, he was tall enough to see into his uncle’s casket, “but I didn’t look,” he says. “I filed past with the others, but I can’t look.”
Howard also remembers how each family member had a few private minutes with his grandfather at the end to say goodbye to him. The dying man told him to be a good boy and seemed unhappy that he wasn’t more fluent in Chinese.
Howard still can’t look into the casket. Not at his uncle. Not at his brother. The funeral rites last 24 hours and include ceremonial wailing of the women. At the end, dinner is served at a restaurant where the family of the deceased has paid for the tableware.
“They always ask me to tell everyone to take home the place setting as a remembrance of the occasion,” he says.
The class in Death and Dying consisted chiefly of psychology students, so the emphasis was on counseling clients confronting death. The course followed the well-known stages of grief identified by Kubler-Ross: (1) denial and isolation, (2) anger, (3) bargaining, (4) depression, and (5) acceptance.
What was the most interesting assignment?
Howard says that it was writing his own eulogy.
Does he remember anything that he wrote?
“Oh yes!” He focused on the rituals observed among Chinese and Hawaiians: essentially the same material he has just been discussing.
But a eulogy is most often considered as a formal speech praising a dead person. Hid his eulogy include any kind of self-assessment?
“No,” Howard says modestly. “Most of the students did that. It was embarrassing.”
In spite of his ties to Chinese and Hawaiian death rituals, Howard doesn’t plan that kind of funeral for himself. He believes in adapting to the customs of the place he lives now.
Reflecting on the closeness of this couple, their obvious joy in each other’s company, I find myself wondering which will die first. As Kubler Ross says:
- Though every man will attempt in his own way to postpone such questions and issues until he is forced to face them, he will only he able to change things if he can start to conceive of his own death. This cannot he done on a mass level. This cannot be done by computers. This has to be done by every human being alone. Each one of us has the need to avoid this issue, yet each one of us has to face it sooner or later. If all of us could make a start by contemplating the possibility of our own personal death, we may effect many things, most important of all the welfare of our patients, our families, and finally perhaps our nation.
Here again, the poet confronts the issue head-on, and so I should like to let Dylan Thomas have the last word:
- And I am dumb to tell the
- lover’s tomb
- How at my sheet goes the same
- crooked worm.
The sheet is a bedsheet, a winding sheet; and, by extension, the shroud sail mentioned earlier. Finally, it is the sheet of paper on which the poet writes. And all become the province of Death, the reality Becker calls “the worm at the core.”
From 1936 until 1974 Madeline DeFrees was a Sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary; she published her first book of poems, From the Darkroom (1964), under the name Sister Mary Gilbert. DeFrees is author of six books, including When Sky Lets Go and Magpie on the Gallows. Her work has been honored by grants from tire National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. She has taught at a number of colleges and universities, including the University of Montana and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.