Living Well, Dying Well

In December of 2014, my father died after five years with Parkinson’s and Dementia, and breaking his hip, then being tortured by a grossly incompetent medical staff at Kaiser Permanente’s hospital in Panorama City, California. I won’t go into detail but it was a real trip to hell and the staff were the demons running it.

My dad died on December 21st, his young dog died without warning four days later on Christmas Day (also from a brain problem, ironically), leaving my mother completely alone. Then, as if all that weren’t bad enough, her house was burglarized. She not only felt sad in her empty house, but afraid, too. 

As I was dealing with the burglary, my father’s sister in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was found dead on her bedroom floor. She had been dead for four months but nobody noticed because she was an agoraphobic recluse. She lived badly and died badly. A tragic end to a tragic life. More irony (or something more) – she died within a week of my father, even though she was twelve years younger than him, and she didn’t even know he had passed. It was as if my father’s soul, free of that broken body, found her and said, “Come with me, sis. This is no life for anyone.” Maybe his dog died to be reunited with him, too.

We will all die, and usually badly, in physical terms, from some diabolical, incurable (is there any other kind) disease or combination of them. This is the inherent courage of living – knowing the end will come, but waking up, getting cleaned and dressed, smiling at strangers, and making the most of every day anyway. We all deserve a medal. There is valor in just staying positive and living life knowing the end will come, whether or not we believe in heaven and the continuation of the soul.

My father’s miserable last month of life, made infinitely more miserable by the ghoulish staff at Panorama City’s Kaiser Permanente hospital (with a few rare exceptions), would have been completely hellish except for one moment at the end, after the morphine drip that would end his life had begun, when somehow, he opened his eyes and searched for me in the room full of friends and family. A friend said, “Mark, he wants you.” I was sitting in the corner with my face in my hands, crushed that I wasn’t able to save him. I looked up and saw him reaching for me. I rushed to him and held his hand. He couldn’t speak because his throat was ravaged by numerous botched tube placements. (Another thing Kaiser stole was my father’s right to say goodbye.) He pursed his lips, pulled me close, and gave me the last kiss he would ever be able to give me. I hugged him and told him I loved him, that it was okay to go, that I would take care of mom, and thanked him for all he had done for me. I asked if he understood and he nodded yes. I thank God for that moment now, and am still baffled at how he was able to reach through his brain diseases and all the drugs flooding through his system to give me that moment. A golden moment if ever there was one. I have despaired greatly since his death, about how he died, so without that the despair would have been infinitely worse.

Which brings me to my point – dying well. That moment said everything there was to say about my father. He had a rough upbringing in Belfast, Northern Ireland, with loveless parents, crushing poverty, and almost daily fistfights, but he never complained. He came to America and started a business that flourished for 35 years while others rose and fell around him. He lost his stomach to cancer at 45 and was cut down from 200 to 150 pounds. And again, he never complained. He never complained or made the slightest whimper in the hospital despite his hip and femur being broken in four places, despite his throat being so dry his tongue cracked open, despite the hospital staff making every mistake it was possible to make out of a combination of incompetence and heartlessness. And he didn’t complain as morphine ended his life. Instead, he reached for me and gave me a kiss.

I thought of my dad when the actor Gene Wilder died recently. He was asked in an interview why he didn’t act anymore during his final decades. He was sent scripts constantly so demand for his talent was still there. He said he didn’t like all the cussing and vulgarity. Decency and integrity like that is almost non-existent in Hollywood, where money and attention are usually the only factors considered when making a decision.

Gene Wilder suffered with Alzheimer’s Disease during his final years. He said he rarely went out because children still recognized him as Willy Wonka and he had trouble smiling so he didn’t want to make anyone sad. He didn’t get bitter and hostile because life was dealing him a terrible hand. He was good, sweet and kind to the very end despite his troubles. He lived well and died well.

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While writing this, a scene from the Robin Williams movie Patch Adams came to mind. A patient (played by Peter Coyote) was very angry and bitter that he was dying young. Patch was determined to help him make the transition more peacefully. Here’s the scene:

When I was in my early twenties, I climbed over the wall of a cemetery one night and sat in a freshly-dug grave with a Ouija board and candles, trying to summon up something, anything, that would prove to me that there was something beyond this life. I had been told that Ouija boards could be dangerous portals for demons, but I didn’t care. My faith in God had been destroyed by atheistic philosophers like Bertrand Russell and I desperately needed to know if we were immortal or worm food. I chose that night for this “seance” because it was Friday the 13th, and not only a full moon, but a blue moon, too. I figured the timing couldn’t be better. But nothing happened. I sat in that hole in the ground in dead silence until I felt enough like an idiot to pack it up and go home.

But maybe something did happen. My brother had a troubled life filled with drugs and prison and died of an overdose at 37. My mother had breast cancer twice. My life wasn’t exactly easy, either. Maybe demons stay below the radar and do their damage instead of making flashy displays like they do in movies. Life doesn’t feel like nothing to me. It feels like a mystery. It feels like a struggle between good and evil. I can feel the devil push me one way and God push me another. We can write it off as imagination or believe in something larger than ourselves. It’s always our choice.

But no matter what the ultimate truth is about the afterlife, there’s one thing I know – life wasn’t given to us to spend it in misery and sorrow. It just feels right to be happy, generous, kind, loving. I don’t understand people who spend their one, short life buried in greed, anger and/or hatred. Such a waste. Kind of like having a sumptuous meal prepared by the world’s greatest chef then pouring ketchup all over it.

Timothy Leary said dying is one of the greatest things any of us will ever have the chance to do. He was right. How we die is perhaps the largest reflection of who we truly are, beneath all the surface behavior and easy words. Depending on how we live, we will die with integrity or despair. *

My goal is to have the same smile on my face on my final day as I do today. Death shouldn’t extinguish the light within us. It already takes enough.

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  • Erik Erikson’s stages of psycho-social development.

 

My Girls

They bring out the best in me. They sharpen my focus. They motivate me to pass the point where I stopped before. I want them to be proud of me and the work I do, but they are the reason for all of it. And if I were to fail as a parent, nothing else I ever accomplish would matter much.

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Holocaust

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The white dove again lies maimed and bleeding.
Statistics, cold and hard to fathom,
tally the losses of one more day.
Horror and heartbreak between weather and sports.

But I don’t cry anymore
when the newsman tells his tales
of death and destruction.
In some worlds, death can be a blessing.

I don’t cry anymore when I learn
that another child has been slaughtered
because I know my tears would be useless
and tainted with hypocrisy.

I don’t cry because I know
that the murders I hear about
night after night
from the warmth and safety of my living room
are only the final, minor deaths.
Deaths of the flesh.
The true carnage took place long ago
when their young spirits were abandoned
to wither and fade
like unattended gardens in a desolate place
where beauty is buried too deeply to be touched,
where innocence is choked and pounded
until every trace of sweetness is gone, forever;
where the angel of mercy,
helplessly fleeing the bloody scene,
stumbles, shattering her delicate face
on the asphalt, unnoticed,
and the pastel dreams of childhood
swirl and die
in the hot dust
of the ghetto sidewalk.

Messin’ with Mark – God’s Sitcom. Episode 16 – Bugs: God’s Miniature Messengers

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Welcome to episode 16 of Messin’ with Mark – God’s Sitcom. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this series, let me tell you how it started . . .

When I was very young, Jesus was walking around in His heavenly area up there when he saw his Dad looking down through the clouds, laughing His head off. Curious, he walked over and asked, “What’s up, Pop?”

“Oh, just pranking that Mark kid again,” He replied.

Again?” Jesus asked, “Why are You always picking on him?”

I don’t know. There’s just something about him,” God said. “I mean, look at his face right now.”

Jesus looked down and started to chuckle, then stopped Himself. “Okay, I admit it’s kind of funny, but this is wrong. I mean, You created him. With all due respect, what kind of an example are you setting for the angels? We’re supposed to love and protect humanity, not single one out from all the rest for humiliation.”

God thought for a moment, then looked at Jesus and said, “You’re right. I should stop.” They looked at each other for a moment, then said, in perfect unison, “Naaaaaaaahhh!” 

Jesus suggested that he make a regular show of his pranks on me. They named it Messin’ with Mark. 

Remember Rodney Dangerfield’s bit about getting “no respect” from humans? It’s kind of like that, but on a cosmic level.

So, to today’s episode –

Sometimes God goes for simple pranks, like having me stub my big toe on a sprinkler, stepping on a jack or Lego in the middle of the night, etc., but sometimes he gets a little more creative and uses earthly creatures to set me up for another episode.

For instance, I can’t complete a full day of gardening without some insect flying up one of my nostrils with the blinding speed and total commitment of an alien spacecraft speeding into the mothership portal to evade enemy fire. It’s quite disconcerting, especially since I love cavorting with nature BEFORE the sitcom starts.

When the bug enters my apparently very interesting nostril, the freak-out begins, which includes running around the yard and tripping over everything it’s possible to trip over, snorting like a wounded water buffalo, covering one nostril with the index finger and blowing, and sticking the hose directly into said nostril to flush out whatever is up there. Then the realization sets in that I’m knee-deep in another one of God’s sitcoms and all the angels are laughing their heavenly tushes off up there. 

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One day, after clearing the bug from my proboscis, I said my usual “well played, God” and thought, “Okay, that gets the bug up my nose out of the way. The episode must be over. Now I can enjoy the rest of the day worry-free.” No such luck. It was just one of a steady stream of bugs. Word had apparently gotten out that there was a hidden bug paradise up my beak – some kind of insect Shangri-La – and they were all determined to go there.

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Of course, it doesn’t help that we’ve all seen those super-magnified photos of insects and know what hideous alien-like monstrosities they all are. 

To know that one of them is clamoring around in my Schnitzpiece is unbearable. I once discovered, while trying to dislodge one from my honker, that I’m quite a gymnast. I did a triple twisting double backflip with no previous training. Ripped my pants from bow to stern in the process, too. 

I wonder, do bugs think? Are they flying around, enjoying the sunlight when they see me, fixate on my nose and think, “Hey, I wonder what’s up there?” Are boogers a delicacy in the bug world? Are they looky-loo’s checking out a possible new apartment? Or, as I have suspected all along, is this just God getting bored and messing with us again? The bible says He “moves in mysterious ways.” Maybe that’s just a nice way of saying he has a really warped sense of humor. 

Of course, the ears are also a prime target for God’s little winged ambassadors. I got one in there so deep once, I thought I was standing next to a double-propped helicopter. 

One also has to wonder what goes through their minds as they enter. Maybe they think they’re conquering the mothership, some kind of bug heroism. Maybe they even yell something triumphant in their bug language. 

Then they get in there and find only nose hairs and boogers. Must be kind of a let-down for them.

I suspect the bug in the nose/ear/eye is a favorite rerun up there in heaven, and the angels are probably asking for new episodes so they can see what other gymnastics moves I don’t know I know. But they’re not gonna get me again because I wore this new outfit the last time I was gardening and not one bug got in!

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I live in Southern California and it gets toasty in there on 100 degree days but it’s worth it. Ha ha! Take that, God! 

Wait a second – I just realized watching me clank around in that suit and sweat my patoot off was probably another episode of Messin’ with Mark. Doh!

That’s what I get for trying to outsmart God. He’s always one step ahead. 

 

 

The Other Side of Solitude (story poem)

When I was in high school, I had a very serious intention to work just enough to save money for a boat, load it with various vegetable seed packets, a few fishing poles, and enough supplies to last a lifetime, find a tropical island and abandon mankind altogether. The idea persisted for years, especially when I was working at jobs I didn’t care for or sitting in traffic breathing carcinogenic fumes. So I wrote this poem to put the idea to rest once and for all. The peace of solitude is delightful only temporarily. The spirit withers and dies without at least one other soul to share our lives with.

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I was on my way to work a while back,
just trying to earn a few lousy bucks.
I was running late again, as usual.
Why? Because L.A. traffic sucks!

To make matters worse, I was dog tired
and “dog tired” is the perfect description
because my neighbor’s mutt barked so much,
I couldn’t fall sleep without a prescription.

On weekends, when I might have caught up on sleep,
I was kept awake by all the neighborhood brats
screaming their heads off and bouncing balls.
The little suckers were always driving me bats!

Oh, and let’s not forget the other city sounds
like sirens, garbage trucks and leaf blowers,
chainsaws, car horns, and low-flying planes,
loud neighbors, jackhammers, and lawnmowers!

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I would tell you all about my wonderful job
but it was so bad, you just might start crying.
It was the most mind-numbing job imaginable.
If I described it, you’d think I was lying!

Coming home, stuck in traffic, as usual,
my mind would drift to my “happy place”,
an imaginary island where I would go
to escape from the city’s rat race.

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There, palm trees swayed in gentle tradewinds.
There was white sand and a turquoise-green sea.
But the greatest thing about my fantasy island
was that there was nobody else there but me!

I would daydream about exploring the tidepools.
My job could be inventing new kinds of fun
like surfing, diving, playing with dolphins,
and laying around under the tropical sun.

I was so lost in my fantasy, I didn’t see
the streetlight changing from yellow to red.
The next thing I knew, I was spinning around
and when I woke up, I thought I was dead.

A nurse was looking down at me, smiling.
She said, “Hello, there! How do you feel?”
The next greeting I got was from Mr. Pain.
Let me tell you, the agony was unreal.

It took me over six months to walk again.
By then, I was more convinced than ever
that the city would be the death of me yet
so I made a plan I thought was real clever.

I would quit my job, clear out my savings,
sell my house and everything else that I own,
then buy a small boat and some fishing poles,
find that island and live my life all alone.

I’d had it with struggling and busting my hump
at a lousy job that held no meaning for me.
Who says I have to contribute to progress?
The stupid hive wouldn’t miss one less bee.

There are hundreds of islands out in the Pacific
and a few that haven’t been found by Marriott yet.
The next thing I knew, I was at the helm of my boat
with only a map but no job, no boss, and no debt!

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I sailed for months and searched high and low.
I saw many islands that looked perfectly fine
but on almost every one, I saw human beings,
and I’d had enough of them for one lifetime.

I was starting to become very annoyed and frustrated
when off in the distance, through my brass telescope,
I saw a fertile, green island that looked deserted!
I shouted with joy and my heart swelled with hope.

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I anchored my boat and paddled the raft to shore,
then explored the whole island from side to side.
It was a true paradise full of peace and tranquility.
It was so beautiful, I just broke down and cried.

The next few months were harder than I had expected.
I had to build a hut that could withstand all the seasons.
But on nights when the wind would rattle the walls,
I wondered why I left and had to search for the reasons.

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Finding food was hard, too. The fish didn’t always bite.
I was so unskilled with a spear, I felt like a putz.
I got so hungry one time, I almost went crazy.
I mean, one can only eat so many damn coconuts!

Still, anything was better than sitting in traffic
doing two miles an hour in a square, metal tomb,
wasting my life at a job I truly detested
and seeing nothing but my own little room.

I felt like a modern-day Robinson Crusoe
living a simple life by my own blue lagoon.
I thought about my neurotic boss back in L.A.
working himself to death; that pathetic buffoon.

At long last, I found the peace and quiet I’d sought
while lying in the sand, surfing, tanning and such.
I enjoyed it for a while, but I gradually realized
that you can even have peace and quiet too much!

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The more time passed, the more I fought to remember
all the reasons I had run from the world of man.
I’d spent a year of my life struggling to survive
with nothing to show for it but a hut and a tan.

This caused me great sadness and confusion
because for years, I had dreamed of this place.
Who would have thought that after only a year,
I would be longing to see another human face?

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I missed conversations, and even the arguments,
though they had once caused me so much dismay.
I even missed the sounds of the bustling city,
the great din and clamor, and children at play.

I missed reading the newspaper in the morning,
though the pain there drove me out of my mind.
But how could I stop caring about my human family
or pretend that I’m not a part of mankind?

What was more noble? More virtuous and wise?
To hide there and ignore humanity’s plight?
Or to add my voice to the battle against evil?
To get dirty and bloodied in the good fight?

I spent a few months trying to convince myself
that I was just going through a homesick phase
but I started finding it harder to sleep at night
and a terrible loneliness enveloped my days.

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Finally, the peace on the island grew much too dark
so I pulled up my anchor and headed for home.
I had learned the first truth God Himself did of man –
That it’s not good for anyone to live all alone.

After six weeks at sea, the harbor approached.
The town was throbbing with life, garish and loud.
I docked my boat, and with a heart full of joy,
blended back into the crazy, wonderful crowd.

Top 25

The Honesty Bar

Photo: © Europen Parliament/P.Naj-Oleari
pietro.naj-oleari@europarl.europa.eu

Stop by our brand new concept bar!
It’s at the corner of Gone and Far.
In this bar, we make drunks think
of what is served with every drink.

You’ll find no Fuzzy Navels here.
No fancy names for wine or beer.
At their core, they’re all the same.
Just alcohol by every name.

Try the Rage if you’re a little mad,
Or Heartache if you’re feeling sad.
Or if you want to stay free and wild,
Enjoy our new Desert My Child.

If it’s truth you’re after, we deliver,
Like the ever-popular Destroy My Liver.
Why drown it? Embrace your sorrow.
Order the My Head’ll Hurt Tomorrow.

Delusion is all we refuse to sell.
Try the Fry My Last Brain Cell.
Why pretend to be an oak or pillar?
Have the delicious Marriage Killer.

Your perfect drink is on our shelf.
Try the Miserable or the I Hate Myself.
There’s magic in our drinks. You’ll see.
Have a What the Hell is Wrong with Me.

If you love honesty, we’re your venue.
You’ll find your true self on our menu.
There’s the Long Lost Love, of course.
And enough Regret to choke a horse.

You’ll be amazed at all we’ve got.
Like the I Can’t Laugh Without a Shot.
So step right in, don’t be so shy!
But if you are, try the Chance Gone By.

If you’re not a slave to envy, hate or fear
And just like an occasional wine or beer;
If you don’t languish in a neurotic stew,
This is probably not the place for you.

But if you do, our staff stands ready
When your nerves feel a bit unsteady.
We’ve got no cures but at least we try
To serve the truth as we help you die.

~ Mark Rickerby