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.

 

Perspective

(Warning: Content may be unsettling.)

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I was an insurance adjuster once, a truly unremarkable job that required a lot of driving. To make matters worse, I worked in Los Angeles, which is world famous for heavy traffic and road rage.

I was on my way to a job in the older part of downtown L.A., a burglary at a business with a very generic name, something like “Acme Industrial.” As soon as I got on the freeway, just like clockwork, some guy started tailgating me, yelling, his face all twisted up. I looked down and saw I was doing the speed limit, so I didn’t speed up and I didn’t move over. I wasn’t in his hurry. He drove past me and, as expected, flipped me the bird. I flipped him one back. We exchanged F.U.’s and he was on his way, tailgating someone else up ahead. 

I reached the job and parked, still a little frazzled from the freeway. I entered through the back door. I stopped in the doorway, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. Three grim-faced men in white smocks looked at me. One was rolling out a corpse on a stainless steel gurney. The second was transferring another body from a gurney to a platform which slid into an oven, the interior glowing a searing an angry orange like a portal to hell. The third was sifting ashes in what looked like a cookie pan near the side door of the furnace, chopping it up into a fine powder. 

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Half a dozen corpses were lined up at the rear of the room, the last line they would ever wait in. It finally dawned on me that I was in a crematorium. I felt an impulse to turn and go back outside when one of the men spoke. 

 “Can I help you?” 
 “Uh, yeah. I’m here about . . . the burglary.” 
 “Oh, you need to talk to George. I’ll get him for you.” 

He left me alone with the corpses and the other two men, who solemnly returned to their work. An old woman with wispy, gray hair lay naked several feet away. Her pale blue eyes were dry and vacant like dusty glass ornaments. Somebody’s mother, I thought. Somebody’s wife. I turned away and asked the other two men, “Do you guys ever get used to this?”
“Yeah,” one of them said, “After a while, it’s just another job.”  

The man came back and said “George will be right out” then rolled the wispy-haired woman to the oven door. I had seen enough. I went outside and stood in the sunlight.

George came out and we talked business. When we were done, I asked him about his job, if it ever bothered him. He told me the same thing – “You get used to it.” I asked him how. I had to know. I had a feeling I might need to. He said, “It’s not really a matter of how. It’s like being a cop or a soldier. You either turn your mind off or you go nuts.” 

A few minutes later, I was back on the 110 heading back to the office. I turned on the radio. I needed to hear some music. I found a bombastic classical piece, the kind you’d want to hear while skiing downhill fast with icy wind in your face. It washed my soul like morphine washes pain from the body. 

I called work, said I wasn’t feeling well (which wasn’t completely untrue), and drove to the beach. It had never been more beautiful.

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On the way home, I looked in my rear view mirror and, just like clockwork, some guy was tailgating me, yelling, his face all twisted up. I moved over and let him drive on past. 

 

Art credit – Crowded Beach by Jan Matson

How We Survive (poem on film)

A friend just made me aware of this homemade film (or maybe a short film project for school) made somewhere in England, based on my poem How We Survive.
Of everything I’ve written, that poem gets around the most, which I’m glad about because grief, as we all know, is a terrible burden.
These young ladies actually created some very touching moments. I especially like the ending.

Just Live (poem)

Young hand holding old hand

I wrote this about twenty-five years ago. It’s about four stages in a man’s life. When I wrote it, I was in the second stage. I’ve completed the third now and hope to complete the fourth gracefully. 

Just Live

There once was a bright, young boy
who thought and thought all day
and rarely joined his little friends
when they went out to play.

Even when he would come out,
his mind would keep on turning
and while all the others laughed and played,
his questions kept on burning.

Like “Where did I come from?  Why am I here?”
and “Where will I go when I die?”
Very big questions for such a small boy.
Unanswered, his childhood flew by.

***

A young man sat on a sunswept beach,
away and apart from the crowd.
You see, he was thinking quite serious thoughts
and their laughter was far too loud.

His nose in a book, he just couldn’t hear
the young girls when they’d call out his name
and though the sun shone so very brightly above,
had no time for their foolish games.

No, there were too many doors to unlock
and so many knots to untie
like “Where did I come from?  Why am I here?”
and “Where will I go when I die?”

***

A middle aged man sat on the same beach,
a place he had come to know
as somewhere to ponder his life’s many why’s
though the answers he still didn’t know,

when a feeling of emptiness, never so deep,
filled his heart and made him afraid.
He thought of the voices of friends, long ago,
but could only hear silence today.

Then he thought, “Oh, my God.  Half my life has slipped by
and still, no solution is near.
I think I’ll stop trying to figure it out
and for once, just be glad that I’m here.”

That day, his eyes opened and though nothing had changed,
the world became bright, rich and new.
And as he lay back to blend with life’s colors and sounds,
the great sky never seemed quite so blue.

***

An old man lies on a bed, close to death,
but not worried, not sad or afraid.
He smiles at sweet faces, gathered around
saying, “Please Grandpa, don’t go away.”

He says, “Don’t be sad.  I had a life full and rich –
something not many can say.”
But their young eyes were still pleading, scared and confused
so he searched for the right words to say . . .

“When I was young, I had so many worries and fears
and questions I couldn’t get by.
Then one day I stopped fighting and searching in vain
and decided to live till I die.

I traveled the world, drank in its wonders,
found true love in a good woman’s eyes,
had beautiful children, life’s sweetest reward.
Each one, an incredible prize.

Now, one journey ends and another begins
and I was right to be patient and wait
for the mysteries that plagued my troubled, young mind
can’t be solved on this side of the gate.

So do one thing more for me.  Know your own beauty.
Always stand strong, proud and tall.
And think of my passing not as the end
but as the summer becoming the fall.”

~ Mark Rickerby

RIP Erin Moran

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There are plenty of bad photos of Erin Moran on the Internet when she was having problems that the tabloids were happy to exploit, but I will always remember the energetic, innocent girl, the quintessential little sister, on my favorite TV show as a child.

It was initially reported that she died of a heroin overdose, then corrected to stage 4 throat cancer. However, her drug use and excessive smoking were well-publicized for years before her death. Every untimely celebrity death is another example to me of what the world can do to us if we let it. We’re all going to get old, but we don’t need to speed the process along with substance abuse. Successes will come and go, but how much we let the low points define us is always our own decision. As John Milton wrote, “The mind is its own place, and in it we make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Maybe she didn’t care enough about herself because of personal tragedies, or because Hollywood stopped calling, or maybe she was just wired that way. Whatever it was, the tragedy is that it (cancers and overdoses) are often preventable.

Her death is also a little personal to me because my brother and only sibling died of a heroin overdose. I watched his gradual self-degradation the same way I watched Erin’s over the years. He went from the blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy who played baseball with me in the street to a tattooed, toothless convict. It was horrible to witness. He told me he saw Erin Moran once. They may have been traveling in the same circles. I also saw my dad unsuccessfully fight an addiction to cigarettes his entire adult life. When he died of aspiration pneumonia, he couldn’t breathe on his own because of all the damage he had done to his lungs. So it’s safe to say I’m anti-drugs and anti-smoking. To me, it amounts to throwing our lives into the trash.

Erin was born in Burbank, California, which is where I live, but she moved to a place called Palmdale, about thirty miles north of Burbank, which is a cesspool of drugs and crime. That’s probably where her heroin addiction started. It’s sold there like soda pop.

Take care of yourselves, friends. Embrace life and health. Reckless living and bad health decisions only help old age and death find you sooner than they deserve to. We can’t remain children, but we can prevent the world and others from stealing from us the things that are childlike – joy, hope, trust, innocence, purity, excitement. It may be true that nothing gold can stay, not completely anyway, but we can hold on to most of it by keeping a healthy body, mind and soul. Those who allow this world to pollute and invade them ruin their lives, hasten their deaths, and break the hearts of those who remember them when their eyes were clear and bright and anything was still possible.

Rest well, Erin. I wish you were still here, happy and healthy, enjoying your status as one of America’s sweethearts. I hope your health and mind are fully restored to you in heaven. May you have an eternity of Happy Days there.

Celebrity Deaths

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Man, what a year. It seems more celebrities died in 2016 than any year ever. For this reason, and also the most contentious election in recent memory, most of us were happy to see 2016 go. 

Some wonder why people make such a big deal out of celebrities dying. “You don’t even know them,” they say. “What did they ever do for you?” It’s because they’re not just mourning that person, they’re mourning the part of their life they represent. 

I remember watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show with my parents when they were young and healthy, the world was new to me, and my little family didn’t have a worry in the world. Good art of any kind can connect us to moments in our lives like a teleportation machine. Paintings, sculptures, even just tabletop knick-knacks, bring back happy memories of the event, day or moment they were bought and who we were with. Songs, books, and TV shows are portals to the past, and the artists seem like friends, even though we may have never met them. 

Now that my brother and dad are gone, I regress a lot (too much, actually), fantasizing about being back there again, all of us whole and happy, the future still unwritten. Then I look at my wife and kids and realize, as hard as it is to let go of what was, of the people I’ve lost and all they were to me, my wife and children are all that matter now. So, for them, I commit to living in the moment again, and that saves me from despairing completely. With my tendency toward melancholy and romanticizing the past, I don’t know what I would do if I were alone. 

So when I mourn another artist who made my family and I laugh in simpler days, I’m not only mourning that artist, I’m mourning the loss of my own past that their creation was a small part of. This is fine for any of us to do, as long as we wipe the tear away – for them and all the yesterdays we can never live again – so we can see the road ahead. There’s a lot more living to do up there.

Innocence Lost – Handgun Safety

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Brooklynn Mae Mohler

March 29, 2000 – June 4, 2013

I was up all night with my sick, five-year old girl. She finally relented to sleep so I got online. I couldn’t sleep anyway. I Googled an old poem I wrote after my brother died. I do that every few months or so just to see where it has traveled, but always dread what I will find because it’s a poem about grieving. I received an email just yesterday from a woman whose husband was killed in a homicide, asking if she could read it as his funeral. The poem is both a source of joy to me, knowing it helps people, and a source of sadness, hearing stories of untimely deaths.

Last night it led me to a woman whose daughter, Brooklynn, was accidentally shot in the back by her best friend because her friend’s absent father didn’t properly secure his handgun. I could barely read the description in one of her blogs of the day it happened, discovering her body, etc. Horror beyond words, and yet this poor, sweet woman said my poem “provided solace” for her in her “darkest, most agonizing moments.” This is why I write. This.

I was feeling frustrated last night not only because my daughter was sick but because I needed sleep so I could work today. Maybe I was led to that page to give me some perspective. My girl just had a little cold. She woke up this morning. I held her a lot tighter last night as she slept, savoring her every breath, while I prayed for Brooklynn and her family.

Hundreds of children are shot accidentally every year in America due to improperly secured handguns. The man who left the handgun sitting around that killed Brooklynn was not punished for the easily-preventable loss of this beautiful, vibrant, 13-year old girl.  Stupidity and bone laziness are not crimes, I suppose, but why he didn’t get charged with child endangerment or involuntary manslaughter is a mystery to me.

One of their main messages is to ask a simple question if you let your child play at their friends houses – ask their parents, “Are there any unsecured guns in your house?” Please visit the site below and do what you can to help her courageous parents as they promote handgun safety awareness, and push for laws punishing irresponsible gun owners for the lives that are lost because of them.

http://justiceforbrooklynn.com/our-story/

Link to the poem –
http://justiceforbrooklynn.com/2016/02/how-we-survive/