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.

 

Carlos

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Carlos was probably the scariest-looking human being I’ve ever known.  He spent so much time lifting weights and was so gigantic, everybody at the gym was worried he might explode someday. He was covered with tattoos, some very well done and some that appeared to have been scribbled by a cellmate or a stoned friend. He was about forty years old and his face had recorded every one of them. It was crooked, smashed, pock-marked, scarred and generally beaten all to hell.

If any of the other hardcases in the gym ever thought about challenging Carlos, they were probably discouraged by the thought of where they might hit him. His bull-like thickness made his body almost invulnerable, and he probably wouldn’t care if he got hit in the face. As a wise person once said, “Never mess with a man with nothing to lose.”

A smile might have improved his appearance but I never saw it happen. He was so serious-looking, it was as if his face might crumble and fall to the floor if he attempted to smile. Because of all this, nobody spoke to him or wanted to. Nobody even looked at him. After all, people avoid danger, and Carlos looked dangerous. But it has always been a bad habit of mine to walk toward danger rather than away from it, as if there are answers to great mysteries hidden there, or behind my own fear.

So rather than avoid Carlos like everybody else did, I would always give him a friendly nod when I’d see him at the gym. He didn’t respond at first but after a while, he started returning them. Still, he never smiled and we never spoke until one day when Carlos was leaving the gym while I was arriving. Determined to see if it was possible for him to smile, I gathered my courage, smiled brightly and said, “Hey! How ya doin?” as if we were old friends.

I was surprised to see a big smile spread across his face, and his eyes lit up so wide, his face became almost childlike. And what a grand smile it was. A smile compliments a face that has been kicked around so much more than one that hasn’t.

I extended my hand. He grabbed it, squeezed it hard and said, “Fine! How are you?” There was so much spirit and gratitude in his handshake, I felt like I was handing a glass of ice water to a man wandering through the desert.

Slightly shocked by his friendliness, I said, “I’m doing well. Did you have a good workout?”
“Yeah, real good,” he said. “My back’s bugging me, though. It’s always giving me trouble.”
“Oh, man. Back problems are the worst,” I said. “Well, at least you’re still making it into the gym. You can’t keep a good man down.”
He laughed and said, “Thanks, I’ll try to think of it that way, too.”

I noticed a tattoo on his arm of a young woman’s face in the middle of a heart with cherubs flying around it. I asked who it was. He told me it was his mother, and that she had died five years earlier.
“She’s very beautiful,” I said.
“Yes, she was,” he answered, looking down at the tattoo. “I miss her every day.”

We talked about a lot of things that day. He grew up in Chicago. His father was killed in a construction site accident. Carlos was only three at the time so he had no clear memories of him. He was an only child because his mother never remarried. She kept a black and white photo of his father on her bedside table all her life. He joined a gang as a teenager, which was when he acquired most of his tattoos. He moved to L.A. to get away from the life when he realized how much the violence and mayhem was twisting his spirit.

He said, “I was ashamed of myself for worrying my mother so much just to go looking for trouble with a bunch of fools. I owed her everything. I owed them nothing.”
“That was a wise decision,” I said.
He said, “Yeah, but it’s too bad wisdom demands so much from us, especially time.”
I asked him what he meant. He said he made that decision after spending two years in the Cook County Jail for aggravated assault.
“I’ll tell you, man,” he said. “Jail really worked for me. It gave me a lot of time to think. And you know how many times those puto’s came to visit me? Once. One time. That was all I needed to know.”

When he got home, he asked his high school sweetheart to leave Chicago with him but she couldn’t because her parents didn’t approve of him after he went to jail. But she still loved him and it was a tearful parting. I asked him if he had ever married. He said he hadn’t because he could never find anyone to match her. I could tell he was still carrying her in his heart, preserved there at the age she was when he left her. Time would not find her as it had him.

He said the thing he was most proud of was saving enough money to buy his mother a small house near his own and fly her out to Los Angeles. He said she was like a kid at Christmas when he took her to her new home. He never told her that he worked two jobs for five years to pull it off.

“She was happy here,” he said. “We were together again and she made a lot of nice friends.”

I sensed great sadness and loneliness in Carlos. It became clear to me that weightlifting was a refuge for him, and an escape. I was also reminded of how utterly incorrect outward impressions of people can be, and all anyone really needs is for someone to show a sincere interest in them.

Not everything we talked about was so sad. We had a good laugh comparing my Irish culture with his Hispanic culture. We decided they were very much alike. Both are basically good-natured, quick with a laugh, a little hot-tempered, and of course, they both love their cerveza’s.

After an hour or so, we said goodbye, and he smiled that big smile again. After that day, Carlos and I always talked at the gym. We even worked out together a few times, though I could never match his strength. People always seemed surprised to see the medium-sized, conservative-looking white boy hanging out with the big, mean-looking cholo. And only I knew that he wasn’t in a gang anymore. Only I knew the sad and lonely man beneath the intimidating appearance.

A little while later, I went to Europe for six months. I got Carlos’ address and told him I would send him a postcard or two. I did. One from Rome and one from Athens. When I came home and went back to the gym, I asked if anyone had seen Carlos. Nobody knew him by name so I had to describe him.

“Oh, that guy?” somebody said. “He died. Suicide or something.”
“What? When?” I asked.
“A few months ago,” he answered. “Who cares? The guy was a jerk.”
My shock turned to anger.
“He was a friend of mine,” I said.
“Oh, sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know you knew him so well.”

Everybody went back to their workouts. I felt sick so I went outside and walked to the spot where Carlos and I had talked that day.

“God damn it, Carlos,” I whispered.

The tears welling in my eyes were caused by anger at him but also shame with myself for not reaching out even further to him. I had been unable to grasp the full depth of his despair. For a moment, I thought if I hadn’t gone away, maybe he would have had someone to talk to. Maybe he wouldn’t have . . .

I brushed that thought away. There was no point in thinking such things now. I went back inside and started working out again but my mind was on my friend. His spirit was everywhere, the spirit only I knew. Again, I thought about how wrong surface impressions can be. Carlos was the strongest man in the gym, but only on the outside.

He was already forgotten here. Nobody would miss him, nobody except me, because I remembered the guy with the big smile, the guy who missed his mother every day, the guy who squeezed my hand so hard, it was like I was handing a glass of ice water to a man wandering through the desert.