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.

 

Just Live (poem)

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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

Messin’ with Mark – Episode 4 – “God’s Corny Joke”

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God was looking down at the earth one day, cracking up, and Jesus overheard. He looked over His Dad’s shoulder and asked, “Whatcha lookin’ at, Pops?” 

“Just pranking that guy Mark again,” God replied.

Jesus tried to talk Him into laying off since He made me and therefore should probably be nicer to me, but God played some old clips of ridiculous situations He put me in, and Jesus thought they were so funny, They decided to make a series out of it, or maybe a YouTube prank channel. Not sure which.

Here’s another prank They pulled on me one day. I’m sure it gave Them and the angels big laughs up there.

Corn-Eating

I was eating lunch at my home away from home – El Pollo Loco – and decided to have a corn on the cob. It was particularly juicy and the restaurant was crowded so when I went to take the first bite, I was concerned it would squirt at someone. There were people less than two feet away from me on either side. 

I should point out that I’m a big believer in the law of mental magnetism – that is, whatever we think about most expands. We actually make things happen that otherwise wouldn’t just by thinking of them. So I put the thought of my corn squirting at someone out of my mind, but apparently it was too late, or the thought of not thinking about it amounted to thinking about it, because the very first bite I took sent out a jet of corn juice directly sideways to my left. I froze mid-bite, afraid to even look that direction. Then I felt eyes on me, staring. I slowly looked over and saw a very unhappy woman with corn juice all over the right side of her face, nose, even in her hair. 

“Really?” she asked.

“I am SO sorry,” I said, mortified, my eyes wide as saucepans.

I handed her a napkin. As she dried off, she smiled and said, “Oh, it’s alright, honey. It was an accident.” 

I was fortunate because this lady was what comedian Chris Rock calls the happiest kind of person on earth – “a fat, black woman.” (Hey, those were Chris’s words, not mine. Should I say “heavy-set woman of color” to be PC? I use the other term only for brevity and to accurately quote Chris.) Anyway, I don’t know why it is but I’ve found that to be true, too. Chris thought it was because they were so acceptant of themselves that their acceptance and love for others was stronger. Makes sense to me. People can’t be any kinder to others than they are to themselves. So, what could have been a bad situation became a pleasant one. We even laughed about it and had a nice conversation afterward. I’m not sure which one of us God was testing. 

I told this story to a friend of mine. He told me he gave blood once and thought he was okay to leave but fainted while walking through the hospital waiting room. He woke up in the lap of – you guessed it – a fat, black woman. She was stroking his hair, looking down at him with real love and saying, “You’re alright, baby.” He felt like a kid again, safe as an infant in his mother’s arms. 

So even though I don’t appreciate being God’s little cartoon character, I’m thankful that He selected a fat, black woman to be on the receiving end of the corn blast. He has a mischievous sense of humor, but He really is merciful. 

Messin’ with Mark – A Divine Comedy – Episode 3, “The Dog Poop Lob That Did Its Job.”

This is the third installment in my attempt to convince the mortal world that I am and have always been the star of a sitcom in heaven called Messin’ with Mark, a show created, written and produced by God Himself for His personal amusement and that of the angels that inhabit His heavenly area up there.

Jesus didn’t approve of His Pop’s antics at first, but He got with the program when He saw how funny it was to have ludicrous and even impossible things happen to me, and my pained reactions, which apparently They both think are pretty funny. 

I’m reaching pretty far back for this episode, but I think you’ll agree when you’re done reading that some divine intervention had to have taken place. 

My brother, Paul, was three years older than me. Not a lot of time between adults, but two different worlds to kids. He was bigger, taller, stronger and smarter. We got along well except for the usual sibling rivalries and disagreements. But one day when I was about nine years old, I upset him pretty bad. I can’t remember what I did but it was bad enough for him to chase me right out of the house and down the street. I sought refuge at the house of my best friend, Dana Eckman, who was home at the time and let me in just as Paul was about to pounce on me. I locked the door as he tried the knob. He banged on the door before walking away and yelling, “You’ve got to come home sometime, you little jerk!” 

I probably should have let him calm down but I couldn’t resist waiting for him to get a safe distance away, then walking out onto the front porch to annoy him some more. I suppose I figured I was already going to get a beating so I might as well enjoy myself while I could. I danced and said something very original like, “Can’t get me!” or the classic “neener neener.” He came running back. I continued dancing just long enough to make sure I could get back inside and lock the door a few seconds ahead of him. I then went to the front window and laughed some more at his red, anguished face. Dana just watched, horrified. He didn’t understand the complex cat and mouse game that is brotherhood. Paul swore he would kill me as he walked back across the street. I went back out onto the porch and continued my dance. He ran back. I ran back inside, and the cycle repeated several times. I started getting bored so I upped the ante and walked to the sidewalk. I was pretty sure I could get to the house before he could make it across the street. My brother eyed me, calculating, trying to figure out if he could beat me to the door. He must have decided he couldn’t because, as I was dancing and singing my “can’t get me” song, he scanned the ground for something he could throw at me. Fortune smiled on him as his eyes spotted a dog poop. But that wasn’t the only bit of luck he would have that day. Oh, no. Far, far from it.

Without thinking, and probably not very hopeful he would even hit me, he threw said poop in my general direction. My singing and dancing was so unguarded and carefree that I failed to see him pick up the poop and throw it. I didn’t know he had thrown anything until . . . IT LANDED IN MY MOUTH.

Yep. Right in the old pie hole. One hundred points and the big plushy on the midway. God must have had a little mercy on me, though, because it was one of those bleached white dog poops that had sat out in the elements so long, all the color and, more importantly, flavor had run out of it. It exploded in my mouth and left me feeling like I just chewed up a piece of chalk. Of course, the shock made me gasp and inhale a bunch of it. I coughed as my brother, amazed at his luck, gleefully cried out, “That’s dog poop! A direct hit!” 

Oh, how the tables can turn. I was now retching and he was the one laughing and dancing, celebrating his throwing arm and the poop dust I was coughing up. Sometimes karma takes a while, sometimes it shows up right away.

It’s hard to describe the maelstrom of emotions that went through my mind at that moment except that they were all bad – repulsion, anger, humiliation, horror. I ran to the hose in front of Dana’s house but it had one of those recessed knobs that requires a special wrench to turn on. My brother’s laughter rang in my ears as I continued to cough up white, poop dust and search desperately for water. I finally ran into Dana’s house and stuck my entire open mouth under the faucet upside-down and ran it full blast until my head, neck and upper torso were drenched.

I finally washed away all the poop, but have never been able to wash away the memory. Having dog poop thrown into one’s laughing mouth tends to stick in the memory bank, filed under “Funny now, not so funny at the time.”

Messin’ with Mark – A Divine Comedy, Episode 2 – “The Zipper Incident”

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You may not know me down here, but I’m kind of a big deal in heaven.

Here’s still more evidence that I’m God’s little cartoon character, or the star of a heaven-based sitcom. Comic relief in heaven. It’s the only explanation. 

Before the first incident, Jesus noticed a large group of angels gathered around God, looking down at something or someone on the earth. Curious to see what the commotion was about, He strolled over, looked over God’s shoulder and said, “Whatcha looking at, Dad?”
God replied, “Watch what I’m gonna do to Mark today. This is gonna be hilarious.”
Jesus shook his head and said, “Him again? C’mon, Pop. Why are you always picking on that guy? I mean, you created him. You’re supposed to be compassionate ‘n stuff.”
“I know but I can’t help it,” God replied. “I mean, look at him!”
Jesus looked down again and said, “Yeah, I can kinda see what you mean. Look at his face.”
They both laughed before Jesus checked Himself again.
“No, Dad. Really. This is wrong. We’re supposed to watch out for people like him.”
God stopped laughing and thought about it for a few seconds, then they looked at each other and said, in unison, “Naaaaaaaa!” 

They decided then and there to make a show out of it – Messin’ with Mark. Read on and you, too, will believe.

Case in point –

One summer Saturday, I was driving to my wife’s house to take her to a long-anticipated concert. She and I had just met and I was struggling to impress her. I was stuck in typical L.A. traffic when I started to get overheated. I had put on a pullover sweater because it was one of those “June gloom” days that started out cold and quickly heated up. Since traffic was stop and go, I decided to quickly remove the sweater the next time traffic came to a full stop. Traffic stopped so I released the seatbelt and started trying to take off the sweater. I had an RX-7 at the time so there wasn’t much room to do anything, let alone put my arms over my head to take a sweater off. The sweater and I ended up in a wrestling death match.

Having used up the 1-2 seconds drivers in Los Angeles have to move when traffic starts moving again, drivers behind me started honking, then yelling, then making hand gestures. But the sweater had become a thing possessed. In desperation, I yanked it off with a vengeance and stepped on the gas to avoid getting shot at by someone whose life I had stolen seven seconds from. I immediately felt a searing pain on my forehead. I looked in the mirror and saw that the zipper on the v-neck had torn an angry path right up the middle as I pulled it off. I had never thought about how treacherous the zipper on this sweater was before this incident. 

I arrived at my wife’s house. She gasped and asked, “What happened to you? Did someone hit you with a tomahawk?” I told her I had been attacked by my own sweater. She laughed as she cleaned the wound. She offered to put a few band-aids on my forehead but I couldn’t bear the humiliation. At dinner, walking around afterward, and at the concert, strangers speculated about what might have happened to me as I fanned my forehead with anything I could find. 

By this time, hundreds of angels had gathered around God and Jesus to watch the show, laughing uproariously. Probably feeling a little guilty, too, because they’re supposed to prevent stuff like this, but a little guilt always makes things we’re not supposed to do a little more enjoyable, like when we got a day off school for a holiday as a kid versus when we stayed home from school pretending we were sick. It was always more fun when we knew we were doing something we weren’t supposed to do, right? Angels are no different. Don’t let their name fool you. 

It’s also no coincidence that God and the person who comes up with ideas for TV shows are both called the “creator”. I imagine God received a little resistance from Jesus on this one since an injury was actually required for this episode, but his response was probably, “Don’t worry, Son. I’ll heal him, too. It’s worth it. This is gonna be hilarious.” Jesus argued to heal me faster than usual, but not so fast that I get suspicious that He orchestrated the whole thing. But they underestimated the intelligence They gave me. I’m onto Them. I’m not this dumb. I can’t be. It has to be Them, and their show. But I don’t mind contributing to the laughter in heaven. It’s kind of an honor, actually. I just wish they would warn me, but I guess tipping me off would ruin the show. God writes in mysterious ways.