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.

 

How We Survive (poem on grieving)

I once visited Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France.

It’s a strange place, full of odd, gothic sculptures, many of which didn’t make me feel any better about death. For instance, I could have done without the skulls with bat wings and couldn’t figure out why anyone would want them on a relative’s grave. Unless Herman Munster was buried there. It might work then.

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When I was younger and hadn’t lost anybody close to me yet, death was a fascinating abstraction to me. I was as obsessed with it as your average Egyptian pharaoh. I read all the Time-Life “Mysteries of the Unexplained” books. I attempted out-of-body experiences, astral travel and lucid dreaming. I even climbed over a cemetery wall on a Friday the 13th during a full, blue moon and sat in a freshly-dug grave with a Ouija board and candles. ALONE. Nothing happened, aside from the heebie-jeebie’s of my own imagination.

I stood in that grave and cursed the devil, daring him to appear to me. I was that crazy. For some reason, I desperately needed to know if there was something beyond this life. I had what little faith had been gathered from my mother saying The Lord’s Prayer to me at night as a child. (They didn’t go to church regularly.) But I needed proof.

Looking back, I think my obsession with death mirrored my love of youth. I was acutely aware even then of how transitory youth is, and how many doors opened because of it – professionally, romantically, and otherwise. But as time passed and death actually came to meet me, most notably in the sudden death of my brother and only sibling, I stopped investigating and making a pageantry of it and instead became more obsessed with living completely, with celebrating life, knowing I would grow old and die someday, too. I still feel that way. As Joseph Campbell once said, people aren’t as interested in the meaning of life as much as they are in living passionately and purposefully, and experiencing their lives completely. The human heart can endure anything except endless monotony; years and years of dull, identical days. The worst enemy of sadness isn’t happiness. It’s fun. Good, old-fashioned, seat-of-your-pants, exhilarating fun. Newness. Exploration. 

So, because I honor life now instead of death, I don’t remember those flying skulls at Pere Lachaise as much as I remember graves like this one. 

Pere Lachaise

What a message. A lifeless body breaking out of a stone tomb to hold up a rose. Now that is honoring the spirit of a loved one. 

Shortly after my brother died, I wrote a poem called How We Survive. Of everything I’ve ever written, it has traveled the furthest. I’ve received dozens of very touching emails from gracious people taking the time to let me know it helped them through the worst part of their grief. If you’ve lost someone you love, I hope it does the same for you. Grief is a terrible burden to bear. I lost my father last December, so I’m walking that road again, and doing my best to live up to my own poem.

Peace.

How We Survive

If we are fortunate,
we are given a warning.

If not,
there is only the sudden horror,
the wrench of being torn apart;
of being reminded
that nothing is permanent,
not even the ones we love,
the ones our lives revolve around.

Life is a fragile affair.
We are all dancing
on the edge of a precipice,
a dizzying cliff so high
we can’t see the bottom.

One by one,
we lose those we love most
into the dark ravine.

So we must cherish them
without reservation.
Now.
Today.
This minute.
We will lose them
or they will lose us
someday.
This is certain.
There is no time for bickering.
And their loss
will leave a great pit in our hearts;
a pit we struggle to avoid
during the day
and fall into at night.

Some,
unable to accept this loss,
unable to determine
the value of life without them,
jump into that black pit
spiritually or physically,
hoping to find them there.

And some survive
the shock,
the denial,
the horror,
the bargaining,
the barren, empty aching,
the unanswered prayers,
the sleepless nights
when their breath is crushed
under the weight of silence
and all that it means.

Somehow, some survive all that and,
like a flower opening after a storm,
they slowly begin to remember
the one they lost
in a different way . . .

The laughter,
the irrepressible spirit,
the generous heart,
the way their smile made them feel,
the encouragement they gave
even as their own dreams were dying.

And in time, they fill the pit
with other memories,
the only memories that really matter.

We will still cry.
We will always cry.
But with loving reflection
more than hopeless longing.

And that is how we survive.
That is how the story should end.
That is how they would want it to be.

The Healing Power of Children

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In his song The Things We’ve Handed Down, Marc Cohn sang to his unborn child, “Will you be a sad reminder of what’s been lost along the way? Maybe you can help me find her in the things you do and say.” The “her” he refers to in that line is his mother, whom he lost suddenly at an early age. He sang about her again in the song Saints Preserve Us, an intensely pain-filled song.  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xvd6kXIfAl0)

Grief is perhaps the oddest and most complex emotion. At the moment of death, when the world is crumbling around us and we can’t imagine life without that person, we are certain we’ll never be happy again. That feeling persists for a time, often a very long time, but then, as if by magic, it gets a little easier. We catch ourselves laughing, or having several sadness-free minutes. That realization is often followed by guilt, as if we are somehow betraying our lost loved one by allowing ourselves to be, not even happy, but just “okay” again. It’s a relief, like not being physically sick anymore. We take normal health for granted until we lose it and start praying to just stop throwing up or feeling pain. The same is true of the heart, except that after losing someone, there’s a new normal. The old world dies along with that person, and we slowly build a new one. 

I was in Vancouver one year, helping a friend make an independent movie. We were driving through a canyon between Vancouver and a town called Cache Creek. At points, this canyon had very high, vertical, rock walls on either side. It was beautiful to drive through in daylight, but ominous and claustrophobia-inducing at night. I was given the task of picking up an actor (Paul Jarrett) in Vancouver and left a little late, so I had to drive through the worst part of the canyon in the pitch black of night. The darkness started to play with my mind. I had both of my parents then but started having very dark thoughts about how I would handle losing them. Like anyone we love, they defined me so much, I didn’t know who I would be without them. Paul, who was a little older than me, asked if I had children. At the time, I didn’t. He said, “Start your own family. It won’t make it easier to lose your parents, but they are the best possible kind of distraction from the pain.” He was a wise man.

I now have two children, one and four years-old, and Paul’s words returned to me just this morning. I lost my brother and only sibling when I was 34 and he was 37, and my father last December. Suffice to say I have more than my share of sadness at the moment.

Since my father died, I have been feeling my brother’s death more intensely than I allowed myself to before because they were so intertwined in my mind and memory. So much falls away as time passes, and all we’re left with is memories. 

I was playing hide-and-seek with my eldest daughter this morning. She was looking for me and I saw her come around a corner very furtively. It reminded me of a photograph from 1965 or so of my brother coming around a corner in exactly the same way. I had always been amused by that photo because he looks so timid, as if worried someone was going to jump out and scare him at any moment. He may have been playing hide-and-seek with our father or mother when that photo was taken. It was then that the sadness hit me, right in the middle of a game. The sadness of how far my brother fell from that state of perfect innocence.

None of us can avoid that fall. It’s inevitable in this world. We all must grow up and “put away childish things” as the old poem says. But my brother fell a lot further. He started using marijuana at the age of thirteen and went right up (or down) the ladder to harder drugs, until he died of an overdose. He had spent eight years of his life in jail for drug-related offenses, had very few teeth left, and was covered with menacing tattoos. Only I remembered the fair-haired boy who built sand castles with me in the sun at Venice Beach. 

My daughter found me in the closet where I was hiding. She laughed as she always does. I smiled but couldn’t seem to muster a laugh. She noticed and her smile dimmed. I always hate that. I don’t want her to know about death yet. I even told her my father moved back to Ireland. As far as she’s concerned, he’s still alive and skipping through the shamrocks over there. She’ll learn about death and the other harsh realities of life soon enough. I picked her up, walked into the other room, and sat with her on the floor, her arms around my neck. I smelled her honey hair, savoring that hug, but unable to stop thinking about my brother, wishing his life would have been different, wondering how and why he could have gone from a curious, happy, fun-loving child to a drug addict, convict and overdose statistic.

I’m pretty good at hiding my emotions. I didn’t cry so I don’t know how she knew something wasn’t quite right, but my 18 month-old toddler also came over and put her little arms around me, too. I was now swallowed by hugs from my two girls, just when I needed to be. She’s a loving child so this isn’t unusual, but it was just what I needed, just when I needed it. I could feel the scale inside me, one side holding sadness and the other love. They teetered back and forth for a moment, but the love side eventually won, and I was able to get back to the business of living, and loving my children without sadness tainting happy moments. Emotional instability is a terrible burden to hang on children. I will not let that happen. As Lee Greenwood sang, hearts aren’t made to break, they’re made to love.

Happiness and inner peace don’t win on their own. We need to allow them to win. If we don’t choose them for ourselves, who will? They’re the greatest gifts we can give ourselves, and our children.