Friday, February 14, 2014
On Matters of Life and Death
My friend Linda and coworker K. died from cancer a week ago Thursday at 1:30 a.m. That was a totally sad happening for many people. It was Linda’s 43rd wedding anniversary, and her adult kids had implored her for days to hang on till that special day arrived. It was just like Linda to persist until she reached her goal. She was one of the two administrative staff members in Sociology for many years. I worked with her closely because I was the Director of Undergraduate Studies for much of that time, and Linda did all the undergrad record-keeping and administrative tasks. She went way beyond the call of duty, creating personal files that she used to keep track of every undergrad major’s progress toward graduation. While all of the students are assigned to individual faculty advisors, Linda informally did a vast majority of the undergrad advising in the department – far more than all the faculty combined. The students were much more comfortable with her and stopped into her office whenever they had any questions. Linda occupied the main department office, a hectic location. She was beholden to a dozen faculty members, grad students regularly arrived with this or that request, she answered all the phone calls for the department, and undergrads made her office their first stop. In the face of chaos all around her, Linda maintained a cheery, friendly, and welcoming demeanor. It wasn’t a forced thing – it was her basic nature. She was the central person in making the department a warm and welcoming place to be, and she helped hundreds of students navigate their ways through their college degree. Shortly before she retired last year, I told her that I had more daily contact with her than with anyone else in the department. Linda smiled and modestly admitted that many people had recently told her the same thing. Her positive impact on people and legacy will continue for a long time.
Funerals are powerful occasions. One’s community gathers, and loved ones share their grief. I still remember struggling with the concept of death as a child. It’s horrendous, mind-shattering. If there’s anything permanent and trustworthy in the world, it’s the presence of one’s parents, and the idea that their lives will end is intolerable. Not to mention the notion of one’s own death. I think by adulthood we more or less come to terms with this. However, I think the child’s naïve responses are the most authentic and valid. Death is simply beyond acceptance and beyond comprehension.
My most direct personal experiences with death have been with my parents and my in-laws. My siblings and I were summoned to Menominee in April, 1986, when my mother, Doris L., was hospitalized and judged to have only a few days left. My brother Peter and I were in her room toward the end, and she was in a great deal of pain. She said she wanted to be alone, so we went out into the hall. Then we decided we should be with her since so little time was left, and we came back in. Doris looked up and softly whispered, “I’m grateful.” I think those may have been her last words.
My dad, Vic L., continued to live at their beloved Birch Creek farm for the next five years. Eventually he was unable to sustain that, and he moved to a residential facility in Cincinnati. Toward the end, when his quality of life had sharply deteriorated, he told me not to worry about him. He said he’d had a wonderful life, had been surrounded with magnificent friends, and had enjoyed more rich experiences that anyone could ever hope for. He said he had no regrets whatsoever. I admired the peace and contentment that my dad achieved and think it a rare thing.
My father-in-law, Buck, was in a lot of pain toward the end of his life at age 88, and he was cantankerous throughout the process. He was angry with the hospital, the doctors, and the technology; irritated by family members; and generally upset about his dire circumstances. Knowing that he was going to die, he said he didn’t want to be left out. The rest of us would go on doing fun and interesting things, and Buck was most distressed that he would no longer be a part of it. My mother-in-law, Helen, lived for six more years, but mourned Buck’s death throughout the remainder of her own life. She felt Buck to be present in their apartment and sometimes carried on a conversation with him at night. Helen said she was ready for her own death to occur so she could be reunited with her beloved husband. It was difficult for her to go on without Buck, and she seemed to have no trepidation about the end of her life at all.
All of this, of course, is pretty heavy stuff. What strikes me is that people each come to terms with the end of their lives in their own unique ways. In the case of our various family members, the last stages of their lives seem consistent with and a product of all that went before. I hope Katja and I have many years to go. It will be interesting, though, to see how we go about this. I think I’ll document as much of it in my blog as I can and see if I can come up with a joke or two.
-Phyllis S-S (2-15): Dear Dave, What a lovely, thoughtful and touching essay. I am sorry about Linda's death… How are you doing with all of the new snow? We haven't seen our sidewalk for a week or two. We have to climb up and over little ice hills to get to the street. Stay warm. Phyllis
-Donna D (2-14): david this is wonderful
-JML (2-14): Thanks Dad, that was great