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Sunday, April 17, 2016
"Talking About Death"
talking about death
Soon after reading and writing about Philip Zuckerman’s Living the Secular Life wherein he discusses how death can still be faced by a non-religious individual, my husband Howard Fox coincidentally wrote a letter to our friend, Rosemary DeRosa, who had recently called us about a scare with her husband Brian’s health.
Howard wrote her:
As you said, “time marches on…and on….and on…until it stops!”
At least for each and every creature alive. I’ve always thought about
death—in an unseemly way according to Douglas and to my parents,
when they were still alive; maybe it’s because I had a sister who died
when she was only seven and I was only three. I have only two mem-
ories of her—one, probably my very earliest memory, is quite pleasant:
she was trying to comfort me by tickling me under my chin as I went
into a bawling fit because my father was leaving the house to go to work.
The other memory, much less clear, was visiting her in the hospital,
when she was dying of leukemia. I have zero memory of her funeral,
and I’m quite certain my parents didn’t take me to it, but I do remember
asking my mother, probably a day or two later, where Bunny went.
She told me she died, that it was like going to sleep forever. But mommy
where is she now? They put her in a wooden box and made a hole in the
ground and put the box in the hole and put the dirt back on top of her.
The image I had then, standing in the laundry room of our house in
the residential end of Atlantic City, was, quite specifically, that the box
was an orange crate and that Bunny could see them putting the dirt back
on top of her. It was a disturbing image to me then, as it is now.
But I no longer fear for the dead nor pity them, nor myself for
being among them one day. The change was gradual but inevitable as I grew
up. However, the real realization came when I had that neurosurgery on my
left elbow at Cedars Sinai, I think about eight years ago, when I started to
lose sensation and dexterity on the left side of my left hand. The condition
called cubital tunnel syndrome—something like well-known carpel syndrome,
but it occurs to a compressed nerve in the elbow rather than the wrist.
There I was, prepped and laying on the surgical table in the operating room and
staring at the operating lamp above me, with its intense facets and
multiple lenses focused on my left arm. As I was looking at it, I felt some-
thing with the intravenous connection on my right arm, and I asked if they
were ready to start. The assistant surgeon declared, “No, Howard, we’re
done. You’ve been out for about 90 minutes.” I was amazed—flabbergasted.
I had absolutely no sense that I’d virtually ceased to exist as a sentient
being for an hour and a half. And my, Rosamarina, my immediate, first
waking thought was that I had no need to fear being dead. For myself or
for anyone else. I recall quite vividly being wheeled into the recovery
area with that idea firmly—and happily!—in my mind. It was a life-
changing—and I guess you could say a death-changing—experience for
me….The most salient content of the whole experience was that welcome
realization about non-existence.
Of course there’s a major difference between being dead and dying.
We can only hope for the best when it comes to dealing with the “endgame.”
But the subtext of your letter is about engaging, or least beginning to
acknowledge that, perhaps, it’s earliest incidentals have begun. …I’ve had
one or two scares; and Douglas has had prostate cancer, has had a knee
replacement, and repeatedly had a procedure, under anesthesia, to burn
away precancerous esophageal cells. It’s no fun, and it brings anxiety.
But neither are we afraid of the inevitable outcome.
…So maybe I’m no wiser than Pangloss or Polonius. But then again,
sometimes simple truths are the most important thing of all. I’m not a
believer, you know that. God forbid, were I! But I recently reheard a re-
cording of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, which he was commissioned to
write for the opening of the Kennedy Center. The one line that I remember
most from the time we saw it at the Kennedy Center to the time I heard
it last week as I drove on surface streets to Pasadena, is “God is the simplest
thing of all.”
I also remember reading an article about the Big Bang theory of the
creation of the universe, in which a physicist was quoted as saying “No
God is God enough for me.” When you think about it, that’s a rather
profound statement, maybe not about religious devotion, but about the
wonderment of it all.
Howard’s recounting of his story about his sister, led me, in turn, to recall the very first time I had encountered death. The event was the death of my step-grandfather, Forrest Jones, the only grandfather I had known on my father’s side of the family, my birth grandfather having died before I was born. Forrest, a small town businessman, who wore old fashioned suits in the 1950s that were obviously tailored for the 1940s, was a gentle and loving man, who reminded me always of the actor Ray Collins, particularly in his role in The Magnificent Ambersons, and later as Lieutenant Tragg in television’s “Perry Mason” series.
I don’t recall the year in which he died, but I was quite young at the time, maybe 5 or 6, aware of the world around me but not quite yet able to comprehend death. My parents took me, without my brother or sister, to the funeral, and I recall being very serious—like the adults around me—as the service began. I was a serious young man, giving sermonic lectures from the post of my grandmother’s staircase as I performed being a missionary preacher.
All was fine until, in the midst of the ceremony, Forrest’s daughter by his first marriage—a woman who was institutionalized in a state mental facility—began to scream out. I have no memory of what she said, but it was certainly a profane statement of outrage that family members quickly tried to hush. I have no idea why it so affected me. Perhaps she had said what all the others had feared to; or perhaps she simply made obvious to my childhood consciousness what truly had happened—that I would never see my grandfather again and that we all had lost something in his death. Perhaps it was my witnessing of an adult who could longer control herself that utterly frightened me. In any event, I begin to cry, quickly, as children often do, becoming inconsolable. Neither my mother nor my father could quiet me, and finally it was my aunt Mary, a high school student still living at home with my grandmother, who hugged me into quietude.
Mary, as I write elsewhere in these volumes, was the kind of aunt everyone should have: a young girl who herself was not far removed from childhood, yet was old enough to dote on the firstborn nephew. She and her girlfriends took me to movies, and I recall sleeping with her on the roof outside her bedroom on a hot summer night, the stars raining down upon the small idyllic town of Manchester. It was her father (step-father though he was) who had died; still, even as a young girl, only she could comfort me. Suddenly, I knew what death was: the absence of presence.
Los Angeles, April 15, 2016