Category Archives: death

Word of the Day: Death

I got up this morning to find that one of three kittens I am fostering for the Humane Society was dead.  It’s not uncommon for foster kittens to die.  The mother cats are stray, barely adults themselves, emaciated and hungry, and/or diseased. It’s a cruel world.

Later today I will attend a funeral where Vince will give the eulogy for his best friend from prison.  I don’t know how he died.  He was only 34.

For those of you who are new to the blog, I began writing it with my son when he was in prison.  As he transitioned from prison and addiction to a healthy, sober life, I was freed to write about fun things like travel.

I still try to contribute to efforts at reforming our US system of mass incarceration.  This week I attended a meeting with the new Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

We were there to demand a moratorium on a practice called crimeless revocations.  In Minnesota, out of the 10,000 men and women in prison, 24% are not there for committing a crime.  That’s right; they are in prison because, after serving their sentence and being released, they missed a meeting with their parole agent or—most commonly—they relapsed and used drugs or alcohol.

So we lock them up, where they sit in prison for four to eight months.  They do not receive drug or alcohol treatment or any other services because they are short-termers.  They lose their jobs, their housing, and whatever fragile relationships they have started to rebuild on the outside.

The commissioner agreed that this practice is a waste of time, money, and lives.  But he said he couldn’t stop doing it until he gets buy-in from all his people.  We’ll meet with him again in a month.

Vince wasn’t sent back to prison, but he had all his privileges revoked because he didn’t answer when his parole agent called.  He was doing community service work in a noisy warehouse at the time and didn’t hear his phone ring.  For a month, he was not allowed to leave the house for anything but work.  No AA, no socializing with family or his sober friends.  No gym, no runs. None of the things that were going to keep him on an upward trajectory.  It was his darkest month.

The prison system is designed to punish, not rehabilitate. One of the worst forms of punishment is to mess with people by setting unclear expectations, catching them on some minor infraction, and coming down on them like a sledgehammer.

In Japan, as I’ve described already, I stood to one side and observed as worshipers approached the inner sanctum of a temple or shrine.  In Tokyo, Nikko, Kyoto, Nara, and Koyasan, they bowed, clapped, threw coins into a donation box, and lighted incense or candles.

I’m not a believer, but I felt something, at times.  Perhaps it was because I was mystified by what was taking place.  Maybe I was moved by the sincerity of the worshipers, or the atmosphere.

Especially since my aunt died, and now that Vince’s friend has died, I would like to think there is the possibility of some lingering connection between the living and the dead.

Maybe I should turn the French curio cabinet I inherited from my aunt into a household shrine, complete with photos of ancestors and incense burners.

Day Two in Tokyo.  My sister-in-law’s father, Fred, is retired from a big Japanese company. He has been painting with a group of fellow retirees for years.  If I understood correctly, companies support their retirees to participate in hobbies together.  Fred is also in an essay-writing group.  Today I managed to find the building in which his painting group was holding an exhibition; these are his works.  He’s very talented.

I stopped first to get some pastries because that’s what people do in Japanese novels.

I’ve had eight hairstyles since I last saw Fred and Hiromi five years ago.  But of course I’m white.  He picked me out in the crowded building lobby, hugged me, and said, “Welcome, Anne-san!”

Baby Bodhas

The first Japanese temple I visited was a block from my hotel and was called Zojoji.  I didn’t have a sense at the time whether this was a “typical” temple or not.

As I wrote in a previous post, there are thousands of shrines, large and small, everywhere in Japan.  Zojoji, in retrospect, was an “average” sized temple, with a dozen buildings scattered over what seemed to be a couple acres, and Tokyo Tower looming in the background.

I just learned on Wikipedia—after making my annual very modest donation to support them—that Zojoji is the “head temple of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism in the Kanto Region.”  That’s kind of like saying I am “the greatest travel and prison blogger who lives on the east side of St. Paul.”  I would see a lot of descriptors like this in the weeks to come.

But it was still pretty cool, it being my first.

Most of Zojoji’s current buildings are recent reconstructions except for the main entrance gate, the Sangedatsumon, which has survived many fires, earthquakes and wars and dates from 1622.

1622!  Here’s the gate:

As I also wrote previously, I was in Japan in the off season.  This was thanks to school holidays not having yet commenced and to it being the rainy season.  The downside, of course: rain.  The upside: hardly any tourists.

It had just rained and the buildings were closed, so it was just me and a handful of other people in the complex.  Normally I would be snapping away with my phone, but I was phoneless for now.  I had wondered: would I be able to enjoy this atmospheric moment without capturing it?  (I took these photos later, once I’d got a new charger).

I was pleased to note I felt at peace.

I came across these “baby bodhisattvas”—hundreds of foot-tall stone statues of bodhisattvas.  I’ve found various definitions of bodhisattva online.  The most generic is something like: one who is on the path to nirvana and has compassion for all beings.  Kind of an apprentice Buddha.

I felt a physical urge to reach for my phone to take photos, then relaxed when I remembered my dead phone was back in my room.

This was the explanation of the bodhisattvas:

These are “care guardian deities of children.”  They are dedicated for the safety growth of children and grandchildren, as well as for the memorial service for still birth or miscarried children.  To protect and keep warm their heads, “red hat” “red apron” and “windmill”, were dedicated to the guardian deity of children image.  Please refrain from touching.

I felt a pang of sadness, knowing some of these must represent babies that died. I have four friends or relations whose babies died, and it’s got to be one of life’s worst experiences. I “lost” a baby through adoption, so I like to think I have strong empathy for how it would feel.

Just then a powerful gong sounded nearby and reverberated for 20 seconds before sounding again. It made me jump internally then a calm descended over me.

This was happening just the way it was meant to.  If my phone had still been functional, I might have been hunched on my hotel room bed scrolling though social media to learn that my second cousin’s oldest kid had just graduated from college in Nebraska, or how a guy I met in grad school 17 years ago will look when he’s 100, thanks to a hot new “aging” app.

I gave thanks for my phone being dead—at least for now.

Walking toward the sound I found a monk—yes, with a shaved head and long flowing robe—using a long, thick rope to propel an enormous weight forward into a bell the size of a Volkswagon Beetle.

Why he was doing this—was it a call to prayer?  The “closing” bell? Was he ushering in nightfall?  It didn’t matter.

I crossed back over the road and wondered about this little gem tucked in between hideous concrete high-rises.

I stopped at Family Mart, a ubiquitous convenience store, for some cheap eats before crashing for 10 hours—my first of 26 nights in Japan.

Circles

In one month I’ll be in Japan.  My plans are progressing.  I have been assured that my  investment of over $550 in a Japan Rail Pass will more than pay for itself.  I’ve booked accommodations in five locations and have two more to go.  I’ve downloaded apps like a free wifi finder, a Tokyo subway route finder, an offline map of Tokyo that turns out to be only in Japanese, and Google Translate.  I will test this last one out with my sister in law before using it on the street, just to make sure it doesn’t translate, “Where is the sub-way?” as “Where is the worst route?” or some such.

My aunt’s funeral took place last week.

The young priest at the small-town parish had alienated himself from the townspeople and congregants by firing the choir directors because they were openly gay.

Why couldn’t they stay closeted, like him and his “assistant,” Lance?

One day a month ago, my aunt had said to me and my cousin, “I hope you don’t think it’s weird, but I still want to be buried out of the Catholic Church.”  We assured her it wasn’t weird.  She’d been raised in the Catholic milieu of Small St. Paul in the 1930s and 40s.  She attended Catholic schools through high school and worked at a Catholic college.  There was, and still is, plenty of good work being carried out by nuns and Catholic lay people.

But she didn’t want the young priest saying her funeral mass, so my cousins imported a more liberal-minded visiting priest from St. Paul.  Other than calling her by the wrong name, he did a fine job.

You would think that a funeral would be the saddest part of a death, but this was a Catholic funeral, so it was all about Jesus and not my aunt.  Lance played the organ and belted out the hymns like he was in a broadway musical, so at least the music was good.

It’s the little reminders that catch you off guard.  Like seeing her knitting lying abandoned—the baby hat she’ll never finish. She knit baby hats for the local hospital.  I teared up when I came across her glasses, which she wore to read or work on crosswords, two of my own favorite pastimes.

While my aunt was dying—in pain or during moments of indignity she would have hated if she’d been conscious—someone asked, “What’s the point of all this!?” and I thought, “There is no point.  It’s biology, physiology, pathology at work.  It’s “nature, red in tooth and claw.”

And in my mind I start going around in circles like I always do, asking, “What’s the point of life?”

Some people seem to believe that the point is to be productive.  “I’m so busy!” is their refrain, as though that’s something to be proud of.  Others believe the point is to change the world for the better.  But I’ve seen so many well-intentioned do-gooders make things worse.  Is the point to live in the moment and be appreciate whatever is good and beautiful?  That seems a vapid, not productive….  Like I said, circles.

There are infinite details to figure out for the trip.  I need to get my duplex ready for the Chinese couple who are renting it while I’m away. And figure out how will I meet up with my sister in law’s parents to retrieve my nephew when the time comes.  And how do I buy tickets for a baseball game?  My nephew would love that. Must remember to register with the State Department.  Would it be worth going to Yokohama, where my dad was a sailor with the US Navy before I was born?  Should I get travel insurance?  What kind of gift should I bring for the in laws?  Japanese gift giving is fraught with peril.

And what is the deal with the baths?  Are they for health?  To get clean?  To socialize?  To relax?  There are so many types, and so many rules.  This CNN video clip about Japanese baths features Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who quips, “Having to say a prayer before you do something?  Makes me a little nervous.”

Broken Links

There are a few good things about being present as someone dies.

1) You encounter caring and professional people in the nurses and other caregivers.  It’s easy to feel cynical about everything in the world these days, so interacting with compassionate people who know their stuff was restorative.

2) You get to spend a lot of time with family and friends.  How often do you get to spend days with your relatives?  This may be some people’s worst nightmare, but I enjoyed and found comfort in it.

My cousin Molly, my mom, and I spent an afternoon going through old family photos.  There was this gem:

“Who is he?” I asked my mom.  “He looks like a US Marshall, or maybe a wild west sheriff.”

“He’s a … food … he’s … uh … oh darn it!” said my mom helplessly.  She’s always had learning disabilities but since she had a stroke she has found it more and more difficult to get her words out.  It’s called aphasia.

From her hospital bed, my aunt croaked, “That’s our grandpa, William Dudley.  He’s the one who got the letter from a London solicitor about the Dudley inheritance.”

“The Dudley Inheritance” is family lore that was newsworthy enough to be chronicled in the St. Paul newspaper.  William, a hapless, dirt-poor farmer, received a letter from a London solicitor informing him he had inherited £500,000.  He went to London—no small undertaking—but the story goes that he had to return because World War I broke out.  He would never talk about it later.

“But he returned in 1911,” I said, as I Googled “world war i, dates” on my phone.  “World War I didn’t start until 1914.”

It was probably a scam, and I would love to know more about how it was perpetrated.  In 1911 there was no Internet.  How did the “London solicitors” find William, and why did they target him?  He didn’t have any money to scam.

“After the farm failed, he moved to St. Paul and was a health inspector,” my aunt continued. “That’s when that photo was taken.  It wasn’t much of a job.  He had to live with us.”

“Poor grandpa,” my mom said mournfully. “He died in our house.  He had cancer, and Daddy used to take us out for walks at night to get us away from the sound of his screaming.  He was in agony.  We could still hear his screams a block away.”

I diverted the conversation.  “This is cool!”

It was the naturalization papers of the Ur Dudley, Robert, who immigrated to America in 1854.

“He had ‘to renounce all allegiance to any prince, potentate …’” I read aloud.

“I love that word, potentate,” Molly said.

“… in particular ‘Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.’”

A few days later, I was going through more family papers with my mom.  “Who was John Geisen?” I asked her, handing over a marriage certificate.

“John Geisen … Jacob?  That was Daddy Jake.  No, it was … Joe?  John?  Oh, I don’t know!” she hissed in frustration.  “I can’t remember it all.”

By this time my aunt was still breathing but had spoken her last words.  The last person who knew the answers to the family history questions was gone.

My poor mother.  She’s the last sibling standing.  When I called to relate the funeral details, I had to repeat them over and over. Her abilities are especially strained when she’s tired or stressed.

“My penmanship is terrible now,” she said, exasperated.  “The funeral is at night?”

“No, mom, at eleven in the morning,” I said.

“At night … no, morning … 10 o’clock?”

“No, eleven o’clock.”

“Oh, Jesus H. Mary!” she exclaimed.

My mother never swears except for the occasional “shit.”  I have no idea what Jesus H. Mary means except that she was at the end of her rope and it provided some comic relief to Molly and me.

Speaking of comic relief, here is my favorite Japanese hotel website so far.

 

I’m afraid it’s hard to read, but I did not book here.  Since one must indicate one’s gender when reserving a Japanese hotel room, I was afraid my reservation might signal an unhealthy interest in the “multifunctional shower heads popular with female guests.”

Good Bye

It’s been a month since my last post.  I was going to get back into regular writing about travel—specifically my upcoming month in Japan—but life intervened.

Two nights ago I felt my aunt’s wrist and neck for a pulse while she took her last breaths.

She chose to start hospice services after a year of chemo, radiation, and immunotherapy didn’t cure her cancer but only stripped everything out of her life that made it worthwhile—she stopped reading, attending ladies lunches, knitting, and over-posting on Facebook.

And so a month ago a nurse and an aide started coming to her home once a week, then twice, then 3-4 times, and in the end it was every day plus a private carer.

My cousin Molly, who lives nearby, was there almost 24/7; her brother came from Madison and stayed for the last 10 days. My sister and I made the one-hour drive every other day and alternated overnights.

After two weeks, a hospital bed was installed in the livingroom.  She gradually stopped eating and drinking.  As the pain advanced she receded.  Tylenol and oxycodone were bolstered with morphine and fentanyl.  I know there’s an opioid epidemic, but believe me if you are dying and in pain they are miracle drugs.  She had said she preferred to be lucid over being drugged-up, but that’s easy to say in the beginning.

As her conscious moments became fewer, I admired her practicality and acceptance.  There was no drama, philosophizing, or protesting.  I think I might be a quivering mass, crying and pissed off and asking, “Why! Why?”

She suffered anxiety as death neared—who wouldn’t?  But it was manifested in physical restlessness, and for that there was another drug, and yet another drug for nausea.  She would have hated that other people were performing functions for her that she could not—like applying balm to her lips and swabbing the inside of her mouth.

One of the hardest things was hearing other people cry, like my aunt’s 80-year-old cousin, a former cop.

Molly, on whom the lion’s share of the care had fallen, found inner resources to do things she had sworn she would never do.  We all did.  It takes a village to help someone leave this life.

When our anguish over her suffering peaked, we would consult a brochure provided by the hospice team.   Turns out, dying is a predictable process—except for the timeline.

At the last moment, I had turned off the oxygen pump that had been producing a steady kah-khoosh … kah-koosh soundtrack.  My cousins and I were standing in the kitchen talking about who would want such-and-such household items: the memorabilia from my aunt and uncle’s long careers at a private college, the cut-glass pickle boat, the bisque statuette of a shepardess who had stood on the mantel for decades.  We managed to laugh a bit, probably from sheer exhaustion.

Suddenly we realized she wasn’t breathing.  We watched, frozen, as seconds ticked by.  She gasped and inhaled.  We moved to her bedside and I took her wrist, then felt her neck for a pulse.  She took a few more breaths, then stopped.  I wanted to cry out, “Don’t go!” but my boy cousin was saying, “It’s okay mom, you can go now.”  And of course he was right.

These thoughts run through my head: “She was 89, she lived a good life.  She was your aunt, not your mother.  This shouldn’t hit you so hard.”

But our families grew up three houses apart.  My aunt and mother shared a job for a while and alternated child care. We ran in and out of each other’s houses and went to the same schools. As an adult, I drove up to spend a night or two with my aunt and uncle and cousin on a regular basis.

During her “wave of energy” (see booklet), I told her I had always appreciated how I was able to just be myself around them.  She said, “You’ve been like a second daughter to me.”  I didn’t’ say it but I thought, You haven’t been like a mother to me.  You’ve been a great aunt. 

Never underestimate your value as an aunt or uncle or cousin.

Australia Bound

Twelve hours from now, I will be in Los Angeles waiting for my flight to Sydney. Sydney is 13 hours ahead of LA, and the flight is 15 hours long, so that means in theory I will try to stay awake as long as possible and then sleep the second half, so I will be somewhat rested when I arrive in Australia at 7:30am.

If Lynn is reading this she is probably laughing, because she knows I can barely stay up past 9pm.  But I have been slowly moving my bedtime forward in anticipation of this trip, and last night I was awake until 1:30am—probably for the first time since I was a teenager.

I downloaded an app called Timeshifter that claims to help people shift their wake/sleep schedules ahead of long-haul trips.  I just couldn’t bear the thought of staying indoors with the blinds drawn to block out the sun during the day, and drinking coffee at 3:00 in the morning.  So I deleted the app and concocted a do-it-yourself program. I’m not great at math so I may have it all backwards. I fully expect to get no sleep on the plane and arrive completely exhausted.

As is my habit—and I recommend this to anyone—I use a big trip as a deadline to really get in shape so I will have energy and strength for lifting and pulling bags and walking everywhere—and staying awake.  For the last seven weeks I set a goal for myself to swim for 45 minutes once a week, bike 20 miles a week, lift weights twice, do yoga twice, and walk two or three times.  I am happy to report I stuck to this plan so now I can let myself go.

Yesterday after work I went for a swim even though I Really Did Not Want To.  I am still a crap swimmer.  I have no endurance; rare is the instance I can do the crawl for a full pool length. I always tell myself, “It’s okay to go slow” but that gives me the sensation I am sinking.  So then I flail and thrash about and am soon winded.  I do a half dog paddle, half crawl the rest of the way, gasping for breath.

Which brings me to the What Ifs.  What if my lousy swimming is due to having undiagnosed lung cancer?  As usual, I think about all the possible things that could go wrong before or during a big trip.  This is not helped by the half dozen comments I’ve received from well-meaning people warning me about crocodiles, sharks, and poisonous things in the desert.

What about you?  Would you rather be attacked by a shark or a croc?  I’d take a shark any day.  I think it would be a quick death, whereas crocs pull you under water while you’re still alive and munch on you at their leisure.  Plus, you can punch or kick a shark and maybe they’ll back off, or at least that’s the lore.

But my mind is not limited to savage wild animal attacks.  What if I stub my toe and break it today, and the doctor says I cannot fly with a broken bone?    What if someone hacks into my bank accounts while I’m camping in the desert and cleans me out?  What if someone breaks into my house while I’m away and steals…my plants or my 10-year-old TV?

Most dreaded of all: What if my flight turns into another Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?

While all this is whirling around in my head I will carry on doing what needs to be done, including putting my plants in the bathtub so they’ll live without me for a month, fishing the goldfish out of the backyard pond and delivering them to a neighbor who has a year-round pond, calling my mother, going for a walk, packing, unplugging all my appliances, and cleaning out my car because I am renting it to someone while I’m gone.

What an exciting life I lead!  I really am fortunate.  Even if the plane does go into a death spiral over French Polynesia, I will have had a fantastic time up until then.

A Great Life and a Rainy Ghost

It was my turn to go into London and spend the day with Heidi.  I wanted to visit the Churchill War Rooms, which are an underground complex near Parliament that are operated by the Imperial War Museum.  Heidi had already been there, or wasn’t interested, I can’t remember—so we planned to meet at the Houses of Parliament for a tour at 2pm.

I bought tickets online for both places which enabled me to breeze past the block-long line of suckers hoping to get in to the Churchill rooms.  There’s a reason they control the number of people who enter.  These were the underground bunkers where Churchill and his team lead the war effort, and so they are dark and cramped.  I was only inside for a couple hours and I felt claustrophobic.  I can’t imagine spending days and nights down there—breathing in thick cigar smoke and hearing bombs falling overhead.

Winston Churchill was complicated.  He was born into wealth—at Blenheim Palace, near Oxford, where I had enjoyed many long walks on the pleasure grounds.  He joined the army, was captured in South Africa during the Second Boer War, and made a movie-script-like escape.  He was elected Prime Minister and indisputably led the nation through World War II with world-famous speeches with lines like:

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

“… we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.”

World War II—and the US making England repay every penny we contributed to support them during the war—and lots of other factors, broke the Empire. The official end wouldn’t be until 1997, when they turned Hong Kong over to China, but many would argue that it really ended with decolonization/independence of India, Malaysia, Singapore, Jamaica, Sudan, Ghana, Kenya, Jordan/Israel/Palestine, and many, many others after the war and into the 60s.

Churchill opposed Indian independence on paternalistic grounds—the Indians needed the British to get them organized.  If Ghandi went on another hunger strike, he said, they should let him die.  When Churchill was elected PM a second time, he had a front-row seat for the Empire’s dismantling. He lived to be 90 despite being—famously—a chain cigar smoker and heavy drinker.

I feel so inadequate when I write these posts about which hundreds of books have been written and dozens of movies and TV shows made … go see the film that’s just out now, called Churchill.  All I can do is repeat my caveat that I am not a history professor, although sadly I think I could play one on TV.  I am just a curious person traveling around, learning a bit here and there, and forgetting most of it by dinner time.

One thing I can say with certainty: the War Rooms have a really good cafeteria and gift shop.  After spending time and money in both I emerged into the rainy street.

I had hours to kill before meeting Heidi.  I opened my souvenir Wimbledon umbrella and fought my way through the crowds to the Houses of Parliament bookstore, where I bought more stuff which forced me to carry more bags.

I made my way to Victoria Tower Gardens, a quiet park on the west side of Parliament, and gazed out over the Thames through the rain.

Suddenly I felt something like an electric zing.  I have few photos of my father.  Being here triggered a memory of a black and white photo of him standing in this exact place with his umbrella open, 50 years ago.