Friday, July 16, 2010


(NOTE: This summer, I am planning to work on a new collection of essays, some of which are already written, others still the glimmer in the eye, and others as yet unimagined. The essay below was recently completed, and is a likely candidate for inclusion.


I understand that I will likely have little choice in the matter, but if I did I would wish to die a conscious death. I heard one friend, quite recently, express the hope that she would die peacefully in her sleep, and there is certainly an appeal to slipping off quietly into the unknown. My own preference is to have learned sufficiently from my meditation practice to be awake and conscious enough to be able to bear witness to the moment of my death. It is, after all, one of the great experiences—the ultimate experience, really—of life itself. I would not want to miss that moment of transition if I had the chance.

I have attended two people at the moment of their death. I have watched at the deathbed of others, but was no longer at their bedside when they died. From those two, however, I learned important lessons about death and dying, and how to go about it, and I am immensely grateful to both for what they had to teach me. Both were women, and to both I was related through my marriage to Ellie. One of them died without a struggle, in peace and harmony with the world she was about to leave. The other did not, decidedly, “go gentle into that good night.”

Dorothy, Ellie’s stepmother, enjoyed enormous privileges in life, and suffered great and lasting wounds. The most severe of these, I came to believe in the course of the many years I knew her, was having been sent away from home for almost all of her formative years. She was born in Vienna, the daughter of an opera singer more concerned with his career, I gathered, than with his family. Her parents separated; her mother remarried a man of significant wealth and immersed herself in the life of a New York socialite. Dorothy—“Dossy”, as she was universally known—was packed off to be raised, principally, by the family of an academic in Maine.

Dossy was an exceptionally beautiful, even stately woman, a grande dame who prided herself on observing the social proprieties—even though, as a young woman, she fell for a married man, Ellie’s father, Michael, and entered into a lasting relationship with him before Ellie came into the world. A trust fund beneficiary, she had great wealth at her disposal while she lived, but was reticent about using it. My guess is that she never really felt that it was hers—and indeed, on her death, the entire fund reverted to a family she had never known. She chose to live by her own strict code of ethics that made for sometimes difficult demands on herself, as well as on those around her. I can only imagine the humiliation and anger this woman must have felt, later in life, when the man for whom she had broken this code betrayed her and, for a while, lived separately from her. (It was at this time that she told Ellie, in a moment of brutal honesty, that her birth had been "a parting gift" to her mother!)

In language, as you might expect, Dorothy was a strict grammarian; she would return letters written to her by Ellie, as a child, with corrections in red ink. She was well able to afford maid service, and could be queenly in her treatment of those who worked for her. She had a perfectionist turn of mind that could manifest as cynicism and judgment. She was both generous and parsimonious, loving and demanding. Herself extremely intelligent, she valued the intellect above almost everything. She prided herself on her knowledge of the arts, and was at her best and brightest hosting a dinner party with prominent guests from the world of arts and letters, whose conversation skills she could admire—and match or parry with her own.

Dossy’s husband, Michael, predeceased her, and she was left a widow for a good number of years before she herself began to fall into senility—a condition complicated by the further ravages of diabetes. Aware that her mind no longer functioned as it once did, she struggled mightily against the inevitable loss of memory and the growing confusion. Having taken such pride, for so many years, in her intellectual acumen, she was unable to watch it slip away from her without despair and anger. She was unprepared for old age, and found it repugnant when she saw herself increasingly consumed by it. Unable to resist its onslaught, she fell into a remorseless internal battle that was painful to watch; debilitated and weakened by this conflict, she surrendered physically far sooner than was necessary, retreating to her bed and, as her dementia progressed, refusing more and more to leave it.

We knew, of course, when her death was imminent, but were shocked by the way in which it came. We had been sitting with her for some hours, during which she seemed to slip into a coma. Then, quite suddenly, she sat bolt upright and glared—glared is not too strong a word for the expression on her face and in her eyes—glared out for a moment, unseeing, defiant, in a kind of impotent rage, before falling back into the arms of death.

Laurie, Ellie’s birth mother, suffered equally painful wounds. As a young child, she lost her mother, who died in childbirth when her younger brother was born. Her father then expired in the arms of lover while she was still a young girl; his estate, if I have the story right, was left to be managed by a friend, later to be brought to court by Laurie and her brother, accused of mismanagement of the funds. As a young woman, Laurie plunged into the bohemian life
of a painter in Greenwich Village in the 1930s, and married a young playwright, Michael, Ellie’s father--and the son of the very man who was later the object of her lawsuit. A tangled web, indeed, had begun to ravel...

Lured by the financial rewards of the screenwriter’s trade, Michael brought his wife west in the late 1930s, where their two daughters were raised. Soon dazzled by the glamour of his Hollywood agent (Dorothy, see above,) he left the family to be with her when Ellie was five years old, and her sister, Susie, seven. Laurie, then, suffered another traumatic abandonment—and one from which she never fully recovered in the course of her long life. Her interests as an artist turned to ceramic sculpture and this, along with her teaching, became her avocation for the many years she had yet to live. She remarried very much later in life—in her mid-eighties!—with a man who had been her faithful and attentive companion for decades; and then only, we understood, as an estate-planning strategy.

Perhaps as a result of her childhood deprivation, Laurie combined a curious mix of dependence and independence. On the one hand, she had an almost child-like need to be taken care of; on the other, she took good care of herself. She nurtured a bohemian streak that led her into a multitude of what, in those years, many would consider off-beat health practices, from yoga to Bach flower therapy, from daily eye and breathing exercises to the Alexander Technique. For years, she would travel every summer to Switzerland, where she would treat herself to the luxury of the expert body pampering available at the Bircher-Benner clinic.

She lived on into her nineties, maintaining her studio and her teaching practice until only weeks before she died. And when the time came, she refused to be hurried out. It simply became clear that her body was slowing down, and she was helped off to bed where she lay, quietly and patiently for two weeks, slipping off more and more into some netherworld where she was neither entirely here, nor entirely gone. Even after it seemed that her consciousness had left us, she proved capable of rallying; knowing that there was unfinished business between mother and daughter, I spoke to her at one point to remind her that her daughter, Ellie, still needed assurance of her love; and, though her eyes remained closed and her head in a seeming daze, we watched in amazement and awe as her hand reached out from under the bedcovers and came to rest, in a kind of blessing, on Ellie’s heart.

It took those two full weeks to die. She just kept slowing down, until she stopped. At the very end, we were counting the seconds of the longer and longer intervals between her breaths until… the next one simply never came. At that very moment, Ellie looked out through the bedroom, across the lawn to Laurie’s studio, and saw a white dove flutter up into the sky. Her mother was gone. I feel privileged and humbled by the experience of having watched these two women die. Each death seemed like a confirmation of what I have come to understand about karma, the Buddhist concept of how our actions bring about results that are inevitably consistent with those actions. In life, Dorothy was inquiring, intellectually combative, intolerant of not-knowing; she died resistant, unwilling to surrender. Laurie was acquiescent, internal, cocooned; she allowed death to enter without fanfare or drama. Like the dove ascending from the roof of her studio, that spirit part of her seemed to just lift gently from the body, leaving it cold and empty, useless and abandoned, a prison she was finally able to escape.

There is much about me that is more like Dorothy than Laurie. Indeed, of the two women, I found it much easier to get along with Dorothy while they were alive. If I were able to choose my death, however, it’s clear to me which one I would prefer. Laurie modeled a way to die that I consider dignified and enviable. Given my choice, I choose her way—along, perhaps, with a little more consciousness of the moment. But then, who knows what clarity she was granted in this most mysterious of all human events.


Sebouh said...

This is beautiful.

mandt said...

Superb story telling Peter.....wonderful. And, I thought the history of the Baekelands was terrible.

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks. Good to be read--and heard!

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks. Good to be read--and heard!

Anonymous said...

Michael said...

Hi Peter, how fortunate to have know two such wonderful women. Death a mystery? How about the mystery of life itself and what is death? The end? There's a mystery for us! For we just do not know what happens! My dad and I used to have long long conversations with speculation of every kind, but we always ended up confessing " it's a mystery". I never discovered the mystery why in his last few years he had a burning desire to die despite being at peace and no pain. Michael

mandt said...

I keep coming back to this piece, not only for its luxuriant expression and magnificent portraits, but at heart it asks that so intimate of questions about the line of death, we all think of in our most private moments....then, I ran across these lines and at once thought of your writing: "---No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart ache. By the o'ergrowth of some complexion, Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason.
What is he whose grief bears such an emphasis? Whose phase of sorrow conjures the wandering stares and makes them stand like wonder-wounded heroes? This is "I."