Posted by Jeanne Munn Bracken
The title words by John Donne, written four centuries ago (I looked it up) have been in my mind lately. We mystery lovers deal with, wallow in, foster death in many ways--with humor, with tragedy, with a certain "he deserved it" hubris.
Real death, though, when it comes, is not usually humorous, is sometimes tragic, and is hardly ever deserved.
Real death has visited me lately. My 67-year-old brother-in-law died just before Christmas of a disease that could get him in the textbooks. He was a gregarious fellow, and in his final days his hospital room was so lively that the staff started calling it "the party room." Streams of people wanted to say goodbye: fellow Shriners, Masons, church friends, neighbors, and a passel of relatives from New England and as far away as Arizona. He, and they, were lucky.
Uncle Charlie died a week or so ago; he wasn't my uncle and I never met him, but he was a favorite relative of my good friend Nancy, so I felt like I knew him. The doctor who diagnosed his virulent form of cancer gave him six months. Refusing treatments that would not cure him, Charlie died at home with friends a few days later while relatives kept vigil nearby or in their distant homes.
Aunt Grace, aged 91, is quietly slipping away in a homelike setting in the town where she has lived for at least the last 60 years. Her sons agree that her newly broken hip should not lead to surgery, and she is being kept comfortable. It won't be long, I think.
These are the good deaths. Bad deaths might involve violence, might be untimely, or might just be unexpected, not to say pain-wracked or needlessly prolonged.
Rather than the deaths, though, what I've been thinking about are the lives that led up to the final moments. My brother-in-law had family and lots of friends. Uncle Charlie and Aunt Grace, ditto. They had support systems, built up with lives of love and caring about other people. They did not have the misfortune to outlive or alienate all their friends, neighbors and relatives in their final years.
I have spent a lot of time helping two women who have not been so lucky. I met both as library patrons, twenty years or more apart. The first lady completely cut herself off from all relatives and whatever friends she might have had. I spent so many hours driving her around to shopping and doctor appointments that my family threatened to disown both of us. I went with her to court when she was summonsed for a competency hearing, and I visited her in several locked facilities afterward. I haven't been in touch for a couple of years now, but as far as I know, she's still a resident of a secure facility in another part of the state.
The second lady's slim support system crashed when her only congenial neighbor moved away and her good friends died. She has relatives in a nearby state but never built a local network in 30 years in the same house. Instead of taking down our Christmas tree, I spent four hours on Sunday at a rehabilitation center trying to convince her that she is not well enough to go to her own home, where she lives alone and isolated. When she stubbornly refused to see reason, she was shunted to another facility for a competency evaluation. I had no reason for optimism that the results would please her.
Neither of these ladies has children. Neither of these ladies did any of the legal things that would ease their passing. Neither has a living will, a recent will of any kind, or any designated, trusted friends to help them. Neither has a religious tradition or a social network built through neighborly and friendly acts. Both are about 90 years old and both are unlikely to live much longer. Both had to scramble to find simple assistance and finally turned to a friendly librarian for help.
My mother is only a couple of years younger than these women, but she has family and church and others to help her. Living in a secluded rural area, she has been lucky with neighbors and passers-by on occasion. People care about her because she has cared about others for almost 88 years.
When my time comes, and I hope it won't be any time soon, I expect to have support to ease my passing. That's not why I've built up a network of writers, neighbors, church community, relatives, bloggers, crit groups, and, yes, librarians--I made friends because they fill my life now. If I fall and can't get up (the event that tossed both of these women into living limbo), I trust that my friends and family will be near.
Because the wise John Donne also wrote, four centuries ago, "No man is an island."