Mar 24, 2009

Doin' the Right Thing

My step-mother died last week, on a cold Saturday afternoon, in western Kansas, at age 78, after a long illness which she nearly wore out (She managed to survive almost 20 years with a vicious respiratory bacteria that was supposed to take her down in five.). Her death has affected me in ways I would not have anticipated.

You can't be near death without thinking about mortality; your own and that of your friends and family. When you are thinking about mortality and the meaning of life, others notice and you end up in conversations that are a ways outside of the usual small talk. For instance, after offering condolences, two of the guys I work with began talking about the death and deterioration of their own family members. After a bit, the topic landed on Alzheimer's and the effects they had witnessed.

A grandfather who went slowly into dementia: at first, he had trouble recognizing his grandson when he would visit. Later, he didn't recognize him at all. He'd try to hide it by quickly entering into casual conversation, "What kinda car are you driving now?" He'd go on about cars, the weather, and such until, finally, his curiosity got the better of him and he'd ask, "So who are you, sonny?"

"I'm your grandson. I'm Scotty, Bill's kid."

"Oh. Hmmm. So what kinda car are you driving now."

And back around the loop he would go until, he'd ask for the identification of his visitor, followed by another car inquiry.

An aunt went into dementia angrily. When she first began to lose her memory and current status consciousness, she thought people were playing tricks on her. She'd accuse whoever was closest of moving her things, of turning on or off lights behind her, and, later, of putting drugs in her food so that she'd pass out and lose track of days and weeks. Eventually, she settled into a sullen, constant scowl and barely snarled at old friends and family who would visit. In the end, she was a catatonic who looked out at the world with an expression that was pure hate.

The three of us decided we don't want to go like that. To lighten up the conversation, we each picked a final exit strategy. The guy with the forgetful grandfather wants to die in his sleep. The guy with the cranky aunt decided he'd rather die awake, but in bed with someone half his age. I've had a favorite Colorado mountain hairpin turn, edged by a several thousand foot drop, picked out for my final missed corner since sometime in the mid-1990s.

Sinking into our individual foul moods, we jabbered on for a while about how disappointing it is to be getting old and creaky. Someone made a crack about aging drivers and their vanishing skills and how that solves a lot of "how do I want to die" questions. One of us mentioned the notion that a lot of wrinkling Baby Boomers seem to be finding ways to end up on a slab after trying out some X-games style sport or machinery.

I sort of bailed out of the conversation at that point and started meditating on my own experience with aging characters in my MSF classes. I remembered seeing some recent weird statistics that indicated that twenty-five and under males have almost exactly the same disdain for safety equipment as do the sixty-and-over geezer crowd. Both groups "rarely wear" helmets or upper or lower body armored riding gear and have some strong opinions about those who do.

It suddenly struck me that I've been bashing a fine old American company for doing a public service. They cater to a specialized crowd of aging folks who have an image to project and self-image to preserve, right up the final moment of life. Like my friends, they don't want to die drooling on themselves in a wheelchair. They want to go out in a bang! With their marketing and their products, Harley Davidson has been trying to serve the most precious interests of their special market and I've been knocking them for their effort.

I officially apologize for the misunderstanding.

5 comments:

  1. Tom,


    Condolences on the loss of your step-mother. Your column was wonderful. Insightful, meaningful, and at the end, very funny. One of your best.


    Thanks.


    Andy Goldfine
    Aero Design & Manufacturing Company Inc.
    Aero Dist. / Aerostich Tours / Aerostich-Riderwearhouse

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  2. You really do have some personal issues with Harley Davidson don't you? I thought you were finally going to get off your anti-HD soapbox for once, until I got down to the last sentence of the piece. You're root dislike is probably for the types of people that are attracted to that culture, rather than the machine or company itself. I don't suppose anyone goes out on one of them 200hp / 200mph Japanese or Italian bikes though, do they ? I would guess more go out on those bikes than the HD's. Who needs to go that fast anyway (on public streets) ? PK

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  3. Tom,

    Remember hearing recently about the case in which a guy named Vern Gagne knocked some guy over at a nursing home, and that guy later died of complications related to a broken hip suffered in the fall?

    Both of these guys suffered from big-time dementia.

    I don’t think you were around when Vern was the total hero of Sunday morning local tv wrestling. That would have been late 50s to early 60s. The ring must have been in the local tv studio; very primitive by today’s standards. A former U of M varsity wrestler, Vern wore the white hat in the ring and was known for his terrific moves, specially the flying drop-kick. He would hawk vitamin pills, with his pitcher on the label, between the wrasslin’ matches.

    The irony that our hero Vern got himself into an Alzheimer’s-addled battle with some other old geezer at the nursing home is almost too much to bare.

    Jim

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  4. There's always the famous remark, "If I can't take it with me, I won't go".

    Also, the religious types are notably evasive about exactly what goes on in their heaven. When they do refer to the dear departed, it is as though their lives have simply continued as before and they are now to be found somewhere in the sky, incorporeally doing whatever were their favorite things in life. This is surely a contradiction in quite a few terms. If someone actually likes doing a particular thing, it's probably a sin. Because religions exist to prohibit whatever it is we'd like to be doing, Mark Twain is almost certainly right to state that the only activity taking place in the heaven is prayer.

    KC

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  5. Thanks, Andy.

    Pat,

    I am incapable of seeing Harleys and cruisers in general as anything but funny. Sorry, but you guys look ridiculous on those things.

    Jim,

    I keep hearing about miracle cures for various physical ailments, including dementia, but I keep hearing about the hawkers going senile. I think miracles are for the movies.

    Kevin,

    Mark Twain is the closest thing to a god I've ever experienced.

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