Learning to Die #2: practicum


We tremble, thinking we are about to dissolve
into nonexistence, but nonexistence
fears even more that it might be given human form.
Rumi trans. Coleman Barks

In the first post (see link above) called Learning to Die, I explained the choice of title, which I appropriated from Roy Scranton’s book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene and why I had used it. I mentioned the quotation from Simone Weil, who said a soldier’s future was to die. Then I considered how we civilians are having to live at present and how as a six-year-old I almost died.

In fact, 3 of the 4 children in my family unit wavered initially. The youngest, my brother arrived two months early after my mother fell down stairs. He weighed 4 lbs. 8 oz before preemie ICUs. Sent home to die, said Mom and handed me his bottle. My nearest sister, 6-years younger, nearly died of croup at 2 weeks. “The doctor said to feed her when she cried. It didn’t matter. She wouldn’t live.” I tried to choke to death around the same age. My grandmother hauled me out into the cold mountain air, held me upside down and walloped me hard on the back. Whoa! And I was so enjoying that little flight. Away. Only my second sister seems to have had no early trauma, but made up for it later.

When I was six, my mother found me covered in blood on my bed and started screaming. This was different from the wailing she had been doing about my baby sister dying of croup. Which I had caused by bringing home my snotty-nosed friend to see my beloved new baby sister. Now I had been punished, but if something wasn’t done, she was going to lose both children at a blow. So my unconscious little body got shoved into the backseat of the Model A and my father set off in the pitch dark over the 35-mile gravel road back home to the Hill. He was crying and praying and cussing. He kept reaching behind to touch my body, but actually I was sitting beside him in the front seat. I was very cross and wanted badly to hurt him back. On the other hand, I had never seen him so upset. “Don’t die, Joycey, don’t die,” he begged. I hadn’t decided.

Aunt Mae’s house was back in under the mountain, on the old farm. Mae was waiting on the porch in a barn coat, her face grim. “What have you done now, boy?” she said as she took me into her arms. He started to explain. “You get your worthless hide outa here before I get the bullwhip,” she said. “Aunt Mae,” he pleaded, “can’t I even get a drink of water?” “You know where it is,” she said. “And I’ll need two more pailfuls for the boiler. Get them from the spring. Then make yourself scarce and don’t come back til I send you word.” “Will she live?” he said as he dumped the last pail in the stove. “She’ll live if God wills it and I believe He does. She is His child.” That was a hint, I thought hovering around the kerosene lamp in the wall bracket. She means I’m not his.

I began to come back into my pain-wracked body. I was in very hot, salty water in a round tin tub next the stove. The fire was roaring. I had a sort of tent of quilts over me, my head poking through a slit. Mae was busy topping up the hot water. “Tomorrow, we’ll do another sitz bath with herbs and flowers. That’s a German word, you know -sitz. Didn’t know I could speak German did you? It’ll come in handy when Hitler gets here.” And she burst into a cackle. “Don’t you worry your little head, the Lord Jesus is here and He loves us. He’s keeping out those Huns. That’s the old word from the old war. Huns. Now here, have some more of this milk and honey.” I swallowed it down. It was really sweet and it seemed to make me really sleepy. Next thing I knew I was wrapped in quilts and being carried into the bedroom. “Where’ll Grandpa sleep?” For My Aunt Mae Owen had married my widowed great grandfather Bolton. “That worthless piece is off to his camp again,” she said, as she turned down the lamp.

By morning, I could mostly stay in my body. It was tempting not to. Would serve them right. But I was lured back by strange and lovely scents Aunt Mae had rubbed into the sore places.

Two weeks later, my teacher was astonished to discover I could read all the first primer and add the 1s and 2s and 3s. I had also learned that it was possible to chose to live. Against the odds.

In March of 2020, a highly contagious and lethal pandemic began racing toward us from China. It wasn’t until it reached Italy that I began to see Covid-19 for what it was. When it got bad as it seemed to do in Italy’s old people, they were rendered unconscious and placed on ventilators. They died without regaining consciousness, isolated from loved ones, and prone. Sleeping on my stomach was a form of torture to me, but dying without love seemed the opposite of a good death. (I was wrong of course. Love doesn’t have to be personal or even corporeal.) The other choice was to be administered Sister Morphine to ease the pain of drowning in lung fluids, but still alone and isolated.

I dug out my will and added a handwritten codicil eschewing ventilation. I had it witnessed by the supers on duty in my building’s office. They were puzzled. Like Roy Scranton in Baghdad in 2003, I rehearsed this death every morning. I made masks of folded men’s hankies and hair elastics. I washed my hands as I sang Amazing Grace. I shopped for groceries at 7 a.m. or ordered them to be delivered. In short, my daily review of death scared me straight. Gradually, public health began to catch up with me and I bought masks. By now whole cathedrals in Italy were lined with coffins, not to mention ice rinks. Streams of hearses drove away from hospitals.

I owe a debt to Mrs. Cuomo who had two sons, Andrew, whose daily briefings as Governor of New York kept me calm, and Chris, who got Covid but continued to broadcast for CNN from his basement. Chris was very sick, but he didn’t have to go the ventilator route and he got mostly better.

I was offended in those early days by the reassurance that Covid was nothing to worry about except for the elderly. Dan Patrick, the Lt. Governor of Texas announced that, being in his 70s, he was ready to die to keep the economy open for the younger population, as were a 100 other older people he had talked to. Like Lear, but without Lear’s irony, he implied that “Age is unnecessary”.

After an angst-ridden life, I had to sell in a down market and despite my education and profession, fell out of the home-owner, pool-owner, sailboat-owner class. But renter though I am, I am finally comfortable and more or less at peace. I’ll be damned if I’ll sacrifice these few remaining years, so the economy can flourish.

It’s a good idea to learn this lesson early. The desire to live does not diminish with age.

These days, I am asked -by friends on video call- when I will be vaccinated. I did a Toronto Star questionnaire, which said based on my age, almost 85, after Jan.1st and before May 21st. Good for a laugh. More seriously, I reply that it is irrelevant. I haven’t caught Covid in 11 months. If I were immunized, I couldn’t go anywhere anyway. Nothing is open. However, I will be there on the spot with my sleeve rolled up as soon as I get the word.

I chose almost 80 years ago to continue living a difficult life. I’d un-chose to save another life – I have refused a ventilator – but not so others can buy an Air Fryer or a Sleep Number bed.

Learning to Die: practicum continues next time with lessons in dying of cancer and old age.

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