Waiting for death, alone and unafraid
The silence of night never lasts long. It ends somewhere in the 5 o’clock hour with the purring of the heater and distant strains of Sam Cooke.
Edwin Shneidman looks at the clock -- an hour and a half since turning off the TV and closing his eyes.
“Mrs. Wiggles,” he shouts. He knows that that’s not her name, but he likes the joke.
Sitting in another room, Pauline Dupuy turns down the CD player and puts her Bible and crossword aside. She stands and walks down the hall into his room.
“My knee hurts.”
“Would you like a pain pill?”
“Tramadol or Vicodin?”
“I don’t care.”
He lies on the side of the bed, sleepy, unshaven, his hair mussed. He never asked to live to be 90, to see the breadth of his life diminished, the allure of the world fallen further out of reach. He is ready to die.
All his life he has studied this moment -- from those who killed themselves and those who tried, from philosophers and colleagues, students and intimates -- and its lessons hold no real surprise.
Today will be the same as yesterday, the same as tomorrow, every day a waiting and a hoping for a good death, a death without suffering.
He lives alone but for the company of caregivers in the house that he and his wife bought more than 50 years ago, alone to consider the meaning of his life and the niche he has secured for himself in the memory of the world.
He looks up. Vernette Elijio greets him with a smile and rubs the top of his head. It’s 7 a.m., the changing of the guard. She will be with him for the next 12 hours. Dressed in a long white sleep shirt, he looks like a character from Dickens. She helps him on with his plaid robe, and he shuffles to the chair at the side of the bed.
His four boys call often. They love him, but they live out of state. Of course, he excuses them. If they lived closer, he knows he would take advantage of them.
Vernette fits the blood pressure cuff over his left arm. The room vibrates with the noise of the pump and then, silence, broken by the steady beep tracking his pulse.
He is not afraid of death. He has studied it all his life: 1955-66, co-founder and co-director of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center; 1966-69, chief of the National Institutes of Mental Health’s Center for Studies of Suicide Prevention; 1970-88, professor of thanatology at UCLA.
“133 over 90,” she says. “It’s a little high.”
People often ask him what the end is like. The answer is simple: You’re driving down a road in the desert, and the engine suddenly stops, no Pep Boys, no Auto Club to help. Whether the road continues is of no consequence. It has ended for you.
His parents’ lives ended here in Los Angeles. They are buried in Beth Israel Cemetery, close to the 5 and 710 interchange, half a world away from the czarist shtetls of Ukraine, where they were born.
He will be buried somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, at Eden Memorial Park, Row 722, Grave A or B -- he’s not quite sure -- there beside his wife, Jeanne, “Beautiful, Bright, Loving, Serene.” His epitaph will be as succinct: “Lucky, Bright, Loving, Ambitious.”
No one has to die, he is fond of saying; it will be done for you. It’s living, however, that takes effort -- to weather the sleeplessness and worry, the relinquishing of pride, the dependency upon strangers, the plea for respect and the struggle to remember.
There is the vulnerability, as well. Charm, a ribald sense of humor, tears and anger have been a defense, but they don’t always work. Last year he was robbed by a caregiver who forged his checks.
Vernette brushes the middle finger of his right hand with an alcohol wipe. He trusts her.
She places a needle against the soft skin. He winces, the price of checking his glucose level, and it pricks him.
She squeezes a small drop of blood into the meter.
The reading is high, slightly hyperglycemic, but his body turned on him long ago -- hypertension, diabetes, congestive heart failure and prostate cancer. The end will come no doubt as the result of an acute cardiovascular event when the plaque in his arteries shifts like grains of sand, suddenly blocking a coronary or carotid artery.
He fears a stroke most of all, that this life might be reduced to gibberish or silence.
Actuarial tables say that he can expect to live 3.8 more years, but calculating the time and the place of one’s death is not easy and never accounts for the uncertainty that any new ache or pain might bring. There is no knowing. In the next minute he might draw his last conscious breath.
He has considered buying a revolver and bullets. But that is only a fantasy. Suicide would be unseemly, given his lifelong work. Too many complications for the boys.
Jeanne was lucky. It was a Monday evening, almost eight years ago. She screamed, and by the time he got to her, she was dead, cardiopulmonary arrest. According to the autopsy report, “the interval between onset and death” was minutes.
That was a good death but also the start of his darkest night, the months, the years of the steady pain of not holding her in the crook of his arm gazing, as they did, upon the Chagall he placed on the ceiling above the bed, Romeo and Juliet floating through a pastel sky.
You can’t experience your own death, he has always said; your death is for others to experience.
He thought he might have had his chance to die two years ago when his blood pressure shot up to 205 over 91 and his pulse plummeted to 48. As he lay in the back of the ambulance, he stared through the transparent ceiling at the sky and watched the world pass by.
He expected everything to go dark, and when they pulled into the bay of the UCLA Medical Center, he started to cry, knowing that the doctors would save him. Forty-eight hours later, a pacemaker and a cocktail of Lasix, Lotensin and Lipitor made sure of that.
Growing up in Lincoln Heights in the 1920s, he found happiness alone, curled up in his parent’s 1910 mahogany bed. That was a great white billowy ship, and there he listened to Caruso, Geraldine Farrar, Mozart and Beethoven on the Victrola and read the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
What worlds he sailed to, far beyond their rented home in the Italian quarter of Lincoln Heights, far beyond his father’s dry goods store. This was what his parents expected. They became his sacrificial bridge into America, and to this day, he regrets the shame he felt over their manner and accents.
“Did the mail come?” It is almost noon.
“No. Not yet.”
Yesterday was a good day for the mail. He received a tin of tea from an old friend and a book of photographs from Judy Collins. Four years ago she visited him to talk about the suicide of her son, and she wept right there on the back porch.
It often goes that way. Someone hears about him or reads one of his books and then calls or writes. He’s happy to oblige. The stream of visitors to his house is nearly constant. He is their Charon, the ferryman who shuttled souls across the River Styx.
Still he feels undeserving. Through no skill of his own he stumbled upon this profession one damp drizzly morning in the late 1940s when he drove downtown to research the death of two veterans. In the basement of the coroner’s offices, he discovered hundreds of suicide notes, the language of despair and hopelessness, and he devoted his life to deciphering it.
Death is destroyer and redeemer . . . the source of fear, the focus of taboo, the occasion of poetry, the stimulus for philosophy. . . .
Those were his words 36 years ago, so vigorous, so purposefully stated in “Deaths of Man.” At 54, he took on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: The end of life isn’t, as she proposed, defined by a succession of stages, one following the other, denial to acceptance, but instead a “nexus of emotions . . . a hive of affect, in which there is a constant coming and going.”
It was an auspicious moment. “Deaths” was a finalist for a National Book award in science. He was celebrated and feted. But the momentum faltered. Placing mental anguish in a social, cultural or familial context fell out of vogue. Prescribing pills became easier.
His twentieth book, “A Commonsense Book of Death,” was published last year. He hopes for a place on the shelf beside his heroes -- Emile Durkheim, Herman Melville, psychiatrist Karl Menninger and his dear friend and mentor, psychologist Henry Murray -- but he knows his life will be redefined by death, his words distorted or forgotten.
No different really than the day the children will empty everything out -- Jeanne’s sheet music, his many books -- and this home, this sanctuary sprung up on a postwar bean field with its blue shutters and Dutch front door, will be sold to strangers.
In death, things become mere things -- the statue of Venus in the backyard, the gyotaku print in the kitchen, the Melville-inspired shadow boxes -- no longer animated by memory, the story of their provenance. It is as if their atoms loosen and dissipate.
The meaning of death is loss and sadness and inevitability. On the wall above the bed, he has hung a print by Breughel that covers a crack in the plaster. Here an army of skeletons wages war against humanity, and compared to the Chagall overhead, it’s a bleak and macabre picture of the final hour that without angels or signs of salvation is unremittingly godless.
The other day Vernette said he was blessed. True enough, he thought, but not quite right, not blessed. On a napkin on the TV tray he scribbled down the Greek prefix, eu, for good, and then through association and sound, fell upon doria. This is what he does. He coins words, and this would be the word for his good fortune. Eudoria. He spoke it out loud: gratitude without an object, no one to credit, no one to thank. No Jesus, no Yahweh, Muhammad, Vishnu or Buddha.
Because he believes life isn’t contingent upon a god or upon prayers. There is no heaven, no hell. Happiness lies in the here and now and the satisfaction of living a good life without religion or myth to guide you. He takes nothing away from others’ beliefs. He just prefers “Moby-Dick” to the Bible.
Death is quite simple. Life is more mysterious, and he never tires of its wonderments: How he -- a Jew at that -- survived the war, how he and a girl from the corn country of Illinois fell in love and married and had four children and such a long and happy life.
By midafternoon after a lunch of soup and a visit with friends, he is ready to lie down. Vernette stands close as he makes his way back to the bed. Sometimes he wonders if he is playing at being a tired old man or whether he actually is a tired old man.
Through the blur of his dozing, he hears muffled voices, the memory of the boys running from room to room, the happiest sound in the world. There was a time when he could hear Jeanne breathing beside him after she had died.
Outside, the ash trees throw their empty limbs into the sky. Gardeners tidy up the edges of green lawns. Teenagers walk home from school. Nannies push baby strollers down the sidewalk.
He would like to die in his sleep, and he would like there to be music. Beethoven’s Romance No. 2 would be fine.
The phone is ringing. He picks up the receiver. It’s his eldest son, David.
“Hello, dear man,” he says.
The phone rings again. This time it’s his youngest, Robert.
He carefully walks over to his chair by the bed and turns on the television.
It’s 7:30 p.m. Vernette has left. The heater is purring. The lights are on. Pauline comes into the bedroom.
“Is there anything you’d like?” she asks.
“Yes,” he says. “A cup of coffee -- and then I can take my pills.”
The night stretches before him with so many endless hours, and sleep will come, if at all, in the early dawn. Until then, there is some writing he would like to do.
Visit a slide show and narration by Edwin Shneidman.