KNOCKING ON HEAVEN’S DOOR: The Path to a Better Way of Death

KATY BUTLERknocking

Part memoir of her father’s dementia and evential death, and treatise on how we came to the situation of people dying in Intensive Care Units being kept alive at extreme costs for a few extra days or months. At 79 Butler’s father was active and enjoying retirement when he suffered a stroke. Soon after hospitalization a “discharge planner” told the family that Jeffrey had to be immediately transferred to a neurological rehabilitation facility. “Only later would I understand the rush,” Butler writes. “The hospital was losing money on him with every passing day. Out of $20,228 in services performed and billed, Medicare would reimburse Middlesex Memorial only $6,559, a lump sum based on the severity of my father’s stroke diagnosis.” A year later he recieved a pacemaker. It was a rushed decision. The heart specialist was concerned only with keeping her father’s heart pumping to keep him alive. Butler’s mother wasn’t given all the information to make an informed decision, nor was she given the time to think and consult other professionals. A team approach would have been much better. The device would keep his heart functioning even as he descended into dementia and almost total physical helplessness over the next five years. With out the pacemaker he likely would have died peacefully in his sleep after a couple of years. “On the phone with my brothers and me that winter, she cried. She loved my father. She’d vowed to be with him in sickness and in health, she told us — and who was she to think they’d escape the sickness part? He’d taken care of her for 50 years, and now it was her turn. But in ways we were only beginning to fathom, my father was no longer her husband, and she was no longer his wife.” “At 77, she had become one of 29 million unpaid, politically powerless and culturally invisible family caregivers — 9 percent of the United States population — who help take care of someone over 74.”

Butler is an excellent writer and researcher which makes this book a must read for all people who are aging or who’s parents are aging. Another excellent book on aging and death is Final Gifts.

 

MEN WE REAPED

menJESMYN WARD

“Life is a hurricane,” states Ward, for African-American people living in the south, especially the men. There is a lack of the options available, industry is in its death throes – almost one in 10 young black men are in jail and murder is the greatest killer of black men under the age of 24. When a reporter came to interview people in the building where an 18 year old man was shot in the head, one woman told the journalist she “was happy that her 14-year-old son was locked up because it was safer for him to be incarcerated than to live in the neighbourhood”. Jesmyn Ward attempts to give both humanity and context in her memoir, in which she relates the unconnected deaths in the space of just four years of five young men who were close to her. “By all the official records,” she writes, “here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing.” “That’s a brutal list in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time.”

Reaped is really a story of what it is like to grow up smart, poor, black and female in America’s deep south, Ward memories are somber and introspective. She watched her mother be both protective and disappointed in her father.  “[As a child] I saw the tight line of my mother’s mouth when my father was absent and couldn’t be accounted for … To an impressionable nine-year-old trouble for the black men of my family meant police. It was easier and harder to be male; men were given more freedom but threatened with less freedom.”

“Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach. We honor anniversaries of deaths by cleaning graves and sitting next to them before fires, sharing food with those who will not eat again. We raise children and tell them other things about who they can be and what they are worth: to us, everything. We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.”

“We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”

“Because we trusted nothing, we endeavored to protect ourselves, boys becoming misogynistic and violent, girls turning duplicitous, all of us hopeless.”

A must read. I thought about the First Nations experience here in Canada, although different there are many similarities.

WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE by JULIE OTSUKA and THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS by TAN TWAN ENG

emperorThe synchronisity of books. Divine is about the internment of Japanese-America citizens during world war two. I enjoyed the simplicity of the writing. It starts with a woman seeing a sign in a window as she was returning a book to the library. When she got home she started packing. At first the reader does not know what is happening or why. The father, who has always been a dapper man, is taken at night. Not allowed to dress he is forced to leave in his pajamas. They don’t see her husband or their father again until after the war, over three years. At first the family is housed in a converted stable in San Francisco. Later they are taken to a camp in the desert where it is hot, dry and dusty all the time. The boy, only 7 when his family is forced from its home. He passes his days in the camp playing marbles and Chinese checkers — or ”cops and robbers and war. ‘ Kill the Nazis! Kill the Japs!'” Otsuka isn’t shy about showing how the children become caught up in the anti-Japanese hysteria. She’s frank as well about the family members’ efforts to erase all trace of Japanese character or culture as they succumb to the complex shame of being falsely accused.  Before they left the mother prepared her family for departure: burying the family silver, destroying all Japanese memorabilia (kimonos, tea sets, opera records, letters from relatives in Japan), disposing of the family pets. Divine is a good book but there are several Canadian books on the same subject that are much better, for instance Obasan by Joy Kogawa.

garden-of-evening-mistsThen I picked up Evening Mists, which is about a British-Malasian woman Yun Ling Teoh who’s family was incarcerated during WWII by the Japanese. Her sister was immediately selected to be a “comfort woman”; what a horrible euphemism for a condition of repeated forced rape. One of the officers said that she was one of the lucky ones. That the comfort women in larger centres had to service many times more men. The main character worked in the kitchen and would steal left overs from officers plates. When she was caught the officer cut off two fingers from her dominant hand. Many men and women died in the camp and more came to replace them. They were digging mines. The women were carting stones away by hand to dump them. When the war ended, the guards forced all the prisoners into the mines and blew them up. Ling escaped because she had become a translator for the camp officials. After the war she set out to acutalize her sister’s dream of creating a Japanese garden. She went to the Malaysian highlands to request Aritomo, who had been the emperor’s gardener to help her build a garden for her sister. He refuses but told her he will teacher her by having her work for him in his garden. The garden called Evening Mists is where she learned about the art of borrowed scenery, “taking elements and views from outside a garden and making them integral” to the garden itself. Evening Mists was the masterpiece of Aritomo, who eventually helps heal the trauma of her imprisonment. She goes on to study law and becomes the second female judge in Malaysia. Evening Mists is a book I highly recommend.