A JOURNEY NO ONE SHOULD MAKE ALONE
by Cindy Hasz
American Reporter Correspondent
San Diego, Calif.
SAN DIEGO -- Most of us know what is meant when we say that we have had or need to have "the talk" with our kids. But there is another time to have "the talk" and this time the topic is not the birds and the bees but something that is of equal importance and which causes maybe even greater discomfort: "the talk" about death.
Not about dying. That talk, though tough, is something we still can project some emotional investment into. Many of us feel strongly about things like prolonged suffering, being helpless or unconscious and kept alive indefinitely by machines when all hope for return to a life worth living is gone. Most of us can be unequivocal about how it is we want to say good-bye to this world.
The really tough talk is about what to do with the body after the actual event is over. I have "the talk" with family members of my patients frequently and relatively easily. I am able to give the family permission it seems to admit and plan for what is coming.
There comes a time in an aged person's life when death is imminent and having such a conversation does not seem like an insult. But before the inevitable becomes as undeniable as elephants in the living room, acknowledging the gray pachyderm of death seems somehow terribly uncouth.
If not taboo, at least bad form in the extreme.
As matter of fact as I can be about death with others, talking about it with my own mother gave me the acute esophageal stricture also known as choking. I just made that up. But you get the point. One seems to have an infantile fear of Olympian thunderbolts reducing you to ashes on the spot at even the suggestion of maternal mortality. Beyond the fear is guilt; as if saying "it" means you somehow want "it" to happen, or that the grim reapers visit will be hastened by mere mention of the possibility.
Mom and I have joked about being buried in the cemetery on the hill in Santa Barbara.We remarked to each other that we wanted a plot with a view of the ocean. Yes, laughing in the face of the banshee, this was our way of warming up to the idea. Beginnings of an approach to negotiating the big one -- buying the farm. As we were only just joking, no practicality followed.
But one day recently, it got serious. Mom told me over the phone, "I'm having the man from the Neptune society over, I want to hear what he has to say." Of course, I knew she was talking cremation.
Interesting, a good Catholic girl talking cremation. I'd flirted with the idea myself. She went on, bravely I thought, to talk about sending her body back to Hudson, Mass., and hoped that one of us would accompany her. She then disclosed a family secret: Grampie was buried in the family plot there and, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, there was room for all of us!
Grammie, for whatever reason was not buried with Gramps and Mom wanted to be with him to keep him company. So I went with the moment and told her I'd be buried there too with them. Always one to take things to the ridiculous extreme, I suggested we could be put in the same pot and stirred up together and then she and I, Gramps and brother, if he so desired, could be together always. Happy in a little pot like Boston Baked Beans.
The conversation had a childlike quality to it: like when you used to make blood brothers or sisters with your best friend by a silly prick on the finger and the mixing of fresh blood creating a time-proof bond of fidelity. This happened, as I recall it, mostly in treehouses and forts and secret places where adults never came.
There was a sense of inexplicable relief to those childhood covenants and likewise to this talk of taking care of our bodies after they are cold and lifeless. Promises implicit to take care of each other until the very end. And afterwards.
Strange our culture's avoidance of death. In older times, much older times, the family always took care of preparing the body for burial. In all my years helping patients and their families with these things, only once have I seen someone stay with their loved one after death and then actually accompany the body out to be taken away.
This son had only a few minutes with his father before he died. His plane had gotten him in to town just in time to say goodbye. I will never forget how he stayed with his dad's body while we waited for the mortuary to come. But the most powerful thing to me was that when the morticians had come and were taking the body out on a gurney, his son walked alongside his father all the way out to and through the back doors and stood at attention as the body was loaded into the van.
I have never witnessed a more respectful moment. It moved me deeply because so many times I have watched as someone's mother, sister, daughter, husband, or son is wheeled away in a body bag by someone in a cheap suit who doesn't really care. I have watched out the window as that last trip down the loading dock is taken alone.
This son would not let his father make that last trip alone. A son's eulogy and tribute was unseen by any eyes but mine; it was one I will never forget. I have heard it said that the true measure of a civilization is found in how the civilized treat their dead.
If that is so, our society still has a very long way to go.