Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

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Forensic Files

November 8, 2015

Files, Feuds and Funerals 17

According the Mayo Clinic, approximately 100,000 people are at any one time waiting for an organ donation.  6,775 Americans die every day, based on the 2008 statistics, so must be even closer to 7,000 by now.  That would suggest that within a fortnight, every one of those patients in need of an organ replacement would have at least a shot at a second chance in life.  But that clearly isn’t the case.  In fact, finding the dying individual who is both suited and willing to provide you with a spare kidney or liver is often a disparagingly fruitless task.  Here is to confirm that reality:

  • Each day, an average of 79 people receive organ transplants. However, an average of 22 people die each day waiting for transplants that can’t take place because of the shortage of donated organs.

While that may give the impression that more people are receiving transplants than are listed, this graph might help you get a better perspective of things.


The gap isn’t just getting wider; it’s increased by whopping dimensions. While the number of transplants hasn’t even doubled in almost twenty-five years, the number of patients in need has shot more than fivefold.  So, America is far from exemplary in this sense, though there are some bright spots:

  • People of every age give and receive organ donations. In 2014, 29,532 people received organ transplants. Below is the number of recipients by age group followed by the number who received organs from deceased and living donors:
  • < 1 Year Old: 280 (261 deceased, 19 living donors)
  • 1 – 5 Years: 503 (417 deceased, 86 living donors)
  • 6 – 10 Years: 284 (226 deceased, 58 living donors)
  • 11 – 17 Years: 728 (594 deceased, 134 living donors)
  • 18 – 34 Years: 3,148 (2,087 deceased, 1,061 living donors)
  • 35 – 49 Years: 6,407   (4,780 deceased, 1,627 living donors)
  • 50 – 64 Years: 12,791 (10,758 deceased, 2,033 living donors)
  • 65+ Years: 5,391 (4,592 deceased, 799 living donors)

     As you can see, you don’t need to have met your Maker to exert your generosity, and from a medical standpoint, living donors are generally preferable to deceased ones.  It’s generally a question of freshness.  Organs are extremely perishable.  Sadly, living donations are still a minority.  The reason is that many are just naturally reluctant to go ahead with it; and the reason for that in part has to do with an old nagging problem in the United States: insurance.  This act of goodwill might mean being turned down for private health insurance (7%) or life insurance (25%).  In some countries, giving a organ is compensated by free healthcare for you and your family for life.

       Donations by deceased bodies is obviously understandably more common, but even then, support is far from widespread.  Hesitance is brought on by urban myths about evil doctors knowingly allowing a patient to die in order to get at those innards which are in such high demand in the lucrative organ donation market; or simply what is known as the “ick” factor, which is that natural distaste for tampering with dead organisms.  They all contribute to the lackluster response to this growing need.  In other words, everyone is all for the idea, as long as it’s someone else’s chest that’s being dissected.

     To my surprise, and probably to that of every living Spaniard, Spain leads the world in organ donors, 35.5 generous souls per million forfeiting a chunk of their body for thy neighbor.  That, coupled with its top-notch, highly coordinated, organ bank network, make the system here a global model of efficiency and effectiveness.  Those are words the Spanish aren’t used to hearing those words mentioned regarding anything official.

     Some say that, like many European countries, this has to do with the fact that all legal adults are automatically considered potential donors unless they officially indicate otherwise.  To do so is known as opting out.  It’s also believed that Spain, a Mediterranean country where kinship ties are often stronger, helping out a relative in any way is just a part of being “good to the family”.

      In the United States, no one can carve out your liver without prior consent. It’s called opting in.  The moment of truth comes at a time when you are doing something entirely unrelated: confirming your personal details for the department of motor vehicles when you renew your license.  But I’ll tell you about that a little later.

     The point is, kidneys, pancreases and lungs are scarce, but dead people aren’t.  That brings us to one of the most undeniably unenviable jobs in the world: cold calling for internal organs.  The fact that time is of essence, as the deteriorating tissue must be swept away and inserted in a desperate donee, makes the inappropriateness of the act that much more accentuated, but the immediacy of the action that much greater.  In short, the person who has been hired to perform this heinous task has to do so practically, as Dickens would delightfully put it, “when the body is still warm.”

     And so it was, just five minutes after arriving home, with mom having to face the fact that her husband and companion of nearly 60 years would never return, and my sister trying to wash off the shock that had overcome her body, that I crashed out on the living room couch, to find comfort from being half-orphaned in the shelter of a baseball game.  The pitcher firing down the line methodically; the dull judgement of the umpire; the slow toss back to the mound by the catcher.  The pitch; the call; the toss.  Pitch, call, toss. Over and over like swinging under a maple tree.

    It was then as I was saying, that the phone rang.  When this happens, the television has a feature that displays caller information. My mother and sister are not terribly technology literate, and they had never realized this exists nor did they ever understand how I could so accurately predict who was on the other end of the call without taking my eyes off a double-play.  That was neither here nor there, the thing was I saw the word “bank” and called to mom that the bank was calling and muttered something about the bastards getting wind of Dad dying before the day was out, and that they were just trying to freeze his account…all $47 of it.  Thank God I had taken out the other $50 just the day before.  They were heartless jack-asses.

      Well, it turned out that heartless was what the phoners wanted my dad to be. Or liverless. Or kidneyless.  It was the New England Organ Bank  -I had neglected to pay enough attention to that key third word- and they were just checking to see if we had any intention of doing a good deed for a sick patient.  That’s what I figure they planned on saying but I don’t think my mother let them get halfway through their statement before she started revealing her feelings on the social etiquette of asking for someone’s insides when hardly an hour had gone by.  The association is the oldest of its kind in the country and probably used to that sort of response, and the urgency of the matter did require early contact.  But I feel confident when expressing a great deal of reservation regarding procedure.  Someone at the hospital should have brought this option to our attention when we were there, after all they seemed to have no qualms about letting the NEOB know about Dad passing away, and perhaps a greater time frame between terminal breath and renal request should be allowed for.  The caller made a few attempts to convince my mother, but they had no idea who they were dealing with.  Dad, at nearly 90, probably had little to offer, and I get the feeling he wouldn’t have agreed to it.  Otherwise he would have opted in years before.  The NEOB was trying to opt him in in death what he clearly had declined to do in life.

    Mom hung up, preached to me, and rightly so, about the impropriety of requesting a gall bladder at that time of night, and I wholeheartedly agreed.  “Damn right, Mom!” At least for that night, Dad was going to stay in one piece.  She went on to repeat her astonishment, and I concurred for a second time…maybe a third.  Then we called it a night.  The Mets were pitching, now.  Pitch. Call. Toss. Pitch. Call. Toss.

Forensic Files

November 6, 2015

Files, Feuds and Funerals 16

The doctors told us to depart for a few minutes while they began to remove Dad from the life support system, drugged him a little further and prepped him for our return, where we could behold nature taking its course first hand.  Nature took its course while I sat in the waiting room and played checkers with one of my brothers, but I guess that didn’t count.  It wasn’t as if I expected to see Dad flailing his arms around and gasping for air like some astronaut who’d just lost his oxygen supply, but you never know, and I didn’t want to be around for that. Just in case, I think we all prudently stepped out of the room because, I don’t know about you, this was a first for me.

     While we were gathered in the waiting room, we received two visits, one from the doctor who had tried to save Dad that first day but was unable to unplug the clot, incapable of restoring some degree of normal blood flow to the brain, hindered in her efforts to supply the cerebrum with the oxygen it needs to survive.  There was nothing she could do.  Not for her or the priest who had been so nice the day before.  The one who may not have slept well in that puffy rectory bed. He had returned at that moment to listen to Mom once again and provide us with some kind of support.  He did his best.

     Dad was doing his best too, though it wasn’t easy for him.  We had just been called back into the room and I immediately realized that his life had been a lot gentler with that ventilator inserted in his windpipe.  His mouth was now wider open and every ten seconds or so, or at least it seemed to me, he would draw in as deep a breath as his weakening body could.  It would make a horrid and tinny sound.  He was unconscious and pumped with enough drugs to dope a rock band, and I truly think he was not suffering, but struggling, he was, which kind of made sense. After all, he couldn’t breathe.

      Mom stood for the most part right near his head.  I stroked his arm, though I was somehow afraid to touch the skin of his hand.  My other brothers and sisters sat and watched over like faithful soldiers next to their wounded general’s cot, or mourning dogs at the feet of a fading Viking, and only on occasion interrupted the serenity with a few seconds of tears or weeping.

     The hospital had provided us with refreshments of all sorts, tea and coffee, soda, an assortment of chocolate and energy snacks, which I guess was a thoughtful gesture to help us get through the moment, but I was nagged by the idea that they were saying, “We’ve just removed your father’s life support system, treating you to a Twix bar is the least we can do.”  And it certainly was, I just didn’t actually think they would go through with it.  Since I am always one to take a person up on their offer, unless that means running me over with a truck, I poured myself a cup of coffee and went for the energy bar to help keep me going.

   I offered some to the rest with the thermos in my hand, “Coffee?” between my Dad’s wheezing, but they declined.  One brother, the medical expert of the family, more out of fear than fancy, handled his greatest phobia, death, by bombarding the nurse with some six hundred questions and she, God bless her, fielded them with the greatest of patience.  I returned to stroking the sleeve.  The room was chilly.  The sky was was darkening outside as it approached seven in the evening.

      We turned most of our attention to the screen on the other side of the bed, next to the nurse who was controlling the administrating of drugs to keep the stress levels lower.  We watched like heartbeats rise to 125 then down to 90, then back up to 115, 120, 130, and beyond.  Dad was sprinting around New Haven, Connecticut, through the Sterling Library, the Cross Campus, The Old Campus and Timothy Dwight.  Forty or fifty laps he must have done so far, and his heart still pumped away.  It’s a resilient goddamn muscle, you have to admit.  They say it drums along about 2.21 billion times in a lifetime of 70 years.  That seems pretty astonishing but when you think that a chicken’s heart thumps 2.17 billion times in just fifteen years, the figure appears more modest.  That’s because chicken hearts fly at the rate of about 275 beats per minute, which probably explains why they are always so freaked out about everything, and certainly helps you to understand how they die so young.  Dad’s heart marched on for another 18 years, so his total was closer to 3 billion.  It appeared he was trying to break a record before the final bell.

      I kept stroking his arm.

      After about an hour and twenty minutes, he began to get quieter, which was a kind of relief, but also meant we were reaching the final stages.  In addition to the drinks and finger food, the hospital had the thoughtfulness to disengage the sound on the electronic equipment, so that the long and merciless monotoned beep wouldn’t kick in, the way it does in the movies.  You didn’t need that.

     The screen still showed occasional spikes as if the heart were still softly tapping away, but the main nurse who had just arrived told us that it was just electrical charges inside the body traveling around the ghostly deserted roads.  I kept stroking his arm.

       My brothers and sisters and I and mom hugged each other again and then went up to Dad to say goodbye for the last time.  At least in his presence.  I kissed him on the forehead and was oddly reminding of the time my friend Tom did the same years before one New Year’s Eve after downing fifteen shots of rum.

     The medical staff disappeared to leave us on our own.  Then, little by little, the family peeled itself away from the room, before dad’s face got too white.  I called my daughters and talked for a few minutes.  When I got off, I saw I was alone in the room.  The electrical charges had zipped away for good.  Dad looked slightly stunned, the way deceased people can appear, I guess.  I guess you never quite want it to happen.  I went over and stroked his arm one more time.  I hadn’t shed a single tear yet.

Images of Spain

November 2, 2015

Santos y Almas (y algún que otro muerto)

¿Entonces por qué temen tanto a Halloween los españoles?  ¿La invasión de los bárbaros?  No es ninguna broma.  Este sentimiento quedó reflejado en la inolvidable “Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall” cuando el cura del pueblo enumeró todos los defectos que tiene el país, y no eran pocos.  La ansiada llegada de los norteamericanos por motivos económicos fue contrastada por el miedo a que su degenerada sociedad fuera a provocar la destrucción de la santísima cultura conservadora y católica que tuvo en jaque el progreso mental de la nación de entonces.  El inmortal, aunque ya fallecido, director Luís García Berlanga, no andaba lejos cuando puso en palabras del religioso un futuro nada esperanzador.  La modernidad y la postmodernidad y el Internet han conseguido deestructurar numerosos aspectos de muchas culturas…pero no no engañemos, ha habido muchos factores.  Pero muchos.

      Aquí en estas fechas se celebra Todos los Santos, que es el 1 de noviembre.  Hay más de 10.000 de ellos, así que no es precisamente un club exclusivo, si quieres saber mi opinión. Pero los españoles no lo hacen tanto por los santos, que parece que tienen todo bien montado en el cielo, sino por los difuntos, los antepasados, los muertos.  Es el día en que va la gente a los cementerios a homenajear a sus queridos, y quizás no tan queridos.  También es un evento muy importante para las floristerías que, junto con san valentín (otra importación inventada) y el día de la madre (también una nueva incorporación foránea – no se estableció hasta 1965, cuando los Beatles sacaron Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), suponen grandes ingresos. Estos sí tienen un motivo para quejarse.

      Esta solemne y bonita tradición, la de recordar a los que han sido tan importantes en tu vida, me parece un gesto precioso que no se debería perder.  Hay gente que aún la observa, madrileños que se acercan al gigantesco cementerio de la Almudena, o que vuelven a sus pueblos para llevar unas flores a la tumba de algún pariente.  Difuntos…difuntos todos…algunos con alma y otros ya santos.  O eso creen.

      El caso es que, técnicamente, el día para honrar a los tuyos debería ser hoy, el 2 de noviembre, La Conmemoración de los Fieles Difuntos, o simplemente de los Difuntos, porque algunos habrán sido menos fieles que otros.  Esta fecha es tan importante en países como México que UNESCO la ha declarado Patrimonio de la Humanidad.  Por lo visto, esta organización ortoga el honor a casi cualquier cosa…podría hacer lo mismo para mi coche que, a pesar de sus años, kilómetros y trato laxo por parte de su dueño, sigue arrancando.

     En fin, parece ser que es un día no solo para recordar a nuestros antepasados sino también para rezar por ellos, no vaya ser que se encuentran en el Purgatorio y necesitan un aval de buenaconducta de un querido vivo.   Yo pensé que el Vaticano ya se había deshecho de ese concepto, pero veo que no tengo razón.  Simplemente han dicho que no es un lugar en concreto (es decir que no es la M-30 por la mañana ni mi piso en julio, dos buenos candidatos) sino un estado del alma.  Yo la llamo “vida”.

 Jakub_Schikaneder_-_All_Souls'_DayEsta mujer, desde luego, no parece estar disfrutando del momento durante su visita al cementerio el Día de los Difuntos.  Parece que está contemplando unirse a los vecinos de lugar de aquí a poco.

Curiosamente, dicen que uno de los orígenes del famoso “trick-or-treat” son las “souls cakes” (pasteles para las almas) que se tenían que repartir como gesto de generosidad, a cambio de beneficiar las almas de los difuntos.  Así que, además de las comidas, la bebida, los ramos de flores y las lápidas recién lavadas, hay todo tipo de negociones espirituales sucediendo.  No sé.  Lo mismo me equivoco.

     Pero lo que sí parece claro es que el día, o los días, del 31 de Octubre al 2 de Noviembre, fueron elegidos porque la ya existente festividad celta Samhain (el año nuevo), y una fiesta romana también relacionada con los muertos.  La tradición pasó a esas fechas allá por el 980 DC.  Y las creencias de una Europa Se creía que los fallecidos salían esos días para volver a sus casas y cenar con sus familias.  Sabiendo lo importante que es comer en este país, me parece perfectamente plausible.  ¡Vaya por Dios! Esto me suena a algo pagano y Halloweenesco.

      Hablando de comida, una de las grandes ventajas de estar en España en esta fechas es la oportunidad de disfrutar de los deliciosos buñuelos, rellenos de todo tipo de sabores, y de los huesos de santo, demasiado dulces para mí gusto, pero sabrosos en pequeñas dosis.

Images of Spain

November 1, 2015

Trucado y Tratado

¡Ay, Dios!  Ha pasado el último día de octubre y yo ya llevo unas cuantas charlas sobre este fenómeno que se está apoderando de España, o por lo menos de Madrid: Halloween (o jalogüín, como algunos lo deletrean).   Con el paso de cada año, son más las tiendas que se apuntan a vender productos y parafanelia relaionada con la festividad, son más los niños que se disfrazan, son más fiestas que se celebran, son más los debates sobre su presencia en nuestras vidas…hasta tal punto que ya no se le puede considerar una costumbre pasajera ni limitada a cuatro extranjeros que no saben olvidar sus raíces ni un puñado de profesores de inglés que están envenando los colegios con costumbres foráneos, ni al PP por promover el bilingüismo.  La verdad es que se h convertido en una moda que ha ido a más y parece que no se va a ningún lado, por lo menos, de momento.  It’s here to stay.

     No os creáis que me alegro.  Es simplemente una observación sobre cómo han cambiado algunas tradiciones aquí en los años que llevo.  La primera vez que la celebré fue en el 91, y entonces era prácticamente imposible dar con una calabaza en Madrid, por no hablar de una que asemejaba a el orbe naranja que simboliza el día.  Por fin encontré una en el Jumbo, para que te hagas una idea de los años que han pasado, y conseguí (otro verbo no sería apto para describir la odisea que exprimentamos) comprar una especie de fruta grande, algo aplastada y de un color verde-gris.  Parecía una garrapata gigantesca…la pobre…poco digna para el gremio de de calabazas, aunque visto desde el punto de vista del asco, totalmente apropriado.  Mucho ha llovido desde entonces.

   Los españoles siempre han sido rápidos a la hora de acusar a los norteamericanos por proliferar esta actividad profana y pagana que nada tiene que ver con su cultura y que desprecia un día tan sagrado y loable como es Todos Los Santos.  No les quito razón…en parte.   Halloween es una festividad cuyos orígines remontan 3.000 años, en el mundo celta, quizás una de las tradiciones más antiguas del mundo, pero la versión moderna es un producto de una evolución larga y sinuosa que ha llegado a arraigarse en los Estados Unidos y que poco tiene que ver con la idea original.

       Como cualquier cultura dominante, las costumbres de dicha nación tienden a incidir en las de las otras culturas.  El impacto de las cultura greco-romana aún está presente en nuestras vida, miles de años después, y es innegable la profunda e intencionada influencia que la cristianidad ha ejercido sobre múltiples pueblos del mundo, imponiendo sus creencias y tradiciones. O no. Muchas fiestas y celebraciones cristianas son mezclas de su propia fe con las costumbres locales, muchas de ellas, he de decir, eran paganas.  La elección de la fecha de Navidad sin ir más lejos.

     De hecho, el propio nombre hace alusión a Todos los Santos, ya que “halloween” significa “vísperas de todos los santos”, y era un intento por parte de la Iglesia de hacerse con los paganos mediante la tolerancia a cambio de la conversión.  Parece que funcionó, lo cual hace que parezca especialmente irónico que siglos después encontramos al Obispo de Cádiz intentnado prohibir la celebración de Halloween.   Si tanto les preocupaba a los prelados ya tenían tiempo para remediarlo…hace 1.500 años.

        Es verdad que hay algo que no acaba de cuajar conmigo respecto a este día en España.  Quizás le falte la hondura de una tradición bien arraigado.  Pero también es verdad que los niños se lo pasan bomba, el comercio aumenta y una costumbre que empezó en Europa hace miles de años, dio el salto al Nuevo Continente y ahora está de vuelta, disfrazada de algo bastante diferente…pero de vuelta de todas formas.  Las tradiciones pueden ser a veces muy viajeras y no pasa nada. San Patricio es una de las fiestas más populares del planeta, en España ha pegado un subidón de popularidad impresionante.  Pero ahí, nadie dice nada.  Total, es simplemente una noche más para ponerse algo hortera con la marca Guinness escrita encima.  Pero con el Halloween, resulta ser diferente.  No sé si es porque afecta a los niños y eso inquieta a los mayores.  No lo sé.  Algún truco debe de haber.

Forensic Files

October 31, 2015

Files, Feuds and Funerals 15

I’ve done a lot of things only once in my life.  Watched a sunset in Key West, for example; been atop a Swiss Alp; sat through Casablanca from beginning to end (for some reason I had only pieced it together for the first 35 years of my life); scaled an Aztec pyramid in Mexico; dipped my feet in the icy Baltic Sea; eaten steak tartar (didn’t think much of it); or …

     Then there is a whole slew of things I’ve never experienced; I still haven’t managed to get my ass over to Rome, and it’s little more than a stone’s throw from Madrid; listened first-hand to an opera; walked through a birch forest in Russia; sunk my teeth in real Southern barbecue; give my jaw the chance to drop before the awesome sight of the Grand Canyon; taken a bungee-jumping leap off of a bridge; or finished reading Ulysses (I left off on page 137 about twelve years ago). I’d never seen another human die, made it nearly half a century before that moment, until that August 18th when I stood bedside my father and watched him expire before my very eyes.

     Essentially what had been keeping him from passing on days before and, in all probability, would have prolonged his state of unconscious inertia indefinitely was a machine known as a ventilator.  In Spanish they call it a “respirador” which I conveniently translated into “respirator”, a reasonable description from my perspective but apparently an erroneous choice and one, I’ve been led to believe, that indicates a certain degree of ignorance when it comes to knowledge of medical care.  “Ventilator” sounds to me like kind of machine you turn on when someone in the room hasn’t showered in a week, but if that’s what the hosptial staff uses, I’m no one to question their choice of jargon.

     Keeping people alive through artificial respiration, apparently now called mechanical ventilation, has been the concern of humans since all the way back in ancient times, though, like so many aspects of Medicine, it wasn’t until the 20th Century that serious advances were made.  Even then, the road to a successful system has been rather winding.  The first ventilators were invented in 1928.  They were called Drinker respirators, but were known in layman’s terms as “iron lungs”.  The intended patients were polio victims whose breathing muscles had become paralized by the disease.  The technique worked via negative pressure, a system in which the body in placed in an airtight metallic chamber and the air pressure inside is lower, thereby forcing the lungs to expand.  You might be more familiar with the effects of air pressure when you take a shower and notice that once the water is running and steaming up the room, the curtain is pushed inward because the hot air reduces the pressure.  Of course, that’s assuming that you have a curtain.  In any event, that’s how they managed to get air into the lungs.

     In the 1950s, a marked switch towards positive-pressure ventilation took over.  A number of individuals can right claim their contributions to the development of the modern ventilator, but it was a man by the name of the Forrest Bird who, it should be noted, worked a great deal on making high altitude flying possible for pilots who did not wish to suffer from hypoxia, as my father had, though from the very low altitude of this bed.  Bird created the Bird Respirator, a model which is still used around the world today in places where a reliable electrical supply may not be available.   Bird lived to the ripe old age of 94.  In fact, he had just passed away on August 4, 5 days before Frank Gifford.  He died of natural causes too.  The jury was still out on what would be the cause of our father’s demise.

     A positive-pressure ventilator, the kind that is used mainly today, with all the sophisticated technology to ensure breathing is controlled to a T, entails literally sticking a tube down the patient’s trachea and introducing the air into the lungs.  Its assisted pulmonary ventilation; the gas exchange in the alveoli takes over from there.  The was the peacekeeper. This was the machine that made Dad seem so quiet and unfazed by life.

     It also kept him from suffocating, as his brain was only able to perform about 30% of task.  Removing the tube means death, but not instantaneous by any stretch of the imagination.  Depending on the strength of the patient and, especially the heart, the body will struggle to stay alive for 30 minutes, and hour, several hours, even days.  From the expression on the doctor’s face when we asked, that last estimate went beyond the limits of reality.

      Once the patient is taken off the ventilator, the body immediately reacts to the sudden limited oxygen being taken in by having the heart beat faster to increase the amount of that gas being reached to every corner.  It’s like being forced to sprint and sprint until it finally gives out. To my shock, I learned that some patient’s may actually be awake for this, though, most, like my father, are unconscious.  Even then, generous doses of morphine and anti-anxiety medicine both help to regulate what little breathing is going on and used to keep the body from suffering.  The body is suffering, no doubt.  We are just comforted by the thought that Dad wasn’t aware of it.  Comforted by the hope.

Forensic Files

October 26, 2015

Files, Fueds and Funerals 14

At first glance, there wouldn’t seem to be a lot in common between my father, a lowkey lawyer from Connecticut, and Cole Porter, the high strung composer-writer from Indiana, many of whose songs can still be hummed, when not sung, by people from different walks of life, from all over the globe and of different ages…though especially those over a certain one.  The fact that I am familiar with so many is not only a tad disconcerting buit it also makes me at least a reference for a cutoff year – so we’ll say 48.  But I was able to find two – to my astonishment. One was that he was went to Yale University and majored in English, just like Dad, and the other was that he went on to study law at Harvard Law School, which was the identical trajectory that my procreator took.

     But that may be just about where the similarities end.  Both seemed to have come from stern fathers, Cole’s grandfather was especially rigid, but they soon took very different paths.  My father settled in New York and kicked off his professional career at the law firm of Whitman, Ransom & Coulson.  I knew nothing of this period of my father’s life, as it would be another fifteen years before I even drew in my first breath of Manhattan air.  It was supposedly a reputable house, with a former governer, a former judge and a former army colonel as founding fathers.  I get the feeling they didn’t put up with much crap from anyone.  Porter, albeit 30 years before, forsook his legal training and dashed off to Paris where he could continue to play music and, in additon, live a lavish life of soirees for entertaining the likes of which only a few could afford.  This is part was a result of his marrying a wealthy divorced American woman who suited her needs to have a formal partner as well as his to appear heterosexual, while he indulged in his true pursuation in private.

     We gathered again at the hospital.  Dad’s heartbeat was stable…stably weak, that is, but stable all the same.  I was relieved to know that we would be able spend a little more time with him, though the doctor’s came him to check him out one more time.  The fiddled around with his body and made him twitch from time to time.  Some of my brothers and sisters thought that might be a good sign, but in reality it was a kind of cruel joke.  “It’s nothing,” they said.  “Just reflexes.”

     I knew what they were talking about because I had become a science teacher that very year for the first time.  It wasn’t easy because I had spent much of my life on the other end of the intellectual spectrum.  But I did learn the basics about the body, and when my 5th grade class got to the part about the central nervous system, we learned that the spinal cord handled a lot of the automatic responses with the need of the brain to get involved.  When I was kid I used to see that when the pediatrician would tap below my knee to see it bounce forward a little.  It was kind of cool, but it didn’t transcend any further.  But that was the kind of thing I had to explain to my kids.  That’s what the book said.  That’s what it said.

     I guess I had a chance to try it first hand with my limp father molded into the bed’s mattress.  His brain was thinking its own thoughts with no one or nothing to recieve them.  The spinal cord made things here and there move.  “So that’s what it does,” I said to myself.  Like some many things, life needs failures to show how it works.

     For an hour before we decided to put Dad down, let nature take its course, we played music for him, pretty sure he couldn’t hear any of it but kind of wishing he could.  Then again, I realized that if he could hear that, he could hear just about everything else we had in store for him, and that would have sucked.

     We played lots of Cole Porter because that’s the kind of music he liked, just like so many other people from his generation did.  I think it was his favorite, and if it wasn’t, it was tough luck, we were going to play it for him anyway.  Then we got into a few classics from musicals, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins was a close to being the top of the list as you can get, for reasons that I have never quite understood.  We also knew that he was keen on the musical version of A Christmas Carol, called aptly Scrooge, with Albert Finney looking bizzarely beyond his real years in life.  There’s a lively tune in the slection called “Thank You very Much”, which my brother Pat quickly found on YouTube and played for all to hear and enjoy.  Seconds after the sequence had started, it dawned on me that there was an inconvenient truth surrounding the song: it’s performed during the visit of the third spirit, when all the townspeople are rejoicing the fact Scrooge has died and therefore freed them of their obligations to pay off their debts.  That is certainly a 19th Century approach to getting out of a loan.  I doubt expiring would suffice today.

      Regardless, that being said, despite the cheeriness of the tune, it must go down as one of the most inappropriate songs ever to be chirped at the bedside of a moribund father.  I think at one point all of us in chorus were crroning, “Thank you very much! Thank you very much!   That’s the nicest thing that anyone has ever done for us.”    I’d like to think that’s why Dad loved his children so much.

      Then we wrapped up the session with the “Bull Dog” fight cheer, created – I wouldn’t quite go as far as to say composed, by Cole Porter, and capped it off with the Whiffenpoof song, or “To the Tables Down at Mory’s”, which is variation of a Rudyard Kipling poem, but just who came up with it, no one seems to know for sure.  For sure, though, they are no longer with us.

        And the corner sign
        Says it’s closing time
        So I’ll bid farewell and be down the road

Forensic Files

October 24, 2015

Files, Feuds and Funerals 13

    “Kathy Lee drinks wine in the morning!” spouted my sister with disdain.

    “What?!!”  Maybe my dad needed the right funeral service for his once and future death, but this was jarring news.

    I moved from the desktop to the couch to seek refuge in the comfort of morning TV.  It was the Morning Show, no the Today Show, and Kathy Lee Gifford was greeting America for as long as decades have existed.

     What surprised me was not that women were imbibing fermented grape juice at an hour when most stores had not even opened in the East Coast, though that would have raised more than one eyebrow even in alcohol-friendly Europe; it wasn’t the fact that people were knocking back some drinks on live TV, though it was uncharacteristic for Americans to portray on the small screen what they spend most of their time doing in real life, if only to pretend that their life is pure and unaltered by impurities.  Mind you, they may have stirred my curiosity, but they didn’t floor me, like ten shots of tequila might.  In reality, what really got me over to the sofa was the realization that Kathy Lee was still presenting morning talk shows in a year when I thought she would have long been nestled in a villa in southern California, or wherever she lived (it happened to be my hometown, if that is any indicator of how little involved I am in following her life) because she had been around for as long as I could remember.  For as long as decades were decades.  Then again, if Harper Lee is still among us and publishing, then maybe just about anything is possible.

     “And her husband just died.  It’s disgraceful, though I admit I shouldn’t be saying anything at the moment,” added my sister.

     That, I didn’t know. Her spouse, the famous former football player and TV sportscaster, Frank Gifford, had just passed away on August 9, also in my hometown.  He was just about to turn 85.  He died from natural causes which I used to think was one of those queer vague terms to sugarcoat perishing from this planet, but it’s actually a valid legal term, often a vital distinction, if you’ll excuse the paradoxical adjective I have chosen, to clarify why the person is no longer with us.  Accidents, reckless conduct, negligence, suicide, manslaughter or homicide, are all causes, but are occurrences that, had the circumstances been entirely different, the victim would have been otherwise living a normal life.  It’s true that if you hold a knife the wrong way, trip and fall on it, one might argue that it be only natural that you die.  But in the greater order of things, in the higher harmony of the universe, you and your death become an anomaly.  Horrific.  Horrifying.  Horrendous.

     But they deviate from the former situation.  For natural causes to be typed onto your death certificate, you need to be killed by microscopic assassins, viral or bacterial.  Or your internal body, a section of your innards, a weary organ, has to give in.  Give up.  Give out.

     Old age is not acceptable as a cause of death.  Naturalness is.

     Dad was not a big sports fan, at least that’s what I recall.  He didn’t disdain it, and he knew the rules to most of the games, so he must have followed it enough as a young man. He may have even recalled Gifford’s glory days as a running back for the Giants and even the year they won the championship back in 1957.  He maybe would have enjoyed spending more time watching the final round of a golf tournament or catching a college bowl game, had it not been for the fact he had eight children to provide for and maintaining a Greenwich lifestyle which was no easy task to tackle.  Those were very natural causes.  As were the clots in his arteries.  As was the ictus.  As was his weary body.

    Mom said she was ready.  She was ready today.  She was ready that day.  I ran down to the Stop & Shop for a Dunkin Donuts coffee, and with an luck, I would have a chance to get another Starbuck’s cup before heading up to the room.  To see dad die of natural causes live for the first and last time.

Forensic Files,Uncategorized

October 22, 2015

Files, Feuds and Funerals 12

Carrying out at market comparison study of funeral homes is limited in its breadth in a town like Hamden, CT.  There were only two: Sisk and Beecher & Bennet.  The parish priest recommended the former, and we automatically assumed it meant he was taking a cut for sending any corpses their way, so we wisely decided to check both before settling on one.

     The easiest way to start our research was by swooping upon the websites to see which each had to offer.  Poking around new pages can be an enlightening and even enjoyable pastime, even with the dullest of subjects.  A person can discover a lot about human nature.

     Funeral home websites are an especially rich source of entertainment for the curious. Curious, in part, because I had never had a need to consult their services.  Curious because the person of concern was still lying in a hospital bed, life sustained by the cold metal machine and even colder machinery. They feature many of the sections you’d find in most service-oriented businesses, like a home page, about us, and contact us info.  Then there were a couple of eyecatchers such as “What we do” on the Sisk site.  I like to think that I’ve had enough life training in my background to pretty much have a overall idea of the nature of the funeral home profession, but the mere fact that they felt we needed to be enlightened in this department made me jump at the chance and click on the words.  Beecher and Bennet (going forward “B&B”) discussed at length the advantages of depositing your deceased loved-one on their premises, with one persuasive reason being “conveniently located”.

     Like just about anything in America, these funeral homes like to be careful about how they word things. Everything regarding death and dying either appears to be an almost pleasurable experience or doesn’t appear at all. In Sisk, for example, the word death crops up only four times, from what I can tell. They otherwise skirt the use of the word at all cost.  I could find just one mention of it in Beecher and Bennet’s site.  Their circumspective language can reach such great heights of ambiguity that it’s not always easy to know what they are talking about.

     The section called “merchandise”, doesn’t sell coffee mugs, daily planners, T-shirts and mouse mats with the assertion “I buried my aunt at Sisk Brothers” or “Embalming is Better at Beechers” stamped on it, or several dozen kilos of cocaine.  The term is actually a cover-up for what is really on offer: caskets.  Beecher refers to them as something even vaguer, “commemoration”.  It actually took me four visits to the menu to finally realize that that was what I was looking for.  Casket selection is more varied than one might originally imagine because, as some of you may know but I surely didn’t before I poked around those pages.  But all caskets certainly looked plush and heavy on comfort, ideal for eternal sleep.

     I also learned that death protocol depends greatly on just when and where the act occurred.  And who was there too.  If the person was alone, then you have to call the police.  But from what I could tell, not necessarily so if they were accompanied at home or in the workplace.  That didn’t seem to fit my idea of what happens in all those episodes of the Forensic Files.  A lot of times, the deceased are well accompanied – by the person who put them in that state.  Then they feign they are panicking and call the police.  Of course, if they’ve just beaten them over the head with a stoker, then it might be difficult to say it was natural causes, but there are those who try to pull off the “accident” angle.  Those are the ones who don’t lock their car doors, but on occasion commit homicide.  More often than not, it’s the fact that they try to play it cool and act naturally which makes them seem more unnatural than ever.  And they talk…oh they talk more than they should.  The Spanish they use a Latin phrase “Excusatio non petita, accusatio manifesta”, in other words, “If you excuse yourself, you accuse yourself.”  In one case, a husband killed his wife and dragged her down into the basement to make it look like she had tripped on her way down as a result of wearing some highly inappropriate high heels for the task.  The man kept complaining about the shoes over and over until the police noticed that the shoes were on the steps in a way they normally would be if someone had actually fallen over.  That led them to discovering the truth.

    Neither of the funeral home websites discussed how to handle deaths as a result of murder or manslaughter.  We ourselves were just trying handle the big day ahead of us; as I said, “Mom, come take a look at these urns and tell me what you think.”

     I can assure you it was the first time I had ever uttered that.

Forensic Files

October 17, 2015

Files, Feuds and Funerals 11

It is commonplace for people in Spain to regard America as an extremely violent country, within whose frontiers dwells an ultra-violent society.  It’s hardly any wonder why.  Dozens of bullet-riddling movies overtake screens in every corner of the Iberian Peninsula and their often fast-paced action makes them fill up theaters at a dizzying pace.  Popular series featuring forensic investigators who take on some of the creepiest residents the country has had the misfortunes to live with, or FBI agents who frantically try to track down a psychopathic serial killer before the next victim falls, well, victim, top the ratings in many Spanish households. And hardly a week goes by without some bit of news about some looney who has vented his bent frustration out on a lot of people who certainly had other things in mind for that day than receiving a bullet in the chest.  Indeed, it was in a quiet Connecticut community, most generally are, just 25 miles west of where my father lay, that one of the most grisly shootings of them all took place, when a young man named Adam Lanza entered an elementary school and starting firing away.  First-graders took the brunt of the assault.  20 in all.  And seven adults.  The incredible thing about it was that he carried out the massacre in just about five minutes, and then, as is characteristic of these individuals, shot himself before he could get caught.  He also shot his mother.  First.

     We were also about a stone’s throw from the place where one of the most gruesome murders in recent memory took place.  Back in 2009, a petite Yale medical graduate student named Annie Le, on the verge of getting married, disappeared.  She had vanished in a medical research building in nearby Amistad Street.  Amistad means friendship in Spanish.

      Annie Le was found. On her wedding day, for boot.  Her lifeless body had been stuffed in a wall of a laboratory, in a place called a wire chase.  The killer turned out to be a colleague who had an interest in the orient and all things oriental.  Friends and family had nothing but nice words to say about him, and they were at a loss for how to explain why he behaved that way.   I don’t know.   To my surprise this never made it to Forensic Files, though I thought it was a very worthy case and deserving of an episode, and I planned on writing them to make the suggestion.

     So, yes, I could see why some Spaniards would come to the conclusion that buying a ticket to the United States is about as insensible as a pig booking a tourist trip to Iowa.  And yet many are astonished by how seemingly peaceful and nonthreatening the country could actually be.  The awed at how lackadaisical people are about doing things like locking a door to their house or car.   Michael Moore makes it sound like those things only happen in Canada, but that’s not really true.  There are plenty of regions in this country where the last things you think of doing as you walk out the door is locking up.  In Spain, theft is a national obsession, often unsubstantiated.  They lock everything possible at all times, but life is really quite tranquil.  Burglaries do occur, I’ll grant you that, but not as often as they’d like to imagine.

     What the Forensic Files teaches us, however, is that when things go wrong in the United States, they can turn awfully ugly.  All it takes is a wrong move at the wrong time.  Being there when you shouldn’t.  Going up instead of going down.  Heading back instead of moving forward.  Turning left instead of right.  Just as we did when we pulled out of the hospital driveway and veered in the wrong direction.   In our dismay at not knowing what to do about our father, my sister became hesitant about which way I should steer the car, providing me with a healthy package of contradictory indications, and  I became briefly flustered.  In a last minute panic, I swung to the right, feeling if anything I wouldn’t have to dodge any oncoming traffic if I had done the exact opposite.  In some cities in America, that can be a fatal decision.  And New Haven, despite the beautiful environs of Yale University, can be one of those cities, I can assure you that.   In fact, according to crime statistics in 2011 for the 212 U.S. cities with a population of between 100,000 and 250,000, New Haven ranked:

        #3 in violent crimes

        #20 in murders

        #2 in robberies

        #51 in forcible rape

        #7 in aggravated assault

        #38 in property crime

        #52 in burglary

        #44 in larceny

        #32 in motor vehicle theft

     In short, in the top 25% in all categories and, in some cases, in the top 1%, besting in some  criminal heavyweights of the likes of Flint, Michigan, Richmond, California or Paterson New Jersey.   If nothing else, I had chosen the wrong place to go wayward, and my sister was the first to inform me of this in an unquestionably vehement manner: she shouted at me.

     A lot of it had to do with nerves; but because we were three defenseless white people in a wobbly Ford Escort which was about to break down any second, though that certainly played a factor, but more because we had spent the previous 72 hours containing myriad emotions over a hopeless situation which we somehow wished had hope, not the least of which was fear…of everything.  And of anything.  Of doing the right thing.  Of not knowing fully what that was, let alone when or how.

     So, I joined in the chorus and hollered back.  In wasn’t always characteristic of me, I have greater faults in other areas of my life, but I have to admit that the more I yelled, the better it felt, and before you knew it, we had a full-fledged screaming match raging within the confines of the vehicle. Even mom, an 87-year-old woman with a dying husband and a 15-year-year-old replaced heart valve which, in an earlier life, once belonged to a pig, got into the act if only to end the madness.  We came to a stoplight but ranted on without end.  Traffic lights are often the worst place to have to halt your car.  Even the steel and sturdy glass seem like no match for the menace outside.  There is no such thing as feeling safe as you sense dozens of curious eyes spying you from their porches and windows, and you find yourself praying in a low voice, “Please, turn green. Please, turn green,” and are prepared to violate any traffic code law if it means avoiding being violated.

     I couldn’t honestly tell you if we were being watched, because our melee was such that I no longer gave a fuck where we were.  In fact, if I had to put my money on it, I would say that anyone paying attention to the incident erupting inside the Ford with ill intent would have quietly said to themselves, “There ain’t no way in hell I’m going after them.”  My mom probably would have karate-chopped any would-be delinquent on the bridge of the nose without a second thought.

     The family seizure eventually subsided as I turned around and got us back in the right direction.  Another brother was waiting for us at the apartment with more Eli’s pizza.  I grabbed a slice or two and then collapsed on the couch, hoping to watch some of the Mets game.  They had lost three in a row to Pittsburgh and needed to turn it around. But they had the night off and I dozed off to the boundless universe of cable TV.  Sanford and Son, World War II documentaries and Spanish soap operas awaited me in slumberland.

Forensic Files

October 11, 2015

Files, Feuds and Funerals 10

By late morning, our car was wobbling down Whitney Street towards New Haven and the hospital.  There are two many arteries that take you to and from the city, one being Whitney and the other being Dixwell.  Our preference was the former and I asked why, because it didn’t seem to make a difference to me.  My sister said, “we just don’t.”

    Whitney is a pretty avenue, green and flanked by some pretty nice homes.  As you reach the border with New Haven, you get the feeling this was where the city’s elite once and may still live.  Stately Victorian homes always give it away.  The road allows you to kind of glide into the Yale area.

     I pulled into the hospital and let the valet service do the rest.  It was a Monday and there was no advantage to parking in the street.  Plus, I had taken enough heat from the family for being a cheapskate the day before.  I don’t know how to approach these things.  The service cost $15, not too bad, plus the obvious tip…the natural amount being an extra $5. It wasn’t the end of the world.  But maybe I could use it for other things.  Dad wasn’t a corner cutter by any means in this sense, but he did like to save here and there where possible and put the cash towards something more to his liking.

     But there was something that made me think that if we were going to let Nature take its course on Dad, it wasn’t the kind of day to skimp.  The vehicle limped into the semi-circle.  I could almost expect a loud bang and the back bumper to fall off to add to the effect.   The poor valet service man who had the misfortune to be next in line winced as soon as he realized which car he would be parking, but politely tended to us and made sure Mom exited from the car all right.

     We paused at a Starbuck’s in the lobby, the goddamn shops are everywhere, and I purchased my second cup to accompany to the room.

     Dad pretty much looked the same. His heart rate had settled at the same number as the day before, so that was encouraging in a relative way.  Nonetheless, we didn’t want to take any chances should there be a turn for the worse, and called in a priest to issue Dad’s last rites.  His last rights.  Actually I had phoned my parents’ parish that morning and spoken to the pastor, whom Mom had insisted on performing for Dad.  He knows us, she said.

      He couldn’t make it in that morning but promised another priest, one who was currently staying at the parish during his stay, was on duty at the hospital would be more than happy to stand in.  I figured that if the man was sleeping in a bed at the residence of the same church, that it probably was good enough.  I don’t know.

     “Now,” said the priest over the phone.  “What was the last name again?”

     The clergyman who arrived at the room was a frail-looking man.  His face was gaunt, his complexion soft and pinkish, half feminine half alcohol in tone and aura, his eyes sad and even saddened, quite possibly from something that hadn’t quite worked out in his life or from watching too many people fade away.  His hair was thin and his voice even thinner.  I had a sense he might go any minute himself and considered having Dad scoot over to make room for a new patient. But he seemed a genuinely compassionate man.  A man who listened and spoke only the very words he felt were necessary.  Not a syllable more.  He carried out the ceremony gently and stayed for what I reckon was longer than his normal duration.  He took the time to learn about Dad and to personally meet each one of us.  Then he departed.  I had the feeling he didn’t sleep very much in that bed in parish residence.  Not without the help of some aid.

     Dad had been cleansed.  That was a good sign.  He was free of sin, though I imagine not much of that had been going on of late.   As we get older we become more pious, but possibly by default.  Maybe we don’t have the energy to be as evil as we’d like to be anymore. The window of opportunity shuts.

     Before the priest would have to make several rounds to ensure that the soul was a pure as possible before floating away from the body and ascending into some place.  The 21 grams someone mentioned.  Dad was in no condition to sin in body and, going by what the doctors had to say about his current condition, even if something malicious did slip into his mind, even if he managed to concoct some misdeed, the message would crash a wall of rubber dead tissue at the brain stem and ricochet worthlessly around the miles and miles and miles of cerebrum.  Lost in a cloud without internet connection.  He couldn’t even throw a baseball or pick up a spoon.

     We met with the doctors again and the reiterated the message they had conveyed the day before.  This time there were more doctors and greater insistence…without insisting at all. “What would Brian have wanted in a situation like this?”  The angle was as reasonable as it was brutal.

     “I know what they’re getting at,” claimed one sister.  “I can read between the lines.”

     But there would be no sacrifice that day.  The volcano could be left simmering without the benefit of 190lbs of flesh and bones.  We went down for lunch and Mom said she had to ask some questions and give things some thought.  The onus was on her.  From downstairs in the cafeteria, we ate quietly.  Thought.  Upstairs, lost, frustrated thoughts bounced around the barriers our father’s cranium.  Useless.

     I’ve look at clouds from both sides now, from up and down, and still somehow, it’s cloud illusions that I recall, I really don’t know clouds at all.