Files, Feuds and Funerals 21

We sat down and talked about Dad.  From an administrative perspective.  Richard produced several forms and pulled a pen, clicked it and began to jot down all the information that we needed to provide.  The personal data, his education, his identity numbers.  All sort of details which seemed irrelevant at the time but which actually told us something about him.  Starting with his birth.  Dad was born and raised in Meriden, Connecticut, a small and unassuming town in the middle of the state.  He lived on a street called Windsor Avenue, where he belonged to a neighborhood gang of childhood pals aptly known as the Windsor Avenue Gang.  Typical childhood conduct, probably coupled with classic childhood antics, I assume.  His father was a physician and highly regarded in Connecticut.

       I don’t think I remember very much more of the town or that street other than the fact my father vividly recalled the day the 1938 Hurricane (back then they still weren’t named), which is still the deadliest tropical storm on record to strike New England.  More than 600 people perished in the cyclone.  The center made landfall somewhere around Bridgeport which meant quiet Meriden was placed right in the path of the most destructive winds just to the east.  According to Dad, not a single tree on the street was standing in the end.  Sounds to me the product of an impressionable 11-year-old’s mind, but it does give you a pretty good idea of the amount of destruction inflicted on the town.  Nothing like it has devastated the region in such a way since, it gladdens me to say.

     Other than that, and the fact my uncle lived there until he died just about ten years ago, he was a fanatic of the Sunday word jumble puzzles, Meriden meant very little to me.  As it did to Dad.  Though his family’s plot was just about 15 miles away, he had expressed a desire to be buried in my mother’s hometown of Davenport, Iowa.  That pretty much says it all.

     During our talk with Richard, I also learned that Dad could also receive some benefits from the federal government as a war veteran.  Dad didn’t go to fight, he didn’t watch his buddy have his cheek blown off in his face, he didn’t have to pick up someone’s arm and return it to them. My Uncle Keat, his brother, saw active duty.  He was picked up by the navy, ascended to the rank of officer, and served on the USS New Jersey.  He didn’t talk much about it, but I remember he said he was unnerved by the enemy shells that  had been fired from so far away you couldn’t even see the ship they came from.

     Dad, on the other hand, was drafted at the end of World War II and stationed at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, and helped supervise the demilitarization of a nation.  Apparently the fort was comprised mainly of Georgians, but why in hell they would ship a Yalie down there is beyond me.  But they were unusual times, I must admit.  Like so many parts of my father’s past, details were sparse.  I know the military asked him to stay on for clerical work, which would have suited his preparation, far more than trying to stick a bayonet in a combatant’s chest, but he declined.  I also know he was appalled by the language he heard, all that swearing, words he had never heard before.  It slipped out at a time when he was getting a lot off his mind.  It just slipped out.  It told me a lot about my father, in just a handful of words.

     We planned out a bunch of matters in that session.  We ironed them out too.  There was a lot to do, and a short span of time to perform the task.   Pending tasks were: settling on a day and time for the funeral, preparations for the funeral, cremation, viewing or no viewing (and if so, what clothes to bring down), urn, obituary, media outlets, financing by the state, future pensions, insurance, final resting place, people to be notified, people not to be notified, and, of course, who is paying for it and how.  No matter how gracious Richard was, and he excelled as a human being, that little issue had to be settled almost before we could walk out the door.  It was a matter of custom.  It was expected.

Files, Fueds and Funerals 20

If you check with the American Board of Funeral Service Education, about eighty-five percent of students enrolled in funeral service education had no prior relationship, be it via family or friend, with the sector of preparing the deceased for final disposition and assisting the family with dealing with the loss, which naturally brings me to inquiry: what in God’s name would possess anyone to come to that unequivocal moment of illumination and say, “You know what? I’d really like to be a funeral director.”

     But the calling apparently comes to a fairly large portion of the population.  More than anyone could possibly imagine.  In 2012, the number of occupations rounded off at about 33,200.  And while it’s safe to say that this is a sector that will never become obsolete, as long as there are humans around to pass away, the outlook for the profession is particularly bright thanks to the ever-increasing population in America and the ever-aging Baby Boomers who are reaching the final stages of life.  I am waiting for a pilot episode of “Dying Something” to air at any time.  The government projects the number of jobs to increase by 12% over the next ten years.

      In fact, you could say that never was there a better time to buy a shovel and start practicing digging holes.

     While disposing of corpses may not seem to require demanding formal training, for centuries in established civilizations like England’s gravediggers used to pile bodies upon bodies in the most haphazard way (regardless of lifelong achievements), and cementaries were notorius for their rotting stench, filth, and pestilence.  Honoring the dead, back then, seemed to be the last thing on people’s minds.

       Nowadays, you will need to spend some time at the higher education level if you want to have a fighting chance at landing a job.  There are 57 accredited Mortuary Science degree programs, most of which are two-year programs, but 7 are apparently full bachelor degrees.  That’s a long time to spend learning about cadavers and their final resting place.  I can only imagine the hours of practicum sessions.  The following is a list of some of the subjects that students have to sign up for to complete the academic requirements:

  • Sciences, including microbiology, pathology, chemistry, anatomy, embalming andrestorative art
  • Business and funeral home management, funeral directing, accounting, business communications and computer applications for funeral service
  • Social Sciences, including history and sociology of funeral service, funeral service psychology and counseling
  • Law and Ethics, including business law, funeral service law and funeral service ethics

    Another unquestionable skill which doesn’t appear to figure anywhere there but must be inserted some place is sympathy.  And even empathy at times.

     The minute my brother, sister, Mom and I walked into the funeral home, this quality was made evident by the level-headed, soft-spoken, practical and yet sympathetic kindness of the man who received us.  His name was Richard.  Beecher & Bennett is located in one of those classic 1960s plain brick one-story buildings that seemed so popular in New England towns years ago.  Some people find them appalling, but I am equally unnerved by the trend toward southern mansions as a way of dignifying death, as if fat white Doric columns are really going to make the difference between a humble a departure and one that has bizarrely resembles an epic Hollywood film about antebellum America.  You half-expect to see Scarlett O’Hara herself pressing the button labeled “Start Incineration”.

     Richard, just like his place of employment, brought everything down to a ground level.  And underground one, in fact.  He invited us to meet in a conference room in the basement, which meant descending a steep stairway that made us feel like we were entering a crypt.  It was a fitting setting to talk about what to do with Dad.

Files, Feuds and Funerals 19

The day after Dad died I went for a jog for the first time in about ten days.  Just down the hill from where my parents live, you can zig-zag along a planked path to the Farmington Canal Trail which, when completed, will be comprised of no fewer than 84 miles of carefully laid route for cyclists and runners alike.   As the name clearly indicates, it was a canal, of the kind that was typically built in the first half of the 19th Century, and like those canals built in the first half of the 19th Century, it was quickly replaced by the railroad.  The track was literally laid where the boats once navigated.  Train travel lasted all the way up to  the 1980s, when flooding put the via beyond repair.  It was if the canal had distantly had the last laugh.  It was not long after that new potential as a recreational path became evident, and construction has been underway ever since.

       I didn’t have a bike nor was I a cyclist, but I did try to get a few k’s in to keep my body going.  The heat wasn’t too bad but the humidity was atrocious, and before I had reached a mile and a half, I humbly decided to turn around and limped back home with a quiet whimper, comforted by the thought this pathetic show of athleticism was not made too public.  During the march of tears, I did have a chance to sense that, despite the unquestionable beauty of the path, all lined with an amazing array of deep green New England summer foliage, there was also no doubt that if there ever was a place that was apt for the type of heinous crime that would eventually end up being featured on Forensic Files, that was it.  Any kind of weapon seemed suitable, and there were scores of ideal ditches for a body to be buried in.  It was unnerving.

      We then planned out the day.  There was no longer a need to go to the hospital, but the funeral home was a must.  We set up a time with the manager in the afternoon.  In the meantime, I returned to the supermarket to load up on food for the next few days.  I also took the opportunity to purchase a lottery ticket, which is something I do from time to time, just in case there is an outside chance a bit of good news will fall my way.  The chances are remote indeed.  About 1 in 176 million.  Someone told me there was a better chance of you getting struck by lightening something like 16 times than hitting the jackpot.  One study in California, because this is the kind of thing scientists in California sometimes dabble in, even spent some time, and I presume someone’s money, to analyze the success rate of winning if you bet on the most frequently called numbers, the underused numbers and the random numbers to see if any one of those  proved itself  to be a superior strategy.

     Not so surprisingly, none outdid the rest, making it clear once again that gambling is just as unpredictable as we always thought it was.  The only exception was the underused numbers which performed better than the rest but by a margin so small you would have to wait  until the Sun burned out for any noticeable results to make themselves known.  And by then, obviously, it would be too late to reap the benefits.  I have always thought it would be great to win the lottery so that we could help my parents out in these times of hardhip for them, times which have only gotten worse with the passing of more times.  I could buy them a decent condo, and set it up as such that they wouldn’t ever have to deal with this situation again.  That would provide some happiness to everyone.  People should be allowed to land the big prize just once in their lives on the condition that they use the proceeds to help someone out you is worse off than them.

    But that didn’t seemed to make a difference, according to the girl at the supermarket who sold me my potentially winning number.  She claimed, “They say winning the jackpot is said to bring you happiness for only about three months. So, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it.”

     “I’d say it is.  ‘Cause winning $267 million is great.  But every three months to ensure my happiness.”

Files, Feuds and Funerals 18

I was up and gazing at caskets and sipping my first cup of coffee. Maybe my second.  We were leaning towards incinerating Dad.  I have had a preferences for the kiln ever since I read a long time ago, or at least I think I read it, about some cemetery becoming unearthed during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1993 and when the people, the living that is, began to recover the coffins, occupied or not, they noticed that something atrocious like 25% of those interred were actually alive when the dirt was tossed on the wooden lid of the box and that this was evident because scratch marks from desperate finger nails were found on the inside.  Is this one of our most primal fears, as writer Jan Bondeson put it in his book on the subject?  Quite possibly, and doubly so because it has actually happened…and not so rarely.   Confirmation of this occurrence can be found in places like Snopes, a website not partial to falling for legend. While 25% might exceed the number I recalled, there have been reports of 2% of the deceased and encased in a casket actually suffering from a state of suspended animation rather than crossing the River Styx.

       Stories, and apparently true ones, of screams from within or sudden stirring to life can be found in chronicles throughout the centuries. And while the now common custom of embalming is seen as a determiner in ensuring no one quite makes it back the world of the living, it’s not required by law and, in some cases, triggers other previously unforeseen scenarios.  I say this knowing full well that there is probably nothing less predictable than coming to and discovering all of your acquaintances and family, as well as some pretty negligent members of the medical sector, have deemed you, beyond any reasonable doubt, expired and have stuck you six feet underground to spend your final moments suffocating and feeling rather disappointed with your choice of friendships over the years.

      Did you know, by the way, that there are still coffins sets which include systems for the deceased to alert the living, lest the former should suddenly resuscitate?  Some corpses are even supplied with cell phones.  One can only hope that they device hasn’t been pin locked.  Can you just imagine preparing a roast chicken for dinner and being interrupted by the phone ring whose tone has been set to the tune of Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” and bark, “Honey, call the undertaker.  Your Dad is asking to be brought up to the surface.”

      And that’s if we even get to stage; there have been cases where the postmortem revision turned out to be place of discovery, like the time they opened a corpse’s chest and realized the heart was still beating.  Unfortunately, the rather large incision put a stop to that.  Or, my favorite, the born-again patient whose sudden and, so they say, violent reaction to being poked at by the pathologist, caused the man to fully return to his former state and the doctor to keel over and die.  Now that’s what I call a twist of fate.

       Being declared dead can occur for a number of reasons.  One may be that you are simply no longer reachable.  Missing, as they say.  Legally it’s known as in “in absentia”, and it applies to people whose whereabouts can no longer be accounted for, and due to the circumstances, can be assumed dead. This was the case with people like Henry Hudson who, along with his teenage son and several sick crew members, was callously booted off the mutineed ship he captained in the bay that would eventually bear his name and they were left to fend for themselves in the wilderness of northern Canada.  Chances of survival were remote and the fact they were never heard from again pretty much confirmed that prediction.  In any event, that occurred in 1611 and we can safely assume they won’t be appearing at any local convenience store trying to cash in a lottery ticket.

      Actually, there can be nothing more inconvenient than disappearing when issues concerning money come into play.  Of the many tragedies surrounding the Titanic, or just Titanic (that annoying tendency to remove the definite article just to sound more like an expert makes me want to puke), one had to do with a young but very, very wealthy Spanish couple -the were wrapping up 18 months of honeymoon traveling-  who had essentially snuck on the ship without their families realizing it.  The husband had ordered his butler in Paris to send home a postcard every day just so his mother thought they were in the city of lights.  Anyway, the ship as we all know sank in record time.  The young wife and her handmaid were put on a lifeboat and survived but the man presumably drowned.  I say presumably because no one really knew for sure, and while the authorities were quick to declare the missing as deceased, in Spain not only did they require physical proof, when none can be produced, a person had to wait an astounding 20 years!  That’s a long time to keep people on the edge.  Especially when someone’s mindboggling inheritence is at stake. So, if a body was what they wanted, a body is what they got.  The woman’s family sent an envoy to Canada where the cementary is, located an individual of similar features, said, “That’s him.” and returned with the cadaver which they used, I assume, to cash the windfall.

        Even if the body is available, the whole process can become muddled.  Even in our day.  Just how is it possible to look and feel dead but not actually be it?  Why are their cases of people kicking from inside a body bag sending morgue personnel scattering?  One good reason migh be body temperature.  Cold temperature reduces the effect a stopped heart can have on cells, which means, people may appear to be dead, but organ failure, especially in the brain, has not taken effect.  To think that if my father had suffered his stroke in Antartica, he might well have had time to allow the doctors to remedy the problem.  Sultry Connecticut in August didn’t help matters.  Another reason might a nervous disorder called catalepsy, which provokes the body to stiffen up, the heart to decrease and the nerves to exhibit a reduced sensitivity to pain.  So traditional methods to test if a person is alive, like sticking a needle underneath a fingernail, just might not be enough.

         Dad needed to be cremated, that was that.  Like an ancient Roman emperor.  Like a wise Native American medicine man.  Like a venerable judge for humanity.  Dust to dust.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.