When people turn off their light

Sundays Stew and I attend a free-form church service that compared to a traditional religious to-do looks more like an informal gathering around a coffee table decorated with a dozen votive candles and a sprinkling of bougainvillea petals plucked from bushes outside the door. The program is a one-pager whose order and content can vary from week to week. In appearance and substance the service is closer to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or a comfortable after-dinner conversation at someone’s house than traditional church. Our talented organist pitches religious hymns, bits of classical music and even relevant pop tunes.

The second service is a full-strength Christian liturgy, with greeters and ushers, and led by a minister from behind an altar adorned with a flower arrangement, candlesticks, a crucifix and the paraphernalia for consecrating bread and wine and distributing communion. As this service gradually drifted toward Anglican or Roman Catholic ceremonial complexity, including a five- or six-page Order of Service, Stew and I opted for the earlier get-together.

We jokingly describe it as “Church Light” though most Sundays the discussions are anything but. Members, including a retired minister, volunteer to lead the proceedings with a “wisdom offering” about whatever is in their minds within the broad realm of generic spirituality. No baseball or talk about the NBA finals, please. Attendees respond, comment or sometimes politely disagree with the speaker du jour or with each other.

Shannon Wheeler for New Yorker magazine, June 9 and 16, 2014.

As it often happens, this past Sunday’s offering was about death and dying, and how we handle emotions. It’s not as morbid as it sounds: None of those present wailed or looked at the distance frozen in mortal terror. But the topic is a recurring one, as one would expect in a congregation made up of people in their late sixties and older, and who hear about someone’s death practically every week. On Sunday we learned that the wife of the American Consul here had died.

How do we face our own death or that of a loved one? Or as Luke, the discussion leader on Sunday, rephrased the question, How do we prepare for death? Is there such a process, as if we were redacting the lines of our final soliloquy?

This week too Stew and I were faced with a dilemma far more complicated than inevitable death caused by death, old age, illness or accident. Those are deaths expected that can, to some extent, be rationalized. It’s sad but not a shock when a long-time cancer patient dies.

But what if someone with whom you’re close behaves as if they want to die and moves deliberately in that direction, almost as a slow-motion suicide? Or as Stew put it, how do we watch someone gradually and deliberately close the blinds and turn off
the lights on their own life?

Throughout history religions have tried to grapple with death by projecting, or inventing, an eternal paradise where we can expect to be serenaded by angels (virgins in the case of Muslims) in saecula saeculorum. The answer to the riddle of the finality of death, and our own fear of it, is to deny its reality.

As I grow older and my own death draws closer, I should be clutching heavenly solutions ever more tightly. But instead I am moving in the opposite direction: There is no heaven, no angels or harem of Muslim virgins (not that the latter would do me any good as a gay man). Our reward in life is won or lost right here. This may be my rudimentary interpretation of Buddhist “mindfulness” or the art of dealing with the reality of life’s pain by living honorably, decently and in the moment, without wasting too much time looking at the rear-view mirror or guessing what might lie ahead just beyond the next turn on the road.

On Sunday Luke used “Tuesdays with Morrie,” by Mitch Albom, to frame part of his discussion about death and emotions. This slender best-seller, published in 1997 and later turned into a movie, is a series of conversations between Albom and Morrie Schwartz, a Brandeis University sociology professor in his late seventies who died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 1995.

Schwartz did not try to conceal the reality of his own death with biblical aphorisms or formulaic denials. He knew it was soon approaching and seemed to analyze the process, deliberately and step-by-step, leaving behind a trail of wisdom offerings of his own, like “Learn how to live and you’ll know how to die; learn how to die and you’ll know how to live.” I hope I can emulate him.

Yet what Stew and I are witnessing, right near our house, is far more baffling: A man in his eighties who is not only preparing for his death—always a good idea, in terms of wills, disposition of property and so on—but tacitly inviting it in, by postponing and delaying medical care and talking as if it’s all over.

Yesterday we found him in the dining room of his home, the table blanketed with pill bottles and papers. In the middle of the mess was the draft of a book he’s been working on, tentatively titled “What for?”, as in, “What’s the point of living?” Not a hopeful sign.

Before we went on a recent trip we talked with him about seeing a psychiatrist or some counselor about what we thought was his deep depression. We gave him the name and phone number of a local psychiatrist, but he didn’t follow up. Stew says our friend is just lowering the blinds and turning off the lights.

Although the eighth decade of one’s life is hardly springtime—aches, ailments and memory gaps argue otherwise—why waste the life we have left by rushing death?

This case follows the case of another neighbor, a woman in her late sixties, who died from essentially self-neglect. She looked visibly jaundiced but ignored the advice of friends to urgently get medical care until she was all but dead. Our phone calls to her went unanswered. Though we don’t know the entire story—was she an alcoholic or somehow mentally ill?— it appears she wanted to die and would not let anyone interfere with her final plan.

A few months ago yet another woman died—by now our corner of the world may sound like Death Valley—when according to a sister who lived with her, “she lost the will to live” and essentially became a recluse.

There’s nothing we could have done about the two women or can do about the ongoing case of the man near us. They apparently want to turn out the lights and who are we to meddle? We can visit this friend, and we do frequently, just to let him know that we are here and to remind him to call us in case of an emergency night or day.

Compared to Morrie who was preparing for his inevitable and proximate death thoughtfully and sometimes even cheerfully, the situation with our neighbor is like a play about to turn into tragedy and no one can rewrite the ending.

I can’t fathom such despondency. Perhaps that is why at this point people resort to religion and prayers: There is nothing left to do but to implore the intervention of an Almighty to do the Impossible.

“My disease,” Morrie once told Albom, “is the most horrible and wonderful death. Horrible because, well, look at me. But wonderful because of all the time it gives me to say good-bye, and to figure out where I’m going next.”

“And where is that?” Albom asked.

Grinning somewhat mischievously, Morrie just said, “I’ll let you know.”

Morrie died in 1995 and went wherever or nowhere at all. But he never turned out the lights or lowered the blinds.


8 thoughts on “When people turn off their light

  1. Anonymous

    Dean Wylo has left a new comment on your post “When people turn off their own light”: Excellent post. My mother was one who drew the blinds and turned out the lights, refusing to see a doctor the last twenty or so years of her life. She always swore she'd not seek treatment if anything befell her. Indeed it did and indeed she didn't. While it was extremely difficult to witness she “did it her way”, stubborn, determined old broad to the end.As hard as it was on her children I do believe we can no more die another's death than we can live their life. Thank you for talking about this. Though our mother died eight years ago it is still painful to recall the circumstances, and this post helps in affirming she/we were/are not alone in them.


  2. Anonymous

    I totally understand the withdrawal. One too many of the dreams dashed, compounded by complete destitution, beyond social security. Once a life of vitality. And now, a stage with no more doors. Money is an important factor in old age.


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