Category Archives: Death

1000 Words: The End

Now that I am, shall we say, of a certain age, I’ve been wrestling with the notion that one of these days — hell, one of these minutes — the world’s population will decrease by exactly one: me.

By the way, aren’t the French terrific for all their mots justes, all the ways they can comfortably express things that otherwise are too frightening or off-putting or sensitive to even mention? The line I use above, “of a certain age,” comes directly from the French, d’un certain âge, referring, of course, to the most ancient of fossils, lucky to still be able to draw a single breath. Wordmeister William Safire in 1995 wrote about the term in the New York Times. Funny thing is, acc’d’g to Safire, the numerical age the line refers to has been going up steadily ever since it first appeared in print in the English language in 1754. Its first usage, way back then, says he, implied a not terribly superannuated female who clearly was not interested in getting married. And, back then, if a woman remained unmarried by the age of, say 28 or 29, well, she was officially and incontrovertibly a spinster. Which term itself illustrates how colorful and rich the English language can be.

Anyway, let me admit right here and now that the tangent I took in the above paragraph was my way of avoiding the topic at hand, which is my own mortality.

So, let me try to take that plunge again.

I’m 66 years years old. No longer can I pretend to be middle aged. I’m collecting Social Security. I’m semi-retired. These days, I find myself incapable of doing only seven tenths of the things I could do when I was 40. And hell, I was no kid when I was 40, for pity’s sake!

I have more comorbitities than fingers on my right hand. I swallow nine prescription drugs every morning to keep various organs and systems functioning at some minimal level. It takes me precious seconds to remember people’s names or blurt out some witty remark in casual conversation, things I was able to do in the time it took for my synapses to fire just a few short years ago. It too often hurts to walk, stand, sit, or lie down. A defibrillator is implanted in my chest. I have at least one metal joint, with a second due as soon as I can face the prospect of another surgery. My knees creak. My bowels balk. My hair is white.

Speaking of hair, more grows out of my ears and nose than on the front half of my scalp.

And, speaking of short years, each passing one becomes shorter and shorter as I grow older. On my last day of school when I was in eighth grade, I could look forward to a summer vacation that would last forever. September? Who cares?! That’s as far in the future as the year 2525.

Now, years are like weeks. Weeks like minutes.

I am old. The corollary: I’m that much closer to death.

There. I’ve said it. Death.

Truth is, I’ve been thinking about — and trying my best not to think about — death since I was a kid. Search me why, but from my earliest memories I can recall justifying decisions by saying to myself, How will I feel about this when I’m on my deathbed? Conversely, the very idea that there would be a deathbed in store for me was a notion that scared the living bejesus out of me.

How could this world go on without me in it?

One of the landmarks of adultness is accepting — grudgingly — the reality that the world indeed will continue to spin, that people will still go to work, make love, visit the Grand Canyon, bounce their children on their knees, laugh, cry, run, jump, nap, smell flowers, and sneeze from their pollen even after I die.

Child development experts long have recognized that the youngest of children see all existence as this thing that revolves around them. When a six-month old is hungry, someone comes out of the murkiness and feeds them. When that young’un loads her diaper, bang, someone’s there to take it off, clean her nethers, and put on a fresh, new one. All this happens as if by magic. The kid doesn’t have to do anything but be.

Then we go through a series of often difficult, occasionally traumatic realizations that the universe contains a few more things in it than us. Than me.

After a few decades, we start to grasp that the universe, in fact, does not need me. That when me no longer exists nothing really changes. The following characters viewed themselves as the most important, indispensable individuals in the world: Ramses II, Alexander the Great, Qin She Huang, Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, Charlemagne, Genghis Kahn, Mehmed II, Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, Peter the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Victoria, Joseph Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. All ruled significant swaths of the world. All died. The world went on.

Were they, somehow, able to look back and see how the rest of humanity went on laughing, crying, running, jumping, napping, smelling flowers, and sneezing from their pollen even after they were gone, would they be surprised?

The six-year-old still residing in me would be. The 66-year-old wouldn’t. I came to that realization, again, grudgingly.

The landmark moment came to me one night, in a terrifying dream. I was standing on the edge of an abyss. Next to me was a black, empty, endless chasm. I couldn’t stop it from happening so I fell into it. I’d never felt so terrified, so panicky, yet so liberated in all my life.

Endless nothingness.

I realized the dream was a metaphor for dying. That’s the way we writers think. Just our luck.

In any case, ever since that night, I’ve been reconciled to the idea that, yep, one day — maybe even one minute from now — I’m going to die. I can’t fight it. I can only accept it.

Mind you, I didn’t say I was entirely thrilled about it.





Hot Air: They Had A Lot Of Fun

A guy I once knew shared something precious with me one night. He’s dead now. Lived a good long life. Within a year after I met him, his wife up and died. She hadn’t been sick; at least no one knew of any medical problems she might or might not have had. One day living a carefree, retired life; the next, being dressed and coifed at the undertaker’s.

The guy was crushed, naturally. He’d married his wife when he was in the army. A Korea vet. He never looked back. Now, whether or not the wife was altogether thrilled, lo those many years, is an unanswerable question. But she remained wed to him so one might suspect she found the situation at least tolerable.

Anyway, a few weeks after the funeral, the guy came back to the saloon where I met him. Everybody bought him drinks and hugged him or patted him on the back. The night was his. He pulled out a pile of snapshots of his wife and began showing them off to the rest of us, one by one. That is, he’d get each of us alone and share the pix. Finally, it was my turn.

By the time he got to me, he was well fortified. He could hold his liquor quite well and, that night, his capacity to process alcohol was put to the test. Let’s say his pain had been abated for the time being.

As he showed me the photos, he’d linger over this Christmas scene or that birthday or one of the kids’ graduation parties, the kid in cap and gown standing between the guy and his wife, everybody beaming. Once or twice I got the idea he might start crying. Considering we were in a bar in Kentucky where a grown man crying might be grounds for ejection, I wondered how things might play out. But he never did cry, although I’d bet his pillow was soaked later that night.

So, the pictures kept coming. We came to one that, frankly, jarred me. His wife half-sat, half-lay provocatively across their living room sofa, wearing only a negligee. Or maybe it was a teddy or a baby doll. I just tried looking each of the terms up and I still can’t tell one from the other. All I know is what she was wearing was sheer and lacy and it wasn’t some full length thing, if that’ll help you.

I think I may have actually recoiled a bit, not as if I’d seen a poisonous snake but, say, a half dozen one-ounce gold bars in his hand. It wasn’t so much frightening as…, well, odd. He noticed how disconcerted I was. “It’s alright,” he said, as if he figured I needed permission to continue looking at the photo.

What does one say in a situation like that? All I could think of was, “She was beautiful.”

The guy grinned in a way that told me for a brief moment he was happy just to remember how beautiful his wife was and how great it felt to have another guy confirm it. Guys are like that. They need reassurance from each other about such things. Don’t ask me why.

“She sure was,” the guy said. And then he fell into something of a trance, staring at the picture. I understood why, yet it remained an uncomfortable moment for me. Perhaps, I mused silently, he might better indulge in this alone.

Then, he seemed to snap out of it. He grinned again and looked me in the eye. “We had a lot of fun,” he said.

I don’t recall if there were more pictures. I was just touched by that remark. Here was a man mourning his wife. He was pushing 75, relatively vigorous but, nevertheless, a septuagenarian. You wouldn’t have mistaken him for a younger man. She was about the same age when she died. That picture of her in her negligee or nightie or whatever had been taken decades before. I’d bet that little sheer, lacy thing had sat, neatly folded, in her bottom drawer for a long, long time. Or, maybe not. Whatever, had she worn the thing the night before she died, she certainly wouldn’t have resembled the younger version of herself in the picture.

Yet, in that guy’s mind, she’d forever be a young, thirty-something beauty. His eyes were moist. I watched him hold that picture in his big, meaty, weathered hands, carefully, as if it were a fledging bird. He was thinking, remembering. He didn’t have to tell me what was going on in his head. I knew it.

Some other person might have interpreted his remark — We had a lot of fun — differently. That person might have thought it offensive or inappropriate or even an insult to his wife’s memory.

Me? I just saw a man who’d lived a good long time and was lucky enough to have found the love of his life early on, one who still looked ravishing in his eyes even though she was old as the hills. And he wasn’t at all ashamed to say so.

Hot Air

Up In Smoke

The other day I wrote a bit about teddy bears and other silly mementos to mark the passing of a human. The gist was if anyone tries to memorialize me through the use of a teddy bear or a crucifix, my dead soul will violate the physical laws of the Universe and haunt the crap out of the person or persons who committed that atrocity. [No link; I’m too lazy to dig it up this AM.]

A few days later, I came upon this:

Cubs Urn

It’s a Chicago Cubs-branded urn, sold by an outfit called The Eternal Image Group. Some perverse part of me wants to have my ashes sequestered eternally in something like this.

Then again, wouldn’t that be the equivalent of hell? (Which, BTW, I don’t believe in but if my Earthly remains are shut away in a Cubs urn, I would indeed be in hell.)

[h/t to Bleed Cubbie Blue.]

I Wanna Die

Zeke Emanuel, brother of my beloved hometown Chicago’s mayor Rahm, has written quite the controversial  piece for The Atlantic magazine.


Zeke (L) & Rahm Emanuel

[Photo by Annie Leibovitz]

Zeke, a noted bioethicist and medical school professor, says he wants to die at 75. This flies in the face of everything we’ve stood for in this holy land. The search for eternal youth and pushing back our mortality have been driving forces in America as much as eating sawdust-y fast food, screeching about taxes, and trying to catch glimpses of sideboob.

The mayor’s bro isn’t up for living to the ripe old age of 100. Now this is something I’ve been saying for years. Why would anyone want to live past, say, 85 even? Sure, sure, sure, you may point out that one oddball, that outlier who’s 89 and still swimming laps and going for long hikes. I hate that guy anyway, no matter who he is.



He’s a scourge, an indictment, a reminder of what an achy, flatulent, overweight, in need of a nap curmudgeon with a scalpful of precancerous growths, a prostate the size of a cantaloupe, arthritis in every joint, achilles tendonitis, a bum hip, balky knees, hair over every inch of my body, wreck I am. Man, I hate that guy.

That slim, trim, maniacally grinning, running, swimming, salad-eating 89 y.o. loon is proof of nothing. There’s one of him for every million other 89-ers who can barely get out of bed in the morning and/or can’t even remember where the floor is.

Aging is something that can’t be beaten. Breakdown is built into our very cells. Hell, stories have been written since the time of the ancient Greeks about the folly of humans who find a way to live forever. Fraudsters like Deepak Chopra to this day makes scads of dough trying to convince the criminally gullible that they, too, can live indefinitely.



Ivan Albright’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

Zeke Emanuel writes that yes, dying is a loss, both to the dead person and her/his survivors. But, he points out:

[H]ere is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.

I have a pal whose parents lived in the Netherlands. They were diagnosed with cancer within months of each other. It wasn’t that they were told they were going to die within the next three months but, in that country, there is no mania for life, no compulsion to live even if living is only a technical distinction. They elected to check out, together, at a time of their choosing. They threw a party for themselves and then, with the help of the Netherlands’ health care system, they went to a place and were ushered out, peacefully, with dignity, and well before the cancer that was growing within them could turn their lives into hell.

That makes a lot more sense than tilting against the windmill of death.

My mother, almost precisely a year ago, was found an inch from death on her bedroom floor by my brother. She’d been laying there for three days. Poor Joey had been overwhelmed with other responsibilities and problems and, for the only time since she’d turned frail and elderly, hadn’t checked in with Ma for those days. Wouldn’t you know it — that’s just when she fell and shattered her hips next to her bed.

When Joey saw Ma laying there, he was certain she was gone. She wasn’t, though. I wrote at the time that I wished she had died then and there. I knew that, alive, she’d be sentenced to a “life” of misery. And so she was.

Ma lost her home. She spent her remaining five months in hospitals and nursing homes, something she’d told me countless times she couldn’t even bear to think about. She was in great pain and she gradually lost touch with reality.

Oddly, some members of the fam. shook their fingers at me. How could you wish our sweet mother/grandmother/great-grandmother to be dead? they said.

I answered, Because she wasn’t really living.

Nursing Home


Emanuel writes of those who’ve bought into pushing death back as far as it can go:

So American immortals may live longer than their parents, but they are likely to be more incapacitated. Does that sound very desirable? Not to me.

The situation becomes of even greater concern when we confront the most dreadful of all possibilities: living with dementia and other acquired mental disabilities. Right now approximately 5 million Americans over 65 have Alzheimer’s; one in three Americans 85 and older has Alzheimer’s. And the prospect of that changing in the next few decades is not good. Numerous recent trials of drugs that were supposed to stall Alzheimer’s—much less reverse or prevent it—have failed so miserably that researchers are rethinking the whole disease paradigm that informed much of the research over the past few decades. Instead of predicting a cure in the foreseeable future, many are warning of a tsunami of dementia—a nearly 300 percent increase in the number of older Americans with dementia by 2050.

Half of people 80 and older with functional limitations. A third of people 85 and older with Alzheimer’s. That still leaves many, many elderly people who have escaped physical and mental disability. If we are among the lucky ones, then why stop at 75? Why not live as long as possible?

Even if we aren’t demented, our mental functioning deteriorates as we grow older. Age-associated declines in mental-processing speed, working and long-term memory, and problem-solving are well established. Conversely, distractibility increases. We cannot focus and stay with a project as well as we could when we were young. As we move slower with age, we also think slower.

I’m with Zeke. I’ll be more than happy to check out at the age of 75. Just stuff my ashes into a Cubs urn. They still probably won’t have won the World Series by that late date.

Hot Air

Who Cares?

We care about many things in this holy land.

We are a diverse group of some 320 million souls, passionately concerned with things like guns, football, which movie had the highest box office figures this past weekend, whatever Kanye West has to say, the Kardashians, and those idiots who sell duck calls.

Oh, we care, deeply, loudly, and, often as not, irrationally.

One thing we don’t care much about is what happens to our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, husbands and wives, and any others who’ve had the poor foresight to grow old.

And the funny thing is, we’re all headed, inexorably, toward that moment when we are unable to lift ourselves out of bed, unable to recognize our children, unsure of what day, month or year this is, incapable of contributing to and participating in this competitive, free market world.

That is, unless we’re lucky enough to go to sleep one night and fail to wake up in the morning. Many people consider that a tragedy. But it pales compared to watching a human being waste away as one health care facility after another says, Hey kids, you’ve gotta move your mother now! Her insurance is running out. Her bank balance is approaching zero.

My mother, for one, won’t ever vote again, so no politician really cares about her. She won’t ever be able to contribute money to any lobbying groups or professional associations or advocacy organizations, so no one with any clout will speak up for her.

She’s superfluous. A drain on society. A taker.

And many of us loathe takers. So many, in fact, that we’ve elected to Congress a whole raft of men and women whose whole purpose as public servants, it seems, is to protect the rest of us from takers.

They’ll be damned if they’re going to spend our precious tax dollars on all those takers.

So rather than provide reasonable, comfortable, resting spots for our fellow aged human beings, rather than financing dignified send-offs for those preparing to take that mandatory plunge into heaven or hell or the chilling nothingness, we instead give them…, well, nothing.

Because we don’t care.

A friend of mine comes from the Netherlands. Her parents were elderly and sick. They were in pain with no hope to ever lead productive, fulfilling lives again. So, in their homeland, they were given the option of convening all their friends and loved ones for a big going-away party where they could say goodbye and tell everybody how much they loved them. People ate and drank, there were laughter and tears, embraces, and closure. Then each of the parents was given an injection and within moments, was dead.

What a way to go.

We don’t do that here because we care about something called the sanctity of life. I wouldn’t argue with those who espouse that, only every time I see my mother, I pass roomsful of people lying in their own shit, their eyes aflame with dementia, their sleep disturbed by three or four other hapless souls down the hall wailing like banshees, their rooms flooded with harsh, fluorescent lighting, their arms pierced with needles, and tubes coming out of their urethras so that the janitorial staff won’t have to spend all day mopping up piss. I’m not seeing much sanctity when I go see Ma.

The closest things come to that is when Ma stirs out of her private misery long enough beg her god to take her, now.

I’d love to throw Ma a going-away party, the way they do it in the Netherlands. I’d do it because I don’t care about any “sanctity of life.” I care about Ma.

Life’s Hot Air

My Wish For My Mother

The opening line of The Stranger by Albert Camus goes like this:

Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.

That is perhaps the most deft and revealing introduction to a character in the history of the literature. With those two short sentences, Camus tells us everything we need to know about Meursault, the eponymous l’étranger. The rest of the book is detail.

Maman, of course, is the informal French for Mother.

I don’t know when Sue Glab is going to die. But I want it to be now. This minute.

I’ve been in Chicago the last few days. My mother, who had a terrible fall in August and has been bedridden since, is hanging on to life by a slender thread. She’s suffering physically, mentally, and in her spirit.

An infection is beginning to cause her body to eat away at itself. Her mind is going. She hardly recognizes me.

Now and again, she slips into a brief lucidity and begins praying to god to take her away. Thursday she looked heavenward, raised her hands (as much as she could), and wondered aloud, “I’ve been a good woman; why are you doing this to me?”

Throughout the years she’s had a spotty relationship with her god. She’s never renounced him or stopped believing he could help her. But at times, I think, she wanted very much to tell him off good.

Now, she feels she’ll be getting the chance to talk to him face to face very soon.


Happier, Healthier, Younger

When I go back to Chicago later this week, I’m going to bring her a rosary. It’ll make her feel a tiny bit better.

Then again, I hope I get the call that tells me she won’t be needing anything anymore. Tonight, maybe. Or tomorrow. I don’t know.

I envy her the capacity to appeal to her god. If I was a believer, I’d say, “Listen, big boy, quit playing around with my mother! Take her away. Stop being such a goddamned bully.”

Hah. Goddamned bully. As if he could damn himself.

My mother, at times, was as tough as nails. I could no easier get a fib past her or change her mind about a grounding than I could flap my arms and take flight. Physically, she developed a pair of guns by making a weekly batch of homemade bread loaves. She’d knead an enormous panful of dough for long, long minutes every Friday.

Believe me, I didn’t want to mess with her.

Now, she’s skeletal. She resembles nothing more than a bony robin fledgling who’s fallen out of a tree. She can’t even hold up her pencil and one of her beloved crossword puzzles. She hasn’t been able to do that for months.

She is, in fact, dead already. Only her lungs and heart don’t know it.

Woody Allen once said, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering — and it’s all over much too soon.”

A joke, sure. But humor at its highest level works because it’s undergirded by truth. And today Allen’s evaluation of life is borne out in spades by my mother’s continued existence. She is miserable, lonely, and suffering. That is the sum total of her life at this moment.

And when it’s over, it won’t be soon enough.

Your Daily Hot Air

Life & Death

First, a preamble: I acknowledge it is good policy to eat well and exercise in order to live a healthier, more comfortable life. (Along those lines, I’m also in favor of good weather and traffic safety, but we’ll tackle those controversial issues another day.)

Anyway, two deaths in the news in recent weeks have grabbed my attention. James Gandolfini and Randy Udall. Both died relatively young. Gandolfini was 51 and Udall 61.


Gandolfini & Udall

Randy Udall was a member of the storied, multi-generational political family dynasty of the West and Southwest. His kin included Mark, a senator from Colorado, Morris, a member of the House from Arizona, and Stewart, Secretary of the Interior under JFK and LBJ. Other Udalls began holding political office as far back as the 1880s and a brand new generation is settling into legislatures and statehouses as we speak. Here’s the Udall political family tree.


You Probably Can’t Read This, But You Get The Idea

Gandolfini, in case you’re a Nepalese hermit, was the beloved actor who played Tony in the landmark cable series, The Sopranos. His family didn’t exist in real life but it, too, has been treed.




Two known guys; two shortened lives. Conventional wisdom has it, though, that Udall’s exit was an unfortunate, tragic happenstance. Gandolfini, the CW holds, has nobody to blame but himself for his early departure.

The wags say Gandolfini pretty much killed himself. Udall’s death, on the other hand, is being positioned as somehow organic and in harmony with nature — “natural causes,” the news stories insist.

That’s because Udall was a hiker, an amateur naturalist, thin as a rail, brown from the sun, his lung capacity probably rivaling that of a harbor seal.

James Gandolfini was a jolly mound of rigatoni- and braciole-derived heft.

Rigatoni & Braciole

The Smoking Gun

For all the food fetishists out there (and Bloomington, believe me, is crawling with them), I’ve got a bit of news for you: They’re both in the same place right now.

That is, six feet under.

No, not the HBO series. Buried.

I can’t help but thinking a lot of folks believe they can hold off check out time indefinitely. I’m loaded with Facebook friends who put up urgent posts that meats, breads, the wrong kind of fish, prepared foods, non-local foods, cookies, cheeses, pasteurized milk, rhubarb, peanuts, hot dogs, cold cuts, reduced fat anything, couscous, frozen yogurt, trail mix, granola, energy bars, bran muffins, blueberry pies, rice cakes, smoothies, bananas, and pretty much everything else in the world that’s edible are as dangerous as so many cyanide cocktails.

I have no idea what these people eat but whatever it is, they’re not happy about it. That’s because, I’m certain, most food fetishists aren’t terribly fond of the whole idea of sticking things into their mouths.

James Gandolfini dug digging into an enormous plate of melon and prosciutto risotto or truffled polenta. And you know what? He was happy as a clam before, during, and after mealtime.

It’s a good bet poor old Randy Udall had to make do with a garden salad minus any olives, Parmigiano-Reggiano, anchovies, feta, or — horrors! — croutons. I can’t imagine him patting his nearly non-existent belly with a satisfied smile on his face.

Udall swore up and down he derived happiness from trudging through miles and miles of wilderness, braving rainstorms, mosquitoes, poison ivy, and all the other health propagandists doing the same thing. He died while on a solo backpack hike along the Wind River Range in Wyoming, his walking poles still in his hands. Gandolfini died in Italy, probably with a toothpick between his fingers.

I’m sure they were both happy. I’m just as sure they’re both dead.

Dead Man’s Curve

This is the only death song I could find that isn’t sickeningly sweet or terrifyingly ghoulish. The best I can say about is that it fits.

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