A Good Death

My friend Janet died a few months ago. It came as a shock to her wide circle of friends in New York City and beyond, although it probably shouldn’t have. Janet was 75 and suffered her share of health problems. Still, it was hard to reconcile the news with my image of the vibrant person I’d seen just a few weeks before. At our last outing—to the Big Apple Circus (Janet’s suggestion)—she was as excited and wide-eyed as any kid in the audience. No matter that we seemed to be the only adults unaccompanied by minors; Janet, a former WNYC radio librarian who was still working as a classical music editor, admired the live orchestra and compared the elegant aerialist, working on a length of silk fabric, to her own study of the trapeze at some point in the past. At dinner afterwards, she brought me up to date on the ongoing exploits of regulars from the Italian class she’d been taking, and of her online search for comparative translations of Dante’s Inferno. Then she raised her glass of retsina for a toast. “I have to have retsina. It’s a Greek restaurant!” she laughed.

Janet died alone, in her sleep, of a heart attack. She was found a day or so later by friends who’d become concerned that she hadn’t touched base as usual, friends who were then faced with all the legalities, bureaucracies and uncertainties that accompany the passing of a never married, childless New Yorker: contacting distant relatives; searching for a will; realizing, only after the police had sealed up the apartment, that significant items needed to be retrieved; trying to determine last wishes about burial/cremation/funeral arrangements.

It was, by the typical standard, a sad and lonely passing. There were no children at hand, no family drawn near, only the cats and the accumulation of some 40 years spent in the same, tiny Upper West Side studio. “Just like Harry,” I thought. My Uncle Harry, another single, childless New Yorker, had died not long before, at the same age and under similar circumstances. He sat down in the kitchen chair at his Long Island home one morning, had a massive heart attack, and was found a day later after he didn’t turn up to close the deal on a new car, the first brand-new vehicle he’d bought in decades. As the nearest relative, I got the call from the Nassau County Sheriff’s detective who’d been summoned to the house.

Everyone’s first words were, “If only he hadn’t been alone,” as if that would have changed things significantly, made his death better somehow. We all seem to have an image of what constitutes a “good” death—with loving children nearby to hold a hand, exchange last words and wishes, handle arrangements.  I think of my parents, who died in quick succession around the same time as Harry. Family was present in both cases. My father died at home, as peacefully as possible for an advanced cancer patient. But the quick weeks since the time he’d received a terminal diagnosis had been a whirlwind of doctor visits, tests, prescriptions, hospitalizations, medical equipment and hospice care. He hadn’t had time to process it all, according to the hospice nurse, who told me, “He’s got a lot of anger. I hope we have time to make some peace.” My brothers and I were still gathered in the kitchen, in a daze, awaiting the arrival of a funeral home attendant, when the same nurse swept by with an armload of morphine and other meds to be flushed down the drain as quickly as possible. Someone made a half-hearted joke about their street value. It was no time before my mother began slipping into dementia and suffered a series of strokes that eventually left her unable, or unwilling, to eat. My oldest brother was at her side at the last. But in truth, her not-so-sudden death came as a relief—putting an end to the increasing indignities of life in the nursing home to which she’d been confined, and to the guilt and anxiety of her children, who were woefully unprepared to handle the continually escalating medical crises.

My parents’ funerals were traditional Catholic affairs, with the viewing and Mass (combined for time and efficiency these days) at the same church where they had been married, a procession of cars to the cemetery, family and friends dropping by with food and expressions of sympathy. Most of the details had been pre-arranged, down to the gravestone that had been set in place years before, eerily bearing their names and birth dates—end dates ready to be filled in.

No such plans were in place for Janet and Harry. Friends and family had to scramble to figure out arrangements and handle paperwork. Neither was affiliated with a church, self-identifying as spiritual more than religious, so each was cremated and memorials thrown together. Janet’s zestful pursuit of culture and learning was well represented by the abundant number of friends who gathered to drink wine and tell stories, the amazing thing being that there were so many anecdotes people from different parts of her life had never heard before. Many didn’t know about her trapeze days; her voiceover work on Japanese horror flicks was news to me.

A similar thing happened with the memorial for Harry, a charming professorial type with the manners of a Southern gentleman, the practiced voice of a radio announcer and the habits of an inveterate debater. Arriving at the military cemetery where his ashes were to be interred, I was stunned to realize the long line of cars waiting at the gate were for Harry, not the nearby service for a younger soldier. A very It’s a Wonderful Life episode unfolded, as people no one had realized he’d even had contact with stepped forward to offer stories about how Harry had touched their lives, through confidences nurtured in his years as a teacher, as an antiquarian book dealer and as a fixture at one of the local book stores.

In short, the memorials—not really services, but gatherings—were filled with the tears, laughter, joy and sorrow representative of lives well lived, and the actual solitary circumstances of their deaths became mere footnotes. You could say it’s because they were quintessential New York characters, people with big personalities who came from far away places at a young age to pursue their dreams (Janet from Wyoming and Harry from Arkansas) but I’ve also come to think of their passing as a new reality of death for the urban dwellers and unmoored among us who leave hometowns and family far behind to pursue new lives in new places. Their lives may or may not have involved traditional trappings of marriage, children and home ownership, but in death, the full sum of their care and concern for others came to the fore.

While they didn’t leave specific instructions, as so many of us who don’t want to think about the inevitable fail to do, things all unfolded just as Janet and Harry hinted they would have wanted. They made a quick exit and left behind wide circles of friends who came together as family to honor them. In place of long, lingering scenes involving hospitals, doctors and Do Not Resuscitate orders, I carry an image of Harry standing on the Long Island Railroad platform, sending me back to the city after our last dinner together with a kiss on the cheek and an “I love you, young lady,” and of Janet’s parting words, “Let’s run away to the circus!” And it leaves me wondering, between them and my parents, who really had the better deaths?