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Good News About Bad News

I've been writing a lot about death lately. Death, disease, dementia, frailty, old age.
There's my new book, Dancing with Rose, which follows me into the land of Alzheimer's when I take job as a bottom-of-the-rung aide at a memory care facility. There's a piece I just wrote for about the hardscrabble life of the nickel-and-dimed women who work in eldercare. There's a story I wrote this spring for the L.A. Times magazine on "death with dignity," the end-of-life legislation that allows terminally ill people to hasten their own deaths with self-administered doses of legally prescribed drugs. (It's a law in my home state of Oregon and nowhere else.) And in early fall, I'll have a story in O (Oprah's) magazine on a program called "No One Dies Alone," in which volunteers sit in hospital rooms with dying "elderly orphans" in the last hours of their lives.

You might imagine the writer behind these projects to be morbid, morose and melancholic. Or just weird, like the Winona Ryder character in Beetlejuice, all gaunt and kohl-eyed and gloomy. Actually, I'm not. Well, I may be odd — that's for others to determine — but I am decidedly not somber. Although I am pessimistic about the things one would expect any sane person to be pessimistic about (the state of our health care system, U.S. incursions into places we do not belong, and Big Gulps), I generally think sunny thoughts. I am healthy and active and hang out with other healthy and active people. So what's up with all this death and disease stuff?

I think it's because one day, not all that long ago, I woke up and realized I was the next in line. You know the line I'm talking about. At the head of the line are your grandparents; then, behind them, come your parents (uncles, aunts), and finally, way back, lolling at the end, slacking off, paying so little attention that you don't even realize there is a line, comes you.

For me, for most of my life, the line moved so slowly that I don't think I knew it was moving. My great-great grandmother, known in the family as Old Oldie, held up the line for quite a while, living to 102. Then there was my great uncle Louie in Providence, the cigar store owner, who lived almost as long (smoking a stogie every day). My grandmother, feisty until the end, lived until age 94. After she was gone, her sister, my great aunt Jo, stepped to the head of the line and stayed there for several years.

With that generation gone, I fully expected the line to stall for a long time, crowded as it was with my mother and father, my aunts and uncles. But then, within just a few years, my mother got Alzheimer's, and my aunt got sick, and my other aunt got sick, and then my father, my irascible, bullheaded, tennis-playing, octogenarian father, started to fail. How could that be?

This guy was a rock — and by that I mean hard, elemental, unchanging. He was strong and steadfast in body, mind and opinion. I could (and did) disappear from his life for years, resurface and find him just the same. I always knew where I stood with him, and where I stood was usually in the doghouse. Still, when he died two summers ago, my foundation trembled. Then his older brother, my indestructible, mind-like-a-steel-trap, 92-year-old uncle, followed a year later.

Which left me at the head of the line.

Which left me: Next.

Until all this happened, I had been basking in the luxury of not having to think much about death and disease — my own or anyone else's. It's a luxury we've only recently started enjoying as a culture. Just a few generations ago, people were parents at 20, grandparents at 40 and dead at 60. Back not that long ago, people lived with, near or among the "elderly" — however that category was defined at the time. This was when oldsters were still a visible, every day part of the culture, not sequestered behind the wrought iron gates of Leisure World or Sunset Gardens or Harbor Pointe or Ridgeview Village. This was back when ordinary people — not just health care professionals — regularly encountered disease and death, when death was thought of as, well, part of life.

Now, watching that long line shorten in front of me until there was no buffer, I figured it was time to start seriously considering this whole circle of life thing. And the way writers come to terms with things, or at least the way this writer comes to terms with things, is to write about them.

The good news from the death and disease front? As I discovered writing the death with dignity story, taking control of the end of one's life, being the author of that final chapter, can be an extraordinarily powerful and deeply meaningful experience for both the person dying and the family. As I discovered writing the No One Dies Alone story, simply being present (literally and in the profound Zen way) can be an astonishing gift. And, as I discovered in Dancing with Rose, there is real life, vibrant, quirky, intensely experienced life, lived by those who have Alzheimer's. We are very much more than the sum of our remembered pasts.

It is not so bad to look this stuff right in the eye. Really.

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Lauren Kessler is the author of five works of narrative nonfiction, including the Washington Post bestseller Clever Girl and the Los Angeles Times bestseller The Happy Bottom Riding Club. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, O magazine, and The Nation. She directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon.

÷ ÷ ÷

Lauren Kessler is the author of five narrative nonfiction books. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, and The Nation. She directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Dancing with Rose: Finding Life in...
    Used Hardcover $7.50

  2. Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, the... Used Trade Paper $4.50
  3. The Happy Bottom Riding Club Used Trade Paper $9.95
  4. My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, a...
    Used Hardcover $10.50

Lauren Kessler is the author of My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, a Daughter, a Journey through the Thicket of Adolescence

6 Responses to "Good News About Bad News"

    Suzanne Jameson July 9th, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    Beautiful blog, Lauren. At some point, we'll all experience being next in line. Your writing helps provide a different perspective concerning how we choose to live and how we choose to die.

    John E. Smith July 9th, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    Thanks Lauren.

    LOL, we are all in denial.

    My brothers and sister and I will rendezvous in Wisconsin in early August to bury my Mom's ashes. I will carry your thoughts with me across country.

    Harry Urban July 9th, 2007 at 5:36 pm

    Great job Lauren. Your book is a wake up call for all of us proud baby boomers. We invent things like, "Sixty is the new fifty." Gimmee a break.
    Of all the words used to describe boomers, "dying" isn't one of them. We need to change the way we look at terminal illness and nursing/hospice care for our own good and for the sake of our children. I suggest everybody do some serious volunteer work with the elderly --it is at once rewarding and frightening.

    Valerie Brooks July 9th, 2007 at 8:20 pm

    The more we understand that we are "elders" to generations behind us and honor that in ourselves, the less likely we are of being afraid of death. I make this analogy: when women complain to me of the horrible things that are happening to their body after menopause--the veins, the sagging skin, the weight gain, the memory loss--I ask them, "Was it all that great when you had monthly periods, PMS, child birth, post-partum blues, and zits? It's all relative. My memory can stand to lose a few things. My body is happy not being tortured every month. When seeing the extremes of anything, like Altziehmers in our elders, or ovarian cancer in young women, it's painful and scary. But to honor our age, every decade, and see our "elders" as people we can learn from, then we can more easily accept that the passage of death comes for some late in life, but in others too early. Fear is what we have to battle. Openness strengthens the heart and mind.
    If we are brave, as you were, Lauren, to write about death, never mind voluntarily work in an entry-level job at a care facility, we can change the way we feel about our own eventual death, learn from those both younger and older than us, and make the most out of every minute.

    suzanne jameson July 9th, 2007 at 8:37 pm

    Harry Urban's comment is right on. Growing older and facing death is also "rewarding and frightening." One just has to be willing to accept the gifts that experience has to offer. Sadly, we boomers probably have the most resistance to growing old, I mean, we grew up on rock n' roll for God's sake. The Stones, the Who... This was never going to happen to us.

    Tom Hagley July 10th, 2007 at 8:50 am

    I found it a bit of a challenge to get over the 20-40-60 check-out-time way of thinking. Considering how life for us has been extended, I decided that it was more appropriate to be thinking in terms of Part II and how I would like to spend this next phase of life. My new-found passion was teaching. Working with hundreds of students over the past six years, together with the the traditional developments families enjoy together, has rekindled the enthusiasm that fueled Part I. However, my "place in line," as you so aptly described it, puts a special value on every day of Part II. Thank you for your thought-provoking blog, Lauren.

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