Sunday, April 26, 2020


Bob’s first wife told this story.  We were sitting in her daughter’s kitchen (Bob was the father) waiting for news on the daughter’s recent surgery for colon cancer.  We were eating peaches the daughter had canned when she was well.  Her four children had been shooed away.  We were being very civilized.

The first wife told about working as a nursing assistant in a nursing home for old people.  She had been standing by the bed of a very old comatose woman who was kept alive by a respirator.  Her supervisor was standing with her.  She mused to the supervisor, “It seems almost like a shame to keep her alive. We should let her go.”

“Fine,” said the supervisor.  “You can pull the plug right now.”

“But I don’t have authority. I just keep her clean and make her bed.  I can’t kill people.”

The supervisor made her do it anyway.  She had thought it wouldn’t have made any difference, but once the machine quit, the woman still moved a little. Her mind was gone but her body wanted to keep living.  Then it stopped and the supervisor walked away.

The first wife said, “I will never do such a thing again.”  Soon she left for different job.  This was years ago, in the Sixties, and by now all Bob’s wives are dead except me. His first wife is dead (the cancer was genetic) and buried with her daughter, whose surgery didn't work.  Wives two and four (who became the widow) were cremated and cast into the Pacific Ocean.  One of the four grandchildren is dead. The others have children who are just beginning to marry.  None of them have died.

This pandemic makes us all wonder about the value of human life.  Some cling to it, others try to escape.  All my parents, aunts and uncles, and both my brothers are dead.  What does that mean about my still being alive?  Both brothers said they hated me (which is not the same as really hating me) which — I think — meant that that they expected me to be like my mother and give them whatever they wanted. They never quite understood the reality of me.  When my mother died, they thought I would want all her things and were surprised that I had my own bed, clock, chair of my own. I had left in 1961 and it was now 1999.

When I did my hospital chaplaincy (1980) it was through Clinical Pastoral Education which includes a lot of reflection about what happens, but mostly raises more questions.  When I was serving congregations, some people would hide the fact that they were dying, as though it were shameful or illegal.  

My father’s cousin, an old man, came with his Shoshone companion to see the photos my father took long, long ago on the South Dakota prairie.  He INSISTED. The photo he wanted most was the house his grandfather designed and built, totally impractically, with big windows in the mansard roof that made the house impossible to heat or keep out wind.  He didn’t want to leave until he found that photo, which we did but it took a couple of days. He didn’t tell me he was dying of cancer or that he met his companion at the hospital where she was a nursing assistant.  In his remaining time he created a master genealogy compendium and sent copies.

What is a human life worth?  This old man had no children, had once been married for a few years, both circumstances like my own. He did not have a college degree.  His career was accounting for resource extraction businesses, like uranium, but he wasn’t rich.  My set of careers had included two college diplomas, undergrad and graduate, but I had less money than he did.  We were both a bit defiant, a bit over-inclined to remember and explain our young years of adventure.  In WWII he had been stationed in New Guinea as an airplane mechanic.  

But he wanted to talk about his boyhood in South Dakota. He was very angry at his father and worshipped his mother as a saint.  Strangely, people who are dying often seem to think about their parents’ lives more than their own.  So one meaning of individual life is that it links the generations, who in retrospect become an array of people with various lives. 

I’m reading “Tightrope” by Kristof and Wohan, which is anchored in the little town of Yamhill, Oregon.  It ignores the Portland State University lives of Kristof’s parents, who both taught there.  It’s remarkable that they lived on the little farm in Yamhill, did not separate their son from the locals, and that he stayed friends with those less achieving people even when their world collapsed around them and they died young — alcoholic, obese, addicted, but still at core the same as when they were kids.  What does it mean to be alive if so much time, effort and ruinous debt goes into snuffing out consciousness with drugs and alcohol?  There were suicides, both fast and slow.  They were often in pain.  But many others from Yamhill did fine.

Besides the stories, the book is full of statistics in hopes that they explain or at least limit the causes of early death. They recommend college degrees, good health practices, tight families that help each other, and to some extent pure luck. Kristof’s parents became professors at PSU, which had its roots in the Vanport flood where it had been a tiny education program until it moved to the city and then grew quickly in response to the GI Bill.  

My mother got her teaching degree there while I was in high school so she could put me through college.  She may have been taught by Kristof’s parents.  Their ideas seem more like Reed than PSU but we were all inclined towards progressivism then, conscious of international war and the lives lost, confident in the future.

In actuarial terms, when insurance companies pay for deaths, they figure out how much one’s life is worth in terms of earning money.  You’re worth more if you have a college degree, regardless of the quality of your standards or how many people love you.  They have charts. This is a product of a culture that decided, almost consciously, that  arithmetic was the way to evade the differences between cultures and families by reducing them all into numbers, the way money defines classes and where you live and what you do for fun.

When Bob’s first wife, who had no college, pulled the plug on the machine that kept that old lady alive, she was diminishing the profits of that nursing home.  When that old lady’s husband had died in WWII, he was preserving the quality of life for Americans, or so they both believed.  We come back to Kenner’s question:  “What does it mean?”  Meaning, "life" as the absence of death.

1 comment:

nelliemcclung said...

I just finished reading Tightrope and discussing it with a small group of which I am a part. I am forwarding you separately the New York times article he wrote in case you don't get the NYtimes. What struck me about the book was not anything I didn't know but rather the poignancy of the peoples' lives. I was born at a lucky time and in a great city, Toronto, which afforded a bread man's daughter a quality education and opportunities to work and to study further. So much luck involved. My father could have gone somewhere else than Montreal when he immigrated from Ireland. He and my mother could have moved somewhere else than Toronto. We could have lived somewhere that jobs disappeared. My father retired before the end of door to door bread delivery. I don't know how anyone reading the book wouldn't realize the systemic problems that these people were unable to surmount.

The chapter on interventions was fine. There had to be something hopeful but really he was talking about outliers and targeted interventions. These cannot be scaled up. Public policy has to change. I am appreciating your insights into your family sad though they are. When Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize, Jonathan Franzen said "people, people, people - that's all she writes about". But for me people are of unending interest.