Author Archives: Ray Woodcock

Mourning the Loss of the Democratic Party

I’m sure that title looks political. I don’t mean it that way. I do have posts related to the Democratic Party, in other blogs, that are political. I may cite some of those posts, here, for clarification or support. But in this post, I don’t intend a political purpose. I intend to mourn a loss.

I didn’t grow up in a politically oriented home. Mom, I think, tended to vote Democrat, at least before the 1980s, and Dad tended to vote Republican. Their choices were based on broad economic and political priorities. Dad railed against the hippie freeloaders and the draft card burners, while Mom seemed more concerned about poverty and racial injustice. But that had changed by 1980. By that time, on my return visits home, I saw that the folks had drunk the anti-abortion Kool-Aid. They believed the direction of our country should be steered by that issue.

And maybe that’s where it started. Maybe, by then, people were starting to glom onto these single issues and forming a sense of tribal loyalty. For the folks, it was a religious thing. It was the Sixth Commandment, given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. What could possibly be more important than that? I ask, tongue in cheek — because, of course, the Bible is not quite that simple. And even if it were, the governance of a nation definitely is not.

Mom and Dad didn’t just dream that up, though. Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980 was the start of the Moral Majority, of the mutual manipulation and back-scratching between conservative Christians and the Republican Party, for whom abortion was a big vote magnet.

Meanwhile, I was going pretty much the opposite direction, transitioning away from my childhood faith toward a decade (i.e., the 1980s) as a New York lawyer whose closest contact with religion was a Jewish wife. I was among those who ridiculed the stupidity of religious conservatives and the hypocrisy of their philandering televangelists.

And not just religious conservatives. I was also right in tune with those who poked fun at the rednecks, the West Virginians, the trailer trash. I didn’t realize, then, that Bonhoeffer’s Rule was in play — referring, there, to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author of those famous words about how the Nazis came for the Jews, and then for the communists, and so forth; and, each time, he didn’t speak up, because he was not a Jew or a communist; and then, when the Nazis came for him, there was no one left to speak up.

What started as ridicule of white trash, based on their poverty and their religion and their ignorance, real or perceived, grew over the decades into disparagement and even outright racial hatred of white people generally. This was a hatred indulged most commonly by other white people who, like Bonhoeffer, believed they, personally, were exempt; why would anybody target them?

I haven’t studied the matter. I don’t know precisely how the Democratic Party, known forever as the party of the working man, and of the poor and the homeless, of equality for people of all races and socioeconomic statuses — I don’t know how that party ever managed to make itself the party of inequality, promoting animosity among races and between sexes, throwing aside a presidential candidate (i.e., Bernie Sanders, in 2016) whose message focused on socioeconomic opportunity, in order to prefer one (i.e., Hillary Clinton) who stood for a sneering elite.

Except that I do know — because, to a limited extent, I was there. As I say, I was among those who laughed at the hicks; I joined in the jeering at the gun-toting, Bible-thumping fools who elected politicans against their own self-interest, as the common phrase went. Not to deny that there are indeed many fools in this world, and many politicians (among others) eager to sell them lies — but the fact is, I was busy with other things. I wasn’t really trying to understand those silly conservatives. I was content to just take the word of comedians and frustrated magazine writers. We all understood there was no alternative but to reject what those yahoos stood for, and wait for them to come around to what we considered the obvious truth.

Like my parents, being a bit ridiculous in their political thinking circa 1980, I — a man who has always congratulated himself on his critical intellect — was indulging my own unreasonable faith. I had faith in the New York Times, for instance. I believed the Times really tried to be impartial among multiple perspectives. I pretty much took it as gospel. I was, in fact, rather closeminded: I knew what I believed about Fox News, and about Rush Limbaugh, among others, without actually making much of an effort to verify that my beliefs were accurate.

In fairness, I should acknowledge that my parents faced the quandary many of us face, in a two-party system that essentially requires religious conservatives to share a political party with rapacious big-business capitalists, or else join an opposing party that supposedly represents both egalitarian socialists and intellectual elitists. In a system like this, sometimes there seems to be no choice but to be a bit ridiculous.

Maybe that was much of the explanation then; maybe it’s much of the explanation now. Maybe, when you have such a big tent, with so many divergent views supposedly represented by one candidate for each political office, you wind up being dragged along with the masses. Maybe it’s not really that the Democratic Party has become the party of sexism, racism, and inequality; maybe it’s just that those voices within the party are dominant now, and won’t be later.

Upon reflection, I think what I’m really mourning, here, may not be so much the loss of the party as the loss of a dream. I was never an actual member of the Democratic Party. What I did belong to was, in my mind, the vast international family of people who were going to help bring about a better world. I grew up with songs about “share the land” and “save the people, save the children, save the country” and “smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another.” Between the Democrats and the Republicans, back then, there was no contest. The Democrats was us. It was the good guys, the people who saw how beautiful it could be.

Now that I write that, it looks slightly ridiculous. You know, being largely apolitical, I never did have much of a grasp of events of that era. For one thing, I was only 12 at the time of the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. It seems those protesters were mostly about Vietnam — and, of course, the cops beating them were mostly about being cops. Plus ça change. Maybe that’s what inspired all the songs about peace and love too; maybe we wouldn’t have had those songs without the war. I don’t know.

So the dream, I guess, was about a nation of individuals getting together, trying to love one another, sharing the land, and saving the people. Clear enough, right? I mock it, but in fairness I do know there’s a place and a time in life for not trying to telescope-zoom into the faraway stars, for just squinting toward the bright fuzzy glow of a setting sun, and feeling the slow smile grow across your face. Whatever the love and peace stuff meant, exactly, at least it meant something kind, something where we would all want to be friendly and good to each other. And, honestly, I did partake of something like that, for a while, and it really was great. It was one of the peak experiences of my life. I didn’t want it to end.

I really think it can be like that now, too. Not always, but mostly. I think it can be really good.

But apparently the Democrats don’t. It’s like I went on with those songs and their hazy visions in my head, while the rest of the world was doing its own separate thing. To me, the canon opened at the Summer of Love, and we transitioned from the British Invasion bands and Motown — all great, all worthy, just not so idealistic — to, you know, Hair. Somehow, for me, that musical’s songs — notably “The Age of Aquarius” (“Peace will guide the planets / And love will steer the stars”) and “Easy to Be Hard” (“Especially people who care about strangers / Who care about evil and social injustice”) — came to summarize the best in life. Then Woodstock in 1969 (“we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”), and many others to follow.

That wasn’t the only type of thing going on in my musical world. There was “Eleanor Rigby,” and Simon & Garfunkel, and so forth. But these were my spiritual text, with words memorized and taken to heart. This was how Things were Supposed to Be. Their idealism meshed pretty well with the back-to-the-land sense of the time, and with my years in the Jesus Movement. He was one of us: long-haired dude in sandals, preaching love, and getting hassled by The Man. People in the Establishment church were saying Christ is for all people. He was definitely for us, at least.

But somehow, as I say, the musical world marched on, and that stuff was left behind. The hazy and mellow and wonderful music could only stay in the Top 10 for so long, and then it was time for — disco! or whatever. Not to complain — I liked that too — but the student radicals got jobs at Citibank and became Yuppies with spendy Beemers (Child on Board!) and it was, well, the 1980s. It wasn’t back to the land anymore. Before long, it was more like back to the McMansion.

So, wow, that happened fast. I mean, it didn’t really — it unfolded over years and even decades — but when you’re pretty sure things are one way, and that’s how you’re seeing and thinking, not always paying much attention to all of the world’s complex permutations, not necessarily even realizing that some of them exist — and then one day it turns out that things are just totally not that way anymore, it can be a bit befuddling. You may need a moment to catch your breath.

I guess I thought people were seriously interested in saving the land, and it turns out that, outside of my dream world, addled kids like me were actually getting shipped off and shot up. I’d have gone too, if they’d called my number for ‘Nam. I was raised in a pretty conservative milieu. I’d never been out on my own. I had no clue about dodging the draft and fleeing to Canada. I didn’t know anybody who had done that.

While I was floating around in my daffy immature mental space, it was actually LBJ escalating in Vietnam, and Hubert Humphrey caving in to support Johnson instead of struggling against the war, and McGovern running in ’72 to end it, but getting his ass completely kicked by Nixon. It was actually Jimmy Hoffa and the Mafia, and the unions fighting against the corporations and, sometimes, against scab workers facing hard times who would work for less. It was actually a lot of big power politics. It was actually Altamont, and a lot of other animal ugliness.

So I think that’s where we are. I was a kid who heard great music, knew some cool older kids, saw and heard stuff that made me believe we really could live happily. I carried that with me for, I guess, the rest of my life, until now, fifty years later. And now it turns out that aging Baby Boomers may be the only ones for whom this translates. I guess I’m still back there in the olden days, still wondering what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding.

I am finding my way through this project of mourning the loss of the Democratic Party. It seems the endeavor is more complex than originally envisioned. Originally, I thought it was just about that. Now it seems it was about a dream some of us had. We thought things could go another way, and they didn’t.

Enter, then, the modern Democratic Party. The hippy-dippy stuff about peace and love is archaic; it’s not even in the lexicon. Somebody spun the dial on the time machine and, whoa, we landed in an age when white Democrats attack other white Democrats for not using the proper terms and not having the proper ideas. It’s like The Fly, where an insect got into the time machine and, when the guy came out, everything was f*cked up. In this case, the fly in the machine was soviet thinking from the 1930s, and somebody recalibrated the dial so 2018 = 1984. We started with kids who spoke out and they broke out of recession and oppression. But that was then. Man, what the hell happened?

So you understand my confusion. I thought it was like, principles > political party > electable solution. Now it’s more like Our Type > political party > screw the elections; we have Other Means of silencing you. In which case I can’t be positive it’s the party I would ever be mourning. This transformation may have been in its genes; it may always have held the seeds of such departures from whatever it seemed to be previously. I may be mourning something, call it the supposed party of George McGovern, that never really existed. Maybe that was just a mask temporarily wrapped around something else.

In which case there’s no loss to mourn, or more likely the loss is in my head. If so, this would have to be a memorial for a fantasy. Plainly, that’s not sustainable; there are plenty more where that came from. I’d need to be spinning out another parallel universe every half-minute, to keep up with the accumulation of dying dreams deserving a dirge. But then, this one was special. This was a dream, however vague, about a whole world, and particularly about my place in it. Dreams, so they say, are for the fools. And this was a particularly golden one — dream, that is, and fool too, I suppose. I actually wished and hoped to be among those sharing the land, at least to the extent of having a real home, with a place to string up a hammock and friends all around, smiling, laughing, digging each other.

I still really think it can be like that. But now, I guess, I understand that this has nothing to do with the actual Democratic Party, and apparently never did have much to do with it, else the dream would have been translated into policy and law, specifying funding and metrics and regulations. Which implies, I suppose, that they’d have pinned it down and killed it; they’d have skewered it into place, like an insect in an FFA display case at the county fair. It seems I’m mourning the loss of the Democratic Party, not as a genuine haven for idealism in the real world, but only as an ersatz placeholder in my mind — responding to my earnest questions with a Cheshire-cat fade.

Maybe, at least for the purposes of the Democrats, the dream had to die. In America, at least; maybe this is no country for old dreams. Maybe there’s another land for it; or maybe the only soil I’ll ever see, capable of feeding it, will be in a land inside my mind. If so, it never really died; it won’t die until I do. Maybe it will always be with me, like that impression of Jesus out there in the desert, fasting and praying, struggling with his demons: a superstar, one brillion miles away from this plastic white-collar quasi-conservative flashing down Wall Street, and yet powerful enough to pervade my consciousness with a full and clear awareness that I didn’t belong on that pricey pavement, that I belonged in a tent, blowing across Kansas like dust in the wind.

I believe that may be it. I believe what I’m mourning, in the Democratic Party, is the acknowledgement of its departure from my world, insofar as it will not and quite possibly cannot be a trustworthy home for dreamers. Political parties are places for candidates’ debates. But you know what they say about that: laugh about it, shout about it; when you’ve got to choose, every way you look at it, you lose.


Nelson Pankop, R.I.P.

Well, I don’t plan to make a habit of writing a new post, every time I discover that someone else I knew has died. But this is the first time I’ve ever grown old, and I’m still getting accustomed to the idea that people who were part of my life won’t be anymore.

In this case, it’s a little odd to describe the person in question – Nelson Pankop – as “part of my life.” He was, to a limited extent, when I was a kid. But that was enough. Merely being a part of someone’s childhood is, itself, a way to be important to them. Even as a player at the periphery of my school years, Nelson will always be more significant, in my thoughts and feelings, than people with whom I have spent hours as an adult — partly because I haven’t actually spent that many hours with that many adults, and partly because adult activities are not necessarily as intense as those of childhood.

Nelson lived a mile and a half from me, out there in rural northern Indiana. He didn’t attend the one-room schoolhouse or the church next to it, just down the road from our house, and so in that sense he was a bit of a foreigner; but on the other hand he was the cousin of Tim, who did attend the school for a year or two – and both were descendants of old Herman Pankop, whose lovely little lake and evergreen woodlot, back a long lane, were the scene of many adventures. Sometimes, in winter, Dad would round up the neighborhood kids and haul a station-wagon load or more to go sledding, or to skate on that frozen lake. There, Dad did the strange but cool thing of starting a bonfire on the ice, for everyone to stand around and warm up and roast marshmallows when we got wet and cold.

It was at Herman’s lake, during one of Tim’s visits from Fort Wayne, that I nearly got trampled by a herd of cows. Tim and I were out screwing around in the field, when we came over a small rise and, whoa, there were a hundred cows, all looking at us. They started towards us. We started running. They started running. They were gaining on us. I freaked. Tim split off into the woods and was safe. I made the mistake of sprinting for the fence. It was a long run. Only time in my life I’ve ever just dove over a fence, headfirst. I cleared the top strand of barbed wire, but I landed in the gravel driveway on the far side and got scraped up. By that point, the cows were right behind me, right there on the other side of the fence, snorting and stomping.

I just saw a thing about the 40 or 50 people who get trampled by cows in the U.S. each year. I wasn’t one of them. But if I’d stumbled, during that flight of terror . . .

Mostly, when I biked over to Nelson’s, we just did stuff at his place. We used to play B-ball there in the winter, in his barn, Jimmy and Denny and Nelson and I – or, sometimes, in Denny’s barn. The three of us, excepting Nelson, had all been schoolmates at the one-room Lutheran school. At that point, transitioning from junior to senior high school, Nelson was over 6 feet already, whereas I was still just a little kid. He and Jimmy were two years ahead of me, Denny one. So I got to be kind of a long-range shooter in those games.

Nelson was a fun, loopy sort of guy. One time, I made up new lyrics to the old Dean Martin song. That song said, “There’s too many chiefs and not enough Indians around this house.” I sang it as, “There’s too many fish and not enough snails around this aquarium.” I know: dippy juvenile humor. Jimmy and Denny rolled their eyes, but Nelson loved it.

It wasn’t just wintertime basketball. I went over now and then in the summer too. Nelson had a big horse, Thunder, and a little pony, Lucky. One time, I tried riding Thunder bareback, like he did. I was going to just lock my legs around his belly and hold on, like the Wild West Indians that I was reading about. That worked, until Thunder started trotting up Nelson’s driveway. That shook me loose. I could feel disaster coming. I was like, whoa . . . I was tilting . . . I was tilting . . . I was sliding down under his belly . . . and finally, at the last minute, I let go, and my head hit the gravel, right beside his hoofs. And, once again, I lived.

What all we did at Nelson’s, I don’t recall very clearly. I think we might have built hay tunnels in the haymow; I believe he had a tire swing; I vaguely remember playing games in the house. As I say, he wasn’t one of the main figures in my childhood. It was just that he was part of the neighborhood. If you add up a half-dozen or a dozen people like Nelson, and have some good times with one and then some good times with another, spread out over a period of years, pretty soon it starts to feel like you have a home and friends and a place where you belong.

It’s certainly not like that anymore. Jimmy is in Fort Wayne; Denny is in Indianapolis; I’m long gone; and Nelson is dead. I was last up in that neighborhood in 2011, when I spent a year near Rome City, maybe ten miles to the west. What struck me about my old stomping grounds, during that year, was that the middle class really had been hollowed out. It was no longer normal to be a farmer of maybe 80 acres, as Nelson’s dad was, with a couple dozen head of cattle, and a wife who’d raise the kids and keep an eye on the place while you spent weekdays at the factory. The Rust Belt factories were gone – the Foundry was shut down, Flint & Walling and McCray’s had long since closed – and now it was a handful of well-to-do farmers with a thousand acres each, surrounded by a lot of Walmart employees living in rental properties. And, for that matter, the wives and the marriages and the kids were all a cluster too.

I still could have stopped in to visit Nelson while I was there. It seems he was already dead by then, but I didn’t know that. I didn’t really know where he was, but I did bike past his old house once or twice, during that year. I think I may have seen the Pankop name on one of the mailboxes, at the house and/or at the mobile home that somebody had planted in the field next door. But I didn’t even try. It felt awkward. It had been too long. I was afraid this would be another one of those conversations where I’m the ex-big-city lawyer, or the liberal on a bicycle, and it would be strange, and the old camaraderie would be gone. But Nelson had been such a friendly, easygoing guy. There was probably nothing to worry about. We’d probably have had a good time. If he’d been alive, that is.

It is peculiar, now, to try to catch up, a bit, with what happened to Nelson’s family, during the years after my departure. Not that I have a lot of information, but the online sources once again provide some food for thought.

It seems old Herman, Nelson’s grandfather, died back in 1985, at the age of 84. Herman’s daughter Norma – Tim’s mom – died in 2011 at the age of 78, and is buried in the cemetery next to the house I grew up in. Herman’s son Harold – Nelson’s dad – hung on until 2015, when he died one day before his 99th birthday, the last survivor among his ten siblings.

So Harold might have still been in that old house when I biked past. He might even have remembered me. And that was something, because now I recalled seeing old Dorothy Rauh in the nursing home, a few years earlier; I remember I surprised everyone by bursting into tears when I saw her. It was just so wonderful and sad to see that that old woman, who had been my Sunday School teacher when I was just a little tyke, whom I had barely thought about during the intervening 40 years, was still there, and still remembered and cared about me. It was as though she was a last remnant of that time and place that had been my home.

Nelson was a grandfather, but apparently he was no longer a husband: the obituary says he was survived by his parents, three siblings, two sons, and six grandchildren. I looked for guidance on the etiquette of these things, but apparently it varies. But my sense was that, if the mother of his children had preceded him in death, the obit would have said so. So maybe there was a less-than-amicable divorce.

The newspapers say Nelson died on the night of February 14, 2010, at the age of 55. It could be a mere coincidence that it was Valentine’s Day. Remembering Nelson, I thought probably not. I had seen the research, and had experienced myself, that those who were raised in a certain pattern of abuse might tend to gravitate back toward that same pattern in their own relationships as adults. In other words, I recalled that the circumstances facing Nelson’s dad, Harold, were much like those of the farmer in that Kenny Rogers song:

You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille
With four hungry children and a crop in the field
I’ve had some bad times, lived through some sad times
But this time your hurting won’t heal

So I found myself wondering what my childhood friend Nelson was thinking, on the last Valentine’s Day of his life, not long before someone would pen an obituary, for him, that would not mention the mother of his kids.

They didn’t specify a cause of death. They said he died in the hospital, so presumably it wasn’t suicide. Whatever it was, 55 was a pretty young age for it, for the son of a man who lived 43 years past that.

In my experience, Nelson was a gentle soul. If he remained that way as an adult, then I suppose he may have found life in this world rather hard. The obituary said he had retired from Kraft Foods, so apparently he settled in and made a go of it, there, for his working career, in a time when that sort of stable job had become scarce. I hope – I am sure – he found happiness in his life and family. I hope his death did not result from grief, loneliness, or anything other than an unfortunate physical ailment. And I am sorry he’s gone.

The Deaths of Two Classmates

By now, in my early 60s, I have encountered the deaths of people who were dear to me, and of others who were not. In the latter category, within the past few months, I have discovered that a kid who had bullied me on the bus in high school, circa 1973, had died some years ago — of alcoholism, I think they said. Also, shortly after my PhD program advisor helped to terminate my last attempt to start a new career, he keeled over dead of a heart attack.

I did not wish those two men to be dead, and I could see that at least the latter one would be missed by family and friends. But neither did those two evoke particularly complex feelings. So I would not be writing a post about them for this blog. The situation could be different, however, for people whom I knew better, or over a longer period of time.

Tonight, I became aware of the deaths of two of my classmates at Columbia Law School. I have often thought about what has been happening to them all — those 300 classmates who chose me as one of their student senators; those people about whom I published a book (1991) describing some of my encounters with law school and the legal profession, starting there at Columbia in fall 1979.

I did not know those two classmates well. But their departures do verge somewhat closer to my own life. It seems it might be appropriate to gain some perspective on how they turned out, and what happened to them. They were very different from me, and from each other. I think a frank and honest appraisal may be helpful — for me, and perhaps for others as well.


One of these two recently departed law school classmates was named Paul. Paul was a rich lawyer, son of rich parents, a snob, grew up in a Park Avenue penthouse, and attended a fine prep school and Yale. I think he looked down his nose at me, in law school, but he didn’t seem to feel the need to rub it in. I, in turn, felt he was a bit of a turkey, in the style of people who acquire recherche tastes and stilted ways of speaking, due to too much exposure to wealth and its tendency to separate its possessors from the lives and cultures of ordinary people. Very few of my law school classmates were like him in that sense.

Ultimately, Paul and I were from different worlds, and we left it at that. Or at least I assume we did. It is possible Paul ridiculed me behind my back. I’m not saying he did; if he did, I doubt he did much of it. My impression was that, when Paul did make witty little derogatory remarks about people who were not present, he did it with a light touch, not with malice toward them but merely to signal the pecking order.

Paul and I were in the same relatively small class group, in our first year of law school. Both of our surnames began with W, so we were among the 30 students in the T-Z group. Most first-year classes were large, containing half of our 300-student cohort. But our Contracts course, especially, was broken out into these smaller groups, at least part of the time. While we were of course free to interact with any students, it was natural for social life to arise especially from the small group. Most of the parties, outings into NYC, and other social activities in which I participated during those three years of law school did involve members, or the friends of members, of my Contracts subgroup. So while I didn’t see Paul very often outside of the law school, I did see him more often than I saw most other classmates.

Paul married rather late, at age 38, to a slightly older woman with a penchant for nonprofit support and a day job as director of international affairs at Pfizer. I saw somewhere that they acquired a daughter — through adoption, I guess — maybe ten years ago. I didn’t recall ever seeing Paul with a date during law school. I suppose marriage and family life was something he got around to, after years of relatively comfortable bachelorhood, when its time seemed ripe.

I hadn’t seen or talked to Paul since law school, 35 years ago. And now I was looking at his obituary. In the picture there, I saw that he was smiling. It didn’t look like a forced smile. I would guess that he had wound up being happy in life. He was no longer as skinny as I; he had definitely put on weight. It said he died of a heart attack. He had just turned 60. Heart conditions didn’t seem to be hereditary, or at least his father had died only eight years earlier, at the age of 88. The obituary went into some detail on Paul’s hobbies – particularly Civil War history and “English change-ringing,” which until this moment I had never heard of, but it seemed it might be related to those slightly odd performances, in the Christmas season, where people make music by shaking various brass bells in different ways. Anyway, nothing in his obit said anything about running marathons or scuba diving or otherwise partaking in exercise; he was patently not a manual labor kind of guy; and I didn’t recall that he had anything to do with getting sweaty back in our law school years.

In an obituary written by Paul the Third (my classmate) for the American Spectator, and elsewhere, I saw that Paul Jr., his father, a Harvard Law graduate, had been founder and lead partner in a firm ranked by multiple sources as one of the best in the country. Paul Jr. had taken time out from becoming wealthy to spend 20 years as chairman of the board of a law school — not a high-paying position, relatively speaking, but a leadership position nonetheless, and an important public service. He had also spent years serving as president or trustee of at least a half-dozen other organizations, several of which were fairly significant. Before him, Paul Sr. (i.e., my classmate’s grandfather) was apparently involved in New York City politics back in the 1930s. Going further back, the New York Times article (1995) announcing my classmate’s wedding indicated that his great-grandfather was George Doubleday, chairman of Ingersoll Rand (an S&P 500 company worth $17 billion as of 2015), and his great-great-grandfather was Henry B. Hyde, who founded Equitable Life Assurance (present worth: $533 billion) in 1859.

Plainly, Paul came from old money. That much was clear when he invited the male students from our Contracts subgroup to dinner, and after-dinner drinks and cigars, at his parents’ Park Avenue penthouse. So I was nonplussed, now, to catch up with his life’s story. His obituary conveyed an implicit indication that he had failed to make partner at Brown Wood and, thereafter, had spent most of his career in a small firm in which he was not the lead partner, before progressing to his own solo practice. The obituary mentioned a few trustee roles, and spoke of his interest in Civil War history. Nothing against that, but to my eyes the candle of Paul’s life burned rather dimly next to those of his progenitors.

This was where I started to feel that maybe I had more in common with Paul than I had realized. My own dad, like Paul’s, was a World War II combat veteran; like Paul’s (albeit on a much humbler level) he came home, after the war, to join in the project of making postwar America a superpower. By comparison, it seemed that Paul and I were destined – indeed, we may have preferred; we may even have been unwittingly groomed – to labor in the shadows, in obscurity, with our fathers always at least a background mental presence, watching and disapproving of our intellectual (and other) priorities, and not really understanding how they could be passing the baton to a generation that, by the late 1960s, was no longer producing great young men to carry on in constructing the increasingly misguided American colossus.

In theory, after law school, I could have spent the next 35 years practicing law, as Paul did. I could have had the money he made as a long-time law firm partner — and now, as I see, I could have been preparing for an obituary that, like his, would contain not a word about what he actually did in law. All those years – and yet, in the estimation of his obit-writers, nothing came from it that was as important to him as his hobby of bell-ringing.

There, again, Paul and I had something in common. We had both studied ancient Greek, though he much more deeply than I; it always did seem that we both belonged more in academia than in the gritty world of professional legal practice. Yet, within a few years after graduation, our paths diverged. I recognized, pretty quickly, that I had no interest in law, now that I had a more informed sense of what it was, and I acted on that decision. Paul didn’t. I wonder, now, whether his superior parental (and grandparental) orientation to a legal career ultimately locked him in – whether, in effect, despite (or perhaps because of) all his money, he lacked my freedom. Is it possible that he finally switched to what may have been a part-time solo practice, in 2006, because then, at long last, his father, like mine, was just a few years away from dying, and no longer wielded the same psychological influence? Was Paul only then finally becoming free of the familial expectations of legal practice that chewed up most of his adult life?

I may never know. In writing such words, I didn’t mean to invent anything. Maybe I was remembering Paul wrong, or misconstruing what I was now learning about him. Maybe he did find his legal work fulfilling; maybe he was not tacitly relying on the family history of legal prominence to mask his own indifference or insecurity on the subject of legal career achievement. Maybe the person(s) who wrote his obituary simply failed to provide an accurate representation of his deep interest in and commitment to the legal profession, or maybe it was not customary to say anything, in an obituary, about the person’s career achievements. That did not seem to be true of his father’s obituaries, among others, but maybe there were other reasons for that.

At any rate, the obituary also carried one other message, or at least one more question: how could it be that, six months after his death, the funeral home’s online guest book could have only 20 entries? I mean, you get some almost by default. For instance, I knew a homeless man in Missouri, dying at roughly the same age, whose online funeral guestbook contained ten entries. In both cases, one assumes, there were many additional entries on the pages of the real, physical guest book on display during the funeral. But not everyone hears about, or can attend, the actual funeral. Surely, unlike that blue-collar, sometimes difficult homeless man, Paul had made many far-flung friends, over the years, starting with his classmates in college and continuing to our law school classmates and beyond. Surely, in all those years of Civil War battlefield visits and enactments, or whatever he did in that area, he had made friends who were now sorry to hear of his demise. Surely, at least, his friends and certain students in Kent CT, for whom he was on his way to ring bells at a graduation ceremony when stopped by his heart attack, would have been moved to say something nice on his behalf. But, for the most part, no, that didn’t seem to be the situation.

The answer, there, appeared to be that I was missing something, because it looked like his widow (or someone) converted his Facebook page to a memorialized page, and that page listed more than 700 Facebook friends. I didn’t go through that list, name by name, but I did use Ctrl-F to look for names of certain schools and individuals. I saw that his Friends list contained only a few names mentioning Columbia. I was rather surprised that not one of the four or five members of our Contracts group at law school whose names I sought in that list — including the one law school classmate who had actually made an entry in Paul’s online obituary — were included among his Facebook friends. The list did have at least a dozen names of people from Yale, and that was not surprising; he seemed to have enjoyed himself more in his undergraduate years. Many of the faces on that Facebook list were young. From my own experience, I supposed that some were using Paul’s Facebook friendship more as an opportunity for networking than for actual friendship.

I, personally, had not been notified of Paul’s demise, so (as with most deaths, it seems) there appeared to be no coordinated outreach to various lists of old acquaintances (e.g., former law firm employees, schoolmates) who might have wanted to offer condolences. The Facebook memorial page displayed no publicly viewable suggestion that people go to the funeral home website and enter their condolences in the guest book. (If I get around to notifying Paul’s widow of this post, possibly some of these things will change. I am describing, here, only what I encountered as of early December 2017.)

I might have been mistaken in expecting that Paul’s online funeral guestbook would have more entries. I saw that the obituaries from some of my other friends and family members likewise had only a few entries. But those tended to be older, before online obituaries were a big thing. Some of them may have been plagued, as with my own parents’ choice of funeral homes, by online incompetence — indeed, malice — in preventing people from adding entries, and then deleting my own entry when I complained. For the most part, however, it seemed that — as AdAge (2016) asserted — the online obituary business was booming nowadays.

It looked like Paul had implemented privacy controls on his Facebook page in 2012. For some reason, anyway, 2012 was the year of the most recent entries available to the public. Among the entries from that year, a brief glance quickly presented me with several that did remind me of him. One expressed his relief that the county legislature had not raised taxes on his wealthy suburb. Another, from the weekend of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting, said this: “In the midst of a disaster so horrible that I try to avoid news outlets (and, as most of my friends know, I was an up-close witness to 9/11), I had a wonderful weekend filled end-to-end with some of the best pleasures a person can enjoy.” On a related note — given the many pressing needs in this world — I was somewhat at a loss regarding his obituary’s suggestion that mourners donate in his name to a Civil War history organization. I mean, I think that suggestion did mesh with Paul’s priorities; it was just that those priorities seemed, again, to be out of touch with the lives of the commoners.

At some point, in the process of trying to figure out who Paul was and what he had become, it occurred to me that I, myself, had not been thinking that I should add my name to his online guest list. My first reaction was that I would struggle to sound like someone who should be seen there. What would I say? “Paul was an intelligent guy who did not seem interested in my friendship.” “I didn’t really know Paul, at all, but he could be funny sometimes.” “As I see what Paul made of his many opportunities to have a positive impact on people’s lives, I ponder his devotion to bell-ringing.” “Paul never said anything to make me feel uncomfortable with his wealth; we both just seemed to understand, from the outset, that of course I was his social inferior.” It appeared that I might be better advised just to skip it. But then, ultimately, I did come up with something: “I knew Paul as an urbane, witty individual, and as a kind of person unique among his law school classmates. I am glad to see that he did well for himself, in life and family.” That was true. I hoped it was OK.

Paul’s widow, Catherine, thanked me for that message. I sent her a reply email, giving her a link to this post. She replied with an email enumerating 15 points of clarification or disagreement. It seemed she was writing with an expectation of being quoted, because in one or two spots she said something like, “Don’t quote me on this.” So I will offer a few quotes, here, that I think she intended as quotes, and I will just summarize the general idea on other matters.

First, Catherine said some things that I was skeptical about. This blog is more oriented toward feelings than arguments, and I don’t want to make her the issue, so I won’t go into detail on that — but neither would it seem correct to revise the impressions expressed above, on those particular points. Based on the information I have encountered so far, most of the foregoing seems correct.

Other remarks from Catherine seemed sensible and informative. First, regarding Paul’s health, she said, generally, that his heart problems were due to heredity, and that he was very active. Still, as far as I can tell from his photo, it did seem that he had put on a fair amount of weight.

She provided interesting information about the bell-ringing:

His bell-ringing was English tower-ringing, not hand bells. Tower-ringing is very strenuous and athletic, involving ringing very heavy bells with thick ropes, and he did it for years. Bellringers across the U.S. and England rang memorial quarter-peals for him. They thought the world of him, and commented on his kindness and generosity to new ringers.

Catherine’s remarks also helped me to locate the Civil War Forum of Metropolitan New York, formed in 2009. As of January 2018, Paul was still listed there as VP of Programs, Past President, Counsel, and Webmaster. At least a dozen people were listed in other capacities. The website indicated that the forum met monthly to hear speakers, and went on one four-day trip each year to Civil War sites.

From there, I followed a link to another website, The Civil War Scholar, featuring a page by and about Paul’s interest in the Civil War, as well as an Articles and Reviews page where he evidently did not feel he should list his own work on the topic. He did not seem to have published academic work on the Civil War, but Catherine said he was working on a book, and there were signs that he had considerable knowledge of various details of the Civil War — as in, for instance, his (2013) contention that “Gen. John Fulton Reynolds and his commander, Gen. George Gordon Meade, fundamentally misunderstood each other during the opening stage of the battle at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. That misunderstanding nearly resulted in catastrophe for the Union Army.”

It was not clear that Paul, himself, had maintained the group’s Twitter feed, but it was still active at this writing. That may be the website that Catherine’s email referred to, when she said she had taken over responsibility for running the Forum’s website. I didn’t see any mention of Paul’s death in the Twitter feed, but that would not be surprising if he was the one maintaining it.

Catherine also directed me to a webpage presenting remarks by someone whom she described as “the deputy op-ed editor of the Wall Street Journal:

A father in our small homeschool co-op, Paul had repeatedly and generously taken the time to play chess with my eight-year-old son, Patrick, when no other partner was to be found.

He made ancient history come alive for a room full of thirteen-year-olds. Our Clara was mesmerized when he’d lapse into Greek, which he’d majored in at Yale, or draw ancient battle formations on the board, animatedly narrating the movements of Caesar’s legions.

My wife had lately been planning to drop Paul a note of thanks for all of it. Then, without warning, it was too late. It will forever be too late.

A brilliant and accomplished lawyer, Paul was beloved by the youngsters of the Colm Cille Club. He was never seen without a large book beneath his arm, to read for pleasure as he waited between classes. The kids delighted in his good nature and quirky ways. Instead of scolding them for their hallway antics, he’d offer a more elegant rebuke.

“I think that may be unwise,” he’d suggest. Or: “I don’t recommend that.” They never knew how lucky they were to have such a beautiful mind in their midst.

Paul wasn’t twenty-four, like Brett, but he was too young to go to his reward. His wonderful children and his loving wife are coping with grief of unimaginable dimensions. Their solace is their unshakeable Catholic faith—something that my young friends and I didn’t have to brace us years ago. Paul’s bags were packed.

Catherine clarified that they adopted not one, but two, children, and that “they were the joy of his life,” and said, “We were so very happy together. I cannot believe he is gone.” She also said,

The families in the co-op made a book of memories of Paul. Even the children wrote movingly about their year with him. He taught Latin and math to our daughter as well, and was at every Little League and CYO basketball game our son played. The Little League held a moving service of remembrance for him. They noted that he said something personal to every boy, after every game. . . .

The funeral parlor director was astounded at the number of people who showed up at the wake. The line stretched out of the funeral parlor, down the street, and up another street. I stood on my feet for over two hours to greet people. They were from all walks of life. The last group was our son’s Little League team, in their uniforms, with the coaches and parents, followed by our son’s chess coach, whom Paul helped to teach, for fun. . . .

I have a huge bag stuffed with personal notes and cards from friends and admirers of Paul. I’m still getting emails about him. There were tons of donations to the two Civil War charities we named in the obit.

I don’t think Catherine meant that there was a solid flow of people for two hours. I doubt that was the case. But no doubt Paul did have many mourners.

Catherine said, “I am sorry you felt Paul was a snob. He was a pure soul, but he was terribly shy.” Compared to some, maybe, but he wasn’t really. But I did believe he had potential to be a good guy, and I was pleased to hear that he executed well the patrician role into which life placed and maintained him.

Catherine’s email concluded with an offer to talk further on the phone. I sent a reply email expressing an interest in doing that. She didn’t reply. Maybe she decided that her email had said pretty much what she cared to say, or maybe I seemed too interested in specifics. Not sure. I sent another follow-up, a few months later, again unanswered. I got involved with other things, came back to this in January 2018, and decided to wrap it up in these terms at that point.


Paul was not the first of my law school classmates to die. There may have been others of whom I was unaware; but to my knowledge, among those with whom I had become at least somewhat acquainted, that distinction would go to Bill.

Bill was what you might call an understatedly remarkable individual. To me, he was the consummate accountant type. He looked bland. He sounded bland. He was affable but did not seem socially active. And yet he was actually kind of a character. He was the guy, memorialized in my book (p. 73), who stepped out of one of our first-year exams, when the rest of us were sweating blood, to call his broker and sell gold futures on which he had taken a very profitable position. Now that I was researching this post, I saw that Bill served for a time as the chief operating officer of the Detroit city transportation system, and then became a conservative radio talk show host, before being elected to the New York state assembly and serving as co-chair of the New York campaign committee for Donald Trump’s successful presidential bid in 2016. In addition, the Daily News (Lovett, 2016) noted that he “served as an election monitor with the International Republican Institute in Ukraine and Afghanistan.”

And then, on September 9, 2016, he shot himself. Wikipedia says, “He was due in court that day to face fraud charges related to his legal work,” involving alleged embezzlement of $1.8 million from a client (New York Times, 2016). A local newspaper in his home community upstate, the Democrat and Chronicle, did not seem enamored of him. In a February 2017 article, they said “a half-dozen legal actions are pending against Nojay’s estate . . . and most accuse him of fraud,” starting back in 2009. They spoke of an FBI investigation, connected with “a federal fraud charge that he had embezzled nearly $1 million from a long-time friend” – while preaching “fiscal constraint and moral rectitude from his political soapbox.”

It seems the people in Bill’s business life were as surprised by all this as I was. The Democrat and Chronicle quoted the owner of the radio station hosting Bill’s talk show: “All of this totally blindsided us. . . . We never saw any sign of it. We were like a small family. He’d come down here and laugh it up and yuk it up.” I listened to brief excerpts from his radio show. It was the same familiar voice. His positions were not mine, and sometimes he seemed a little sloppy on his facts. Nonetheless, he did appear to be expressing himself in terms that would sound reasonable to a person of similar viewpoint.

A year later, the Democrat and Chronicle reported that it was still not clear, and might never be clear, where all that money went, and whether there was any substance behind the impression that Bill might have covered up another person’s participation in his frauds. The available information seemed to suggest that, once he gave in to the temptation to tap the funds with which he had been entrusted, circa 2009, the temptation led to a larger pattern of embezzlement, as he came to appreciate the means to fund things he couldn’t afford otherwise. For instance, the Democrat and Chronicle reported that, in 2012, he sent $221,000 to a business in Pennsylvania in which he had a personal interest. Unfortunately, it sounded like that business did not do well. There was also a report that he had spent nearly $100,000 on one of his political campaigns. Other possible recipients would include his children (to whom he did reportedly give gifts) and the charities for which he was apparently a long-term supporter.

In shooting himself, Bill made himself an ironic poster child for gun control. He was an outspoken advocate against New York State’s Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act of 2013, passed in response to the Sandy Hook shooting. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence (2016, p. 3) indicated that two-thirds of U.S. gun deaths are suicides; that guns are the leading method of suicide; and that the vast majority of those suicides would fail if a method other than a gun were used. Bill’s suicide by gun seemed to underscore the Brady Center’s argument in favor of gun control laws like SAFE.

As with the few other suicides of people whom I have known, I felt that, had I been present, I might have been able to persuade Bill to slow down and see how things were going to develop. But the timing suggests that perhaps he held out until he felt there was no alternative. Evidently he feared that he would be taken into custody the next day, and would be found guilty, and would rather die than endure imprisonment. In this, it seems Bill may have been victimized, not only by his gun, but also by a failure to perceive his legal situation as just one more hassle in life. I could be mistaken, but one might guess that a prominent Republican politician, in a Republican part of the state, would have a decent chance of being sent to a relatively safe prison for a relatively short time. Bill had evidently not heard of politicians like the mayor of Union City, NJ who, a few years before I moved there, won re-election, post-conviction, as he was on his way to prison.

Bill’s obituary said, “He was a devoted son, a loving husband, and a wonderful father. His family was his life. . . . Friends are invited to bring a written memory or photo for the family’s Memory Book.” My contribution read, “I was one of Bill’s law school classmates. I knew him as a cheerful, pleasant man who was willing to take bold steps in pursuit of his convictions. I wish we had stayed in touch. I’m sorry he’s gone.” In contrast to Paul’s Civil War organization, Bill’s obit urged donations to two charities focused on disabilities and special needs.

Further Thoughts

This post speaks a bit about the lives and deaths, within the past year or so, of two white male law school classmates, very different from me and from each other. Starting with his change away from the Polish spelling (Nogaj) that he was born with, Bill Nojay used his Columbia University education and credentials to become a municipal administrator, upstate politician, and radio talk show host. Bill’s ambition was, plainly, to rise in the world, to proceed on multiple fronts, so as to make a highly visible difference on issues of concern to him. By contrast, Paul was old money, wearing his pedigree on his sleeve, continuing the family business (i.e., big-corporation capitalism), not lacking the intelligence, the credentials, or the connections necessary to become a big fish in Manhattan legal circles, and yet declining or failing to do so. My guess is that Bill would have been delighted to have the advantages and opportunities given to Paul at birth, while Paul would have found it frightening and uncomfortable — but ultimately, perhaps, liberating, and conducive to greater empathy for people facing disabilities or other hardships — if he had been compelled to make a go of it in Bill’s home-town circumstances.

As I say, these two men were the first to die, among the law school classmates with whom I was at least somewhat familiar. In that sense, they represent a sort of milestone, at this point, 35 years post-graduation. I have often wondered whether any of my classmates would die young, due perhaps to alcohol or cocaine or risk-taking or other dangers that lawyers have sometimes been known to indulge, or whether their innate caution would instead see them all withering away to dust in their nineties and beyond. I probably would not have guessed that heart attack (especially in a seemingly low-stress life) or suicide would be the first causes, but here we are.

In writing this piece, I find — as I have found with my parents, and with others — that retrospective stock-taking can foster a more detached or philosophical interpretation of who the person was, and why s/he did what s/he did. If I had had a conversation with Paul in the last year or two, I think it would still have been dominated, on my side and perhaps also on his, with the sorts of distractions mentioned earlier in this post, involving mannerisms and social status and such. Likewise, with Bill, I think I would have had the same superficial impression of still waters, just as in the early 1980s; now, as then, I probably would have completely missed how deep those waters might run. It seems that, to develop a more informed sense of these men — starting back then, when we were interacting — I would have benefited from access to a lifelong running commentary, provided by some informed but disinterested observer. Such a commentator might have prepared me for the possibilities, described above, that have belatedly and somewhat hazily reached me through third-party reporting.

I noticed the contrast between the restrained terms of Paul’s obituary and the more open admissions of Bill’s, in terms of their status as devoted fathers, loving spouses, and so forth. I supposed it was possible that Paul’s wife, or whoever wrote his obit, was sending a not-too-subtle message that he was a rather cold geek at home. As I have described, my own exposure to him would be compatible with that. But I decided that, most likely, this was just the stiff upper lip of the classic wealthy set, sticking to the facts in public and reserving grief, if any, for rare and very private display. One might just as well have suspected Bill’s wife of putting on a show of affection for a louse whose shenanigans had substantially wrecked her private world and her eventual retirement. In short, it was one thing for me to offer speculations based on the obituary’s lack of attention to Paul’s legal career; it was quite another to venture guesses on what may have been happening in these men’s home lives. I really didn’t have enough to go on, in that department (and in Paul’s case, as noted above, I would later see that some of the speculations I did venture were mistaken).

For me, personally, these men were not a part of my life. They were just acquaintances from a New York world that I had left behind decades ago. But this is not to say they were unimportant. I had lost friends, neighbors, relatives, and other acquaintances before this. Some I had known, or at least been exposed to, for significantly longer periods and/or in much more intense conditions. What was different about these two was that they were more like me. They were not farmers in rural Indiana, or spelunkers in Los Angeles, or people from an earlier generation of old geezers. I did still have a sort of excuse, protecting me from worrying too much about the implications of this demonstration that someone like me could die at this age: I had the belief that, of course, you put yourself at risk if you don’t exercise or, certainly, if you stick a gun in your mouth. There was still the natural impression that death can’t really happen to me, at least not anytime soon, because I wouldn’t make those kinds of mistake. But events like these were tending to erode that impression. Ultimately, something fatal happens to each of us, and often the fatal event is not what one might expect. Death was starting to look a bit more like a stalker who had figured out where I lived.

The other thing was that, because these men were more like me, I felt more able to make comparisons and draw conclusions of personal relevance. Of course, one can learn from people who are not like oneself, and can also learn from one’s peers at any age. It doesn’t take death to achieve that. But in these cases, death was indeed the belated provocateur. I obtained, from retrospective reports in the newspapers and such, a degree of investigative insight that I could not have obtained without them. More than with previous deaths, this time — due in part to the process of writing this post, perhaps — it began to feel like I was making significant additions to my personal stock of knowledge and belief, on matters of later life and eventual demise. I now had some meaningful new pieces to add to the puzzle of how it might all turn out.

I did wish Paul and Bill weren’t dead. It seemed very likely that their wives and families would prefer to have them back, and to me it seemed weird to think that they were permanently gone. I felt that, if we could somehow get them back for a week, I would have to think seriously about catching a flight to New York, in a last-ditch attempt to crack the shell and learn more about who they really were. I suppose this could lead to the suggestion that maybe I should just read more autobiographies. I always did wonder who read that stuff; it now occurred to me that maybe it was a taste one could acquire later in life, and perhaps with good reason.

News of My Brother’s Death

My brother Brian died today.

Brian 1.jpg

You could tell Brian’s story as one of victimization at the hands of people who were supposed to care for him. It started with cerebral palsy caused by nurses who delayed his delivery, depriving his brain of oxygen for crucial minutes during his birth. It continued with my father. Dad had a noble side. But this was not that. This was Dad, ashamed of having fathered a defective son, hitting Brian when he cried or moaned in his pitiful way, until finally the folks agreed that he would do better in the state mental hospital.

I remember when Mom would take Brian’s younger brother (me) and sister along with her, on her weekend trips to Fort Wayne, to retrieve him for a few days from that old red brick nightmare – the kind of place where forgotten kids stood drooling in the doorways, staring vacantly at the infrequent visitors, who were not coming to see them. She did that for more than 30 years, continuing when the state school moved east of town and thereafter – from the 1960s until the 1990s, when she finally became too old to manage it anymore. Her strategy behind these weekend visits was, I think, not to keep Brian around long enough to irritate Dad or, even better, to time Brian’s visits for weekends when Dad’s job on the railroad would take him out of town.

It is impossible to know what beatings or molestations Brian might have endured, from staff or from monsters among the children placed into that Indiana School for Feeble-Minded Youth. But it seemed that a hint did emerge in Dad’s rather indifferent remark about a staff member, years later, in a less institutional place in Auburn, where Brian had been transferred: “I don’t know what they are doing to him, to make him bite them like that.” Since then, I have worked in a governmental institution whose employees included cruel individuals as well as kind ones. So now it seems I should have been angry, rather than sad and humiliated, when several of us visited Brian in 1995, in that place in Auburn, and saw that the staff had groomed the hairs from his nostrils to form a kind of mustache. Brian, it seemed, had matured into a laughingstock, even within a facility supposedly intended for the care of people like him.

I like to believe that Brian was better cared for when they moved him to a group home in Avilla, where he spent most of his last two decades. I was particularly impressed by the diligence of the young woman, caring for him for some years, who (among other things) took the trouble to bring him to Mom’s funeral. And yet, given his history, I could not help but wonder what was happening behind the scenes, when that young woman moved on and others took her place. There was a visit, within the past five years, when I got a creepy feeling from the male staffer I met there. It may have been just my imagination. The guy seemed to take a strong positive interest in my brother. But Brian’s vulnerability was undeniable, and something did not feel right.

I guess that’s what I would say, too, about where Brian ended up: dead in a hospital bed, at the age of 64. It used to be, in our corner of rural Indiana, that 64 would count as a nearly full life. But times have changed. People live longer now. Our parents were lively and active until just a few years before they died in their late 80s. What happened to my brother?

The vague explanation I received is that he died during a surgery involving “twisted” intestines. This was the latest of several surgeries summarized in comparably vague terms. I have not been able to get specifics because, unfortunately, my parents chose the wrong person to handle their affairs during and after their final years. With surprising indifference, that person put them into the worst (but apparently the cheapest) nursing home in town, instead of the Lutheran home where they had friends. The suspicious handling of their estate, after they died, raised a question of whether there was a financial interest in shortening their lives. And, who knows? maybe that’s what they wanted.

That administrator of my parents’ affairs named my younger sister, whose cynical streak is all too reminiscent of Dad, as Brian’s legal guardian. I do not know why this sister wanted to occupy that role. She lives thousands of miles away. She has not demonstrated any strong attachment to Brian over the years. Nor has she made much of an effort to communicate with the rest of us. Among Brian’s siblings, she has had the least experience of living with him. And she does not appear to have been very closely engaged in his care. Knowing her, the explanation may be that she has found it gratifying to be in charge and, thus, to control access to his medical records, so that everyone else is able to learn only what she chooses to tell us.

And so today, I am the recipient of a notice that Brian died due to twisted intestines. That’s odd. I have heard many discussions of cancer, diabetes, and heart problems, but I don’t recall hearing that twisted intestines are a major cause of death. Nobody else in this family has had a problem of this nature. I see that certain physical difficulties (involving e.g., seizures and inability to eat) can shorten the lifespans of people with cerebral palsy. But Brian, to his credit, was not significantly affected by such problems.

Somehow, Brian’s intestines managed to tie themselves up. Or perhaps they were aided, once again, by the least among us — by, more precisely, the least among the available surgeons. Because, you see, as a person with cerebral palsy, Brian was a secondary kind of citizen. I am not ungrateful: his life was vastly longer and better than what a person like him would have experienced in prior generations. Yet there does remain the fact of his seemingly premature and poorly explained demise, and more specifically of his inexplicably knotted innards. It seems that a person without cerebral palsy, or one represented by a more attentive guardian, might not have found himself in this predicament.

Let us return, then, to the start of this post, where I suggested that Brian’s life could be told as a story of victimizations. Brian was vulnerable, for 64 years, in ways that lie beyond the experience of most human beings. He – and to some extent those who cared about him, including but not limited to his mother – had to endure a lifetime of indignities and injuries to which others, better positioned, would have responded with lawsuits. In his own helpless way, he died as he was born, with disastrous tangles where there should have been none, metastasizing over the years from his brain, through his awkwardly bent limbs, and finally into his gut.

As a victim, Brian inspires pity. This is not without significance. Pity has triggered many charitable impulses and has contributed, over time, to greatly improved care. As a long-time lump in a wheelchair and now, finally, as a dead person, Brian has been able to become not only a statistic but also an alien, uncomfortable presence, perhaps serving for some as the archetype of a mentally damaged individual. He certainly provided a warning, to those in our rural neighborhood, that a child can be stillborn or worse; and as a corpse, at this far end of life, he reminds us of how badly it can go, in our own surgeries.

But Brian was not just a lump in a chair, and he persists as more than just fodder for the undertaker. He was someone who would wet his pants if you didn’t get him to the toilet and put him onto it — someone who caused my older brother embarrassment, when other boys laughed about his brother the retard. He was an actively disruptive and to some extent disfavored presence. Brian was the child, feeling sad or wanting to eat, who could only make mooing sounds reminiscent of a cow, thereby drawing my father’s wrath and contributing to my mom’s own marriage of victimization. Brian is a canvas upon which, as you see, I scrawl my anger and sadness toward my cruel little sister. He was an image of the worst – a living, breathing embodiment of assorted dreads, of things that can and do go wrong in the margins of life.

At some point, an empathic individual might ask what it must have been like inside Brian’s mind: to have intelligence and sensitivity; to show that he loved positive attention, laughing (in his way) when I would try to entertain him, as a child, by jumping around and performing antics next to his bed – and then to see how people avoided him; to watch the faces grow long when they viewed him; to sense the ridicule and the rejection. It cannot have been pleasant to live as a cause of sorrow and fear. Brian’s motor skills were damaged, but his sensitivity was intact. He spent his life being unwanted, and knowing it.

Hence one might think again about the vague accounts of his recent medical experiences. For some reason Brian apparently kept pulling out the feeding tube that the doctors had put into his stomach. (I was not clear on why a feeding tube was necessary. I had the impression that tangled intestines would lie below the stomach, not above it.)

He may have pulled out the feeding tube merely because it irritated him. Then again, I doubt he was flatly ignorant of its purpose. He understood a fair amount of English. It had surely been explained to him. If nothing else, surely he would notice the difference between being hungry and not.

Let me put it this way. I don’t know when Brian’s medical difficulties commenced. I do know that Mom died in 2008, nine months after Dad, and that she behaved like a person who wanted her life to end, once he was gone. And although I vilify my sister, the fact is that none of us became close to Brian. We largely adopted Dad’s perspective, not Mom’s: we learned to see Brian as subhuman. We, too, avoided him. So while Brian may have enjoyed the company of caring professionals and tolerable roommates in his various institutional settings, his life grew a void similar to – no, much bigger than – the one that I experienced when Mom faded and then vanished. For Brian, the day came when there was no longer a home in the country to which she could retrieve him on weekends; and then the day came when she could not visit him anymore. I am wondering, then, whether Brian was yanking out that feeding tube because, without his greatest friend and supporter, life had ceased to be worth living — just as hers had lost its focus once Dad, the last person whom she could help, was gone.

For purposes of this essay, I might be appropriately positioned to think about Brian’s self-esteem, and about his desire to live. I have had the experience of working in a center for people with disabilities. It was very educational to see various degrees of disability, in that place, and to have Dad’s teaching pushed aside. It is intellectually obvious, but for me it is now also experientially familiar, that these subhuman types (as even politically correct people sometimes treat them) actually have feelings. Life for them can be grand or awful – and for them, as for us, the difference often depends on the good or bad they receive from others.

So now I can see Brian, in my mind. I did not bother to construct a single video of him, nor do I have many photos. But I do remember how excited he would become while watching baseball on TV, as he did for hours on end during his visits back home. I can hear, in my own recollection, what Mom was hearing when she talked about him “hollering,” upon realizing that she had come to take him home from the state school. I can see him bashfully lowering his head when one of us would say or do something that embarrassed him.

I just can’t remember him with us outside, because he never was. I can’t visualize him riding along in the back seat of the car on a family trip, because that never happened. I certainly can’t imagine him being so much a part of the family that, sitting around the kitchen table, we would know his feelings and to some extent his thoughts, through years of exposure to his behaviors and reactions.

In short, I had a brother who, to me, was always an alien. I did go to visit him a few times, when I returned to Indiana in my fifties; but by then it was much too late. I could not read him. He didn’t seem glad to see me. Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe I reminded him of the bad old days. Or maybe he was just being shy. I didn’t even know where to start.

Brian died today, and I am left with what I can pull together in this post. Therefore, I am going to conclude with a few remarks of the kind that I think I would want to read, if this essay were about me as a person who had spent his life in a wheelchair. I can’t know whether I have captured Brian’s thoughts here, but at least this is what I might prefer to read about myself if the tables were turned:

I do not want to be remembered as a cause of so much sorrow. First, the father who could not live with me did nonetheless fondly refer to me, especially in my early years, as “Brian Deany, burrheaded briar-hopper,” in a rare re-emergence of the semi-hillbilly roots from which he had mostly distanced himself. Throughout the half-century between my birth and the sale of the house, this father did allow my bed to be placed in the bedroom next to his, on my mother’s side, so that she could care for me – even though he was inordinately sleep-deprived, due to his combination of post-WWII PTSD and being on call for the railroad at all hours of day and night. He did not leave her, and me, to the fates. He faithfully brought home the bacon. Somehow, for years on end, he coped with my nighttime noises, not only during my early years at home, but also on many weekend visits. He was a brute in many ways, but he did not insist that I be abandoned.

Of course, those remarks pale against my tremendous good luck in having such a devoted mother. When I came along, this woman was probably already showing signs of discouragement, if not outright depression, from the trials of coping with Dad during his first half-dozen years after the war – years when she also found herself knee-deep in raising my two older siblings, with two more to come after me. She had to deal with me and my disabilities for years, before she and Dad finally came to their senses and put me in the state school. Yes, the state school was awful. It may be just as well that I was unable to tell her what I was experiencing there. Mom was obviously afraid of what might happen, but she was just as obviously at her wits’ end. So I did my duty and marched off to war, as it were – and I survived. I cannot (I mean, I really cannot) tell you how relieved I was to be in a place where I didn’t have to worry about her anymore.

I also feel that I had a relatively stable childhood home, and that this is more than a lot of people can say. I loved to return there, after days and often weeks of uninterrupted time inside those hard, cold institutions. I loved to see the trees and the sunshine through the windows, and I loved to experience the space and the quiet and the carpeting and the old familiar spaces inside the house. We had a dog. We had cats. I know it may not sound like much of a life to many people, but I did sincerely appreciate being able to sit and watch baseball all by myself, without a bunch of others making noise and changing the channel all the time.

And of course I loved my brothers and sisters. I know they felt sorry for me, and were afraid of Dad’s anger, and that they had that childhood fear of adult things that they didn’t understand and couldn’t change – things like my physical condition. But it was nice to see that they cared. They really wished that, somehow, it could all be fixed. And they were just never mean to me. So while being in that house could be emotional (and sometimes physical) torture, it also felt like a place where I had my supporters. I was not completely alone in this thing. Yes, we were never really close, and we grew apart. Yes, in the later years, I could clearly see that they had more or less forgotten me. I did think they could have tried to turn things in a different direction. I have known other people, my caregivers and some of my roommates and their family members, who have gone to that trouble, for me and for each other. But I also know that sometimes families just split up. Ultimately, it was tolerable. I had other people and things to occupy me.

I regret that I never got to go to high school, never got to dance with a girl, never got to ride a bicycle. The number of “ordinary” things that others get to do – well, it is just beyond belief. I have seen those things on TV, and I have thought about them. But I am not a moody person. Sometimes life is just crap; and then, before long, it’s another day, and I’m back at it. In that attitude, I take after my mom. I am really grateful for the many kind things that people have done for me over the years, for the reassuring routines and safe places that they have brought into my world. It could have been much worse.

What people fail to understand is that this was my life, and I got used to it. Other people get used to not being able to fly; I got used to not being able to walk. I mean, I never did walk, so it’s not as if I was losing anything.

I have always been terribly shy and ashamed of myself, for always causing so much fuss and being in the way. I have never contributed anything of value to anything. I have always been really sorry about that. But I guess I’ve gotten a little more used to it. It used to bother me to the point that I couldn’t even look at people. But, maybe because of the group home, I’ve come closer to accepting that this is who I am.

On the positive side, I did not have to spend years at a job I hated. Insomnia has rarely been an issue. I’ve been fed, clothed, and sheltered for my entire life. I would certainly want to experience things that other people get to experience. But then, everyone can say that.

That is what I think I might say about myself, if I were Brian’s ghost, looking down on this life from somewhere up above.

Today, I lost a brother. I did not know him well, and in that sense I will never know what I really lost today. I am sorry I didn’t handle all these years better. I am sorry for all his suffering. I wish he could have had a better life. He was not a burden to me, so I do not have a sense of relief, now that he’s gone. I am not sure how much he knew, or what he felt, but I think he got through most of his life without too much suffering or grief. I think he really did find himself in a more enjoyable lifestyle, for the most part, as he got older and moved out of the larger institutions and into the group home. I wish it could have been better, but I know his life did have its good parts, and I am glad for that.

It seems odd to think, now, that I miss Brian, when I have spent the overwhelming majority of my days without him. I guess I miss what could have been. Brian was a good guy. Maybe all I can really say, at this point, is that I am sorry.

Veterans Day

(Originally posted on November 12, 2007 in another blog.)

I have never been too interested in Veterans Day. I think we can blame some of that on the state of affairs in our household when I was a teenager. Dad was among the worst right-wing idiots on the subject of the Vietnam War. He never did quite catch on that the hippies, peaceniks, and protesters were right – that we were wasting tens of thousands of American lives on a struggle that would not have begun if the French had not colonized Southeast Asia, which they had no right to do; if President Johnson had not lied to the American people about the events of Tonkin Gulf; if corporate money in America had not been so terrified of anything resembling socialism. We got a horrendous backlash on all points – in the socialistic steps of LBJ’s Great Society, for instance, and in riots and the growth of factions promoting violent overthrow of our government.

If we were going to fight in Vietnam, we should have fought to win. Otherwise, we should never have started. Same thing in Iraq. I see these generals making a hash of things – not counting Petraeus, who seems to be playing a bad hand very well – and I think Veterans Day is one more occasion when those who send kids (but not their own!) to die can pretend that they really do realize it is a matter of life and death. So when Dad would hold forth on his ideas (e.g., that we should just line up the peace protesters and shoot them), I think it was understandable that I would not merely reject his views, but would to some extent reject the American military too. It seemed to me that he did not understand what America was all about. I wanted no part of him and his Army, and I had some justification for that attitude.

But today, on this Veterans Day 2007, I am willing to make an exception. The immediate reason is that I just watched a tear-jerking Veterans Day commemoration video. A related reason is that Dad died two days ago, and he was a dad for whom few things in life were as important as the years that he spent in the military.

There is no denying that the miliary is what keeps the country safe. The military has been the vehicle of horrible and atrocious behavior, from the war with Mexico to My Lai to Abu Ghraib; but this is what you get – it is what all armies get, at some point or other – when you train people to kill and destroy. It’s awful stuff to learn how to do, and it needs to cease as soon as there is no longer a threat that other people want to do the same to you. The military’s excesses may stoke that desire on their part, and that prospect needs intensive attention; but there are always going to be freeloaders, abusers, and megalomaniacs who will think that subjugating the people of another country is a fine idea.

This morning, I went for a run in the park. I felt wonderful. It’s because I got eight or nine hours of sleep; and I did that, I think, because I was just worn out at the end of the day yesterday. I can’t say that Dad’s death was the sole reason, but it was clearly a weight that I carried with me for the day. Today, some things seemed to have fallen into place.

It was fitting that I went on that run, and that I felt wonderful doing so, because the Army was not Dad’s only preoccupation. His book, which I have been annotating for some time, is a testament to his years in World War II, but also to his years in the Civilian Conservation Corps. As a CCCer, he planted trees and, as I was thinking on my run this morning, he helped to build a state park somewhat like the place I was running in. He loved trees; and while his taste in books did tend toward warfare and historical battles, his behavior over the past 50 years was much rather in the direction of CCCish trees, stonework, and parks.

Dad fought in a war. The Army impressed him because, I think, it told him exactly where he stood. There were (to him, anyway) none of the picayune, Byzantine politics and innuendoes that would so often ensnare him in civilian life; he was free just to be a man, as he understood the term: to destroy things, to run over things that got in the way, to replace them with the things he preferred, and to build on that basis. In that sense, for him the best of civilian life (both in the CCC and after the war) was that which allowed him to just bust in, ram ahead, and get it done.

So he built a park; he cut trees; he grew and trimmed trees; he took the family on vacations, predominantly to national parks; and he built a home, insofar as he was able to construct a sense of what that might mean, that was surrounded on all sides by sawdust, wood blocks, gardens, trees, bees, stonework, raspberry vines, flowers, and grass, laid out in the way he wished. There, he found a refuge from the outside world, for which he shared a passion with his wife for some 55 years, until they finally gave it up as requiring more work than they could manage in their old age.

In those regards, the house and the war against Japan ran together. There were these outside forces that needed to be repelled, mostly by blood and steel, and there was a vision of better things, done in the American way, that could be constructed on a new beginning. For while I fault Dad’s book as focusing overmuch on his wartime years, as though that were the main thing in his life, I also recognize, within that focus, a preference for telling about the positive, helpful things that one can do within the hell of war. One can pour sulpha into the wound on the leg of a prisoner of war; one can have a conversation with a Japanese person, even though one will be unable to stomach dinner in a Japanese restaurant a half-century later.

Those GIs who gave chewing gum to kids in WWII, who are now embarked on armed social work in Afghanistan and elsewhere, were not originally there to be nice. But they discovered, as Dad did, that the larger purpose behind war is peace. You can train your soldiers to kill, but you cannot necessarily prevent them from crossing the lines to join the Germans in singing hymns on Christmas Eve. I saw some research, recently, in which they seemed to have found that an unbelievable number of soldiers will not be able to make themselves shoot straight at the enemy, even when their failure to do so leads to their own death. We may have an image of what war is, but it ain’t always what it’s supposed to be, and it wasn’t with Dad either.

So my dad built a park, fought a war, built a home, and nursed his trees. I resisted against a war, left that home, and, this morning, ran in a park that someone, probably someone like him, built. I can’t quite piece together all the threads that run in and out, among such observations. But I can tell you that I felt great on my run; that I am aware it is Veterans Day; and that I am sorry for what the world’s veterans have had to experience, and am glad for what they have been able to achieve nonetheless. I am sorry they have had to shoot at each other, and I am glad for all the times when their shots have missed. That may not be a suitably morose reaction from someone whose father has died, nor is it a very rah-rah kind of Veterans Day sentiment. But I can’t help that. That’s just the way it seems to me.

Anticipating the Funeral: How Should I Feel?

I have been a bit at a loss, wondering how I am supposed to feel and what I am supposed to do these days, in response to the news that Dad has died. In these days – really, in the months since I first recognized that his demise was imminent – I’ve been considering different possibilities. Some of my thinking has been conscious and directed; and some, as I now realize, has been going on more surreptitiously, without my complete awareness.

There are some social boundaries. I would not be welcomed to whoop and cheer Dad’s death in public, even if I were so inclined; and on the other extreme, it would raise eyebrows (especially among those who are familiar with the facts) if I erupted into uncontrollable weeping. Likewise, in my role as a son of the deceased, it behooves me to be present at the funeral, but it might be unseemly for me to convert it into an event about myself, or about something other than Dad – if, for instance, I were to deliver a Mark Antony-style funeral oration: “Friends, Romans, countrymen …”

I rarely saw Dad mix well in an environment like that of the funeral home, so it’s not easy for me to say what role he would prefer for me if he were alive. Often, in his photos at important events (including joyous ones, such as weddings), his face bears a remarkably serious expression. I think he was always afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing – which, if that’s accurate, was a fear hard-earned, as I can testify in the wake of his ”Sieg Heil!” greeting to the parents of my Jewish ex-wife. He really could be remarkably inept in social settings, and I have to guess that, at some point, he became aware of that and lurched to the opposite extreme; hence the somber mien in those photos.

If it weren’t such a serious occasion – if, say, you took those same people in roughly those same Sunday-best clothes and transported them to someone’s parlor for a little after-church get-together – then maybe he would relax somewhat, though I’m still not sure he would be at his ease in anything other than normal everyday duds. I don’t know for a fact that he would actually prefer me to walk into the funeral home, proceed quietly to the casket, and then take a seat and, at most, exchange a few words sotto voce with someone seated at my elbow; but that is surely what he would do, at least until given clear license to loosen up.

The gist of those observations, I guess, is that Dad considered a funeral to be a place where one would have one’s thoughts about the deceased, whether positive, negative, or mixed, and perhaps would share those thoughts at most with a few people at the time, and perhaps more freely with others later. But I did not personally observe Dad in any instances in which he occupied a special position vis-à-vis the deceased, where he would be more than just one among the many who had come to pay their respects. Thus, as in so many things, Dad’s example here leaves a lot of latitude for me to try to figure it out on my own.

Much of the matter, of course, will be decided by those around me. If people at the funeral home, or afterwards, happen to segue into a festive mood of recollection, banter, and story-telling, then I will likely join in on that to some extent. But I don’t know that I have ever seen such a thing at an Indiana funeral, never mind a Lutheran Indiana funeral. So I think we are probably doomed, at least at the event itself, to recreate the very kind of setting that would have made Dad himself most uncomfortable.

All of this, so far, has had to do merely with the way in which I conduct myself at the funeral. That, I am concluding, seems to be almost set in stone.

There are also some larger and more enduring questions of how I will think and have thought about Dad, and how I will live and have lived my life in response to his. Those are too complex to trace out here. There is, however, the remaining question of what my thoughts should be, at least during the next couple of days; and I now see that, while I began this post with the intent of contemplating that question, I was perhaps necessarily subverted into the relatively tedious question of demeanor on the occasion.

Or maybe that is a reflection of how Dad raised me to think of death; maybe I am drawn to its formalities because I learned, to some extent, to underestimate its immensity. My mentor in this matter was the kind of man who would essentially discard a son – sons, I should say – who were inconvenient to him. He would shoot a bird or wring an animal’s neck without a second thought. It was Dad – speaking of his wartime experience, I assume – who casually commented that it bothers you, the first time you kill someone, but then it’s not as bad after that.

It was not that he liked to kill. He took care to distinguish those who, in his observation from the military, were of that type, and I think the distinction was genuine. It was just that death was a casual fact for him. He was always prepared for it – I am sure he was always among the most life-insured, will-witnessed, power-of-attorney-signed people in his entire neighborhood. There was, I think, a certain depressing awareness of mortality in our household, greater than in most, owing partly to this outlook of his (and Mom’s), and partly to our proximity to the cemetery, which we mowed and maintained in various ways over the years. Life was not cheap for us, as if we had lived in the Wild West; but death was certainly a known companion throughout.

As I ponder it in this light, it seems to me that Dad must be in the top five percent of those who manage a nearly seamless transition from life into death. He lived a remarkably long time, and he phased almost imperceptibly from the sometimes unintelligible bluster of his younger years to the growingly inscrutable babble of his decrepitude. I would have to say that he ceased to be clearly and vitally alive some months or years before his medical caretakers finally wrung the last breath out of him. Notwithstanding the sterile limits of what one can achieve in writing, he will be more alive in the minds of those who knew him, as they read his book in the months and years to come, than he has been, in the flesh, for quite some time.

I, myself, have been talking and thinking of Dad as a sort of zombie for a long while now. I have been proceeding, that is, as though I were referring to someone who had already died, given how completely irrelevant and removed from the world he had become. It has seemed to be a reasonable mindset. When your father no longer recognizes you, nor remembers places that were dearest to his heart, then you have to realize that something has changed forever.

So I have long since shed some tears about it. For Dad, opportunity – of the familial kind, especially, but of other kinds as well – was a light-footed adversary, capable of spitting in his eye and then dancing away before he could grasp it. He just never seemed to see it coming. Not to say that he did not have some important successes; he did. And often enough, he knew a bargain when he saw it. But the big-ticket items, the things that make a great life or family or fortune, these were forever the property of someone else. So, as I say, it has been a while since I cried out and dealt with frustration and surrender, with acknowledgment that the game was pretty much up and that there was not going to be a lot more progress in important things, as far as he was concerned.

What I conclude, at the end of this hour of contemplation, is that Dad’s funeral comes at the most natural and yet unnatural time. Naturally, he was winding down and finally expired. If he could have been embalmed and put on a shelf somewhere, though, I think I would have appreciated six months, maybe, or two or three years, before coming to a reckoning in the company of so many who knew him.

At the moment, it seems to me, our perspectives are distorted by the immediacy of his recent incapacity. We are not thinking clearly of Roger Woodcock as the man that he was for six or seven decades. If we had a year to get over that short-term impression of an old man, falling apart in a wheelchair, and to rediscover our more enduring conception of him, I think we would likely have had a more edifying and instructive funereal experience.

Since that is not an option – since we are obliged to stick him in the ground and begin to forget him almost immediately – I guess my conclusion has to be that there is no clear thing I should be thinking or feeling, and no definitive way in which I should be acting, between now and Friday. It is all too much, too soon. I will show up; I will probably see some people whom I have not seen in some years; I will hear many kind words. Most likely, I will spend some time thereafter juggling thoughts of gratitude and recollection, and also of hypocrisy and irony in some of those kind words, given the ways in which Dad inspired or provoked people and vice versa. Certainly it could be interesting.

What I should seek from this hasty and relatively brief processing of a man’s entire life, I guess, is just to gather information, in a researcher’s sense: to keep my own personality out of it, to the extent possible, and to acquire additional perspectives on the person whose day this funeral day will be. The conclusion, then, may be that it would be somewhat presumptuous for me to think that my own mental and emotional baggage, this Friday, will be important or even particularly relevant. This is Dad’s day. It is one of his biggest, even if he is not experiencing it as a living soul, and it will also be, for most of those present, his last.

And now, as I consider it a bit more, there is one more angle worth articulating. If this were my day, I would hope my friends and family would make it a great one for me. Like a politician at a rally, I would want to be pumped up and energized by the cheers and hopes of those who are looking to me for clues. This is not a day for dealing with all the dirt I have swept under the rug. It will have to be dealt with, I know; and I know, too, that there will be some present at the event who will not be able to resist dragging it out on the spot. As an overarching theme, though, without going to the extremes of exaggeration and outright distortion, I would think that this is a time for my best foot to be forward. I would want people to come away from this event with a feeling of hope, with a sense that something important has been achieved.

Roger Woodcock undeniably achieved important things. I know about some of them. Without waiving my right to revisit the full tally of debits and credits, in detail, at a later time, possibly I had better err, this Friday, on the side of blowing a trumpet on his behalf. He was a terribly flawed yet, in many ways, a terribly good man, and I should say so. Or so it seems to me now.

(I originally posted this piece in another blog on November 13, 2007.)

Things to Do Before Killing Yourself

I’ve seen my share of movies involving life insurance fraud and so forth. In fact, I just saw one the other night: Double Indemnity. So I’m aware that sometimes people arrange the murders of insured people, disguise their own suicides, and otherwise take extreme measures to cash in, on behalf of themselves or their family members. Of course, we have also had our suicide bombers and, before them, our kamikaze pilots, not to mention a world sadly filled with terminal diseases, credible death threats, and other factors advancing a sense that the end is nigh.

I suspect that people who are about to die tend to be preoccupied with their imminent demise. If, however, a person should happen to lift his/her eyes to the horizon, and contemplate the good or bad that s/he could do before the Big Exit, there may be many things worth checking off the list. I thought about starting such a list, but then realized that many others have probably already thought of this. So I ran a Google search. And, you know, I was right.

The first example emerging in my search was a book by an author who calls himself Professor Xavier Cortez. That book, and other materials I encountered, suggested that there was a need for lists of good suggestions on things that one might try to take care of before killing oneself. In other words, before you kill yourself, please consider taking advantage of your special mindset to write a book or otherwise provide some helpful tips. When you’re no longer afraid of the punishments that people may dish out, you may be in a position to achieve things that others fear to try.

In a different vein, people who plan to kill themselves may naturally find their thoughts turning to the classic “bucket list” of things to do before you die — the fun or challenging things, like reading the 100 best books or running a marathon. Some of these, being dangerous, combine both the idea of having fun and the risk or likelihood of eventual death. In Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, for instance, one character — a lover of fine wine — slowly drinks himself to death, in his deceased neighbor’s wine cellar, shortly before the extinction of humanity. It’s been a while since I read it, but I vaguely recall that it seemed like a plan.

My Google search also turned up a Yahoo! Answers post, where someone asked suggestions for things that he should do before taking his life. One suggestion was that he should pray for God’s forgiveness for such a selfish act. This, I thought, was just the sort of reaction that one might expect from a judgmental, uninformed person who treats religion as something to hide behind. She didn’t ask whether, perchance, he was in extreme pain due to some horrific disease. For that matter, she didn’t explain how praying for forgiveness would help, if he hadn’t actually killed himself yet. Suicide isn’t specified in the Ten Commandments; but if it is a sin nonetheless, wouldn’t you have to commit it first in order to qualify for forgiveness? Otherwise, it seems that a good strategy for any sin would be to ask forgiveness first, and then proceed as planned.

Then again, maybe the lady was just afraid of death and/or suicide. In that case, I guess her reaction would be unhelpful but at least understandable.

Another answer to that guy’s question was that he should seek mental health treatment. Not a bad suggestion. Sometimes a bit of wise counsel or a simple little pill can make everything look different. If nothing else, they may buy some time to learn more about the last big decision you’ll ever make. It’s much easier to kill yourself than to unkill yourself. With that in mind, let us continue.

Advice to pray for forgiveness and seek mental health assistance goes into the larger category of precautions. The general point is, before killing yourself, you should get your ducks in a row. It makes sense to make a well-informed decision, based on an accurate understanding of your circumstances. Apparently it’s common for people to change their mind after they’ve jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and such. In this world, timing is everything. I definitely recommend changing your mind before jumping, not after.

There’s another aspect of getting your ducks in a row, going back to the first remarks in this post. If you’re killing yourself so your family can get your life insurance money, or are otherwise indulging a scheme that people will probably investigate very carefully — which they surely will, if any substantial amount of money is involved — bear in mind that the investigators probably have lots of experience at this sort of thing, and you probably don’t. You may not turn out to be worth more dead than alive. As one sage put it, “If you think nobody cares, try missing a few payments.”

On the subject of timing, you might want to work up a rule for yourself, one that gives you some time to review your options. I decided, years ago, to hold myself to a four-month rule. According to this rule, I would wait four months, after making a firm and final decision to kill myself, before actually going through with it. I just never saw the sense of killing myself if it wasn’t absolutely and beyond any doubt the right thing for me. I figure that four-month period will give me ample time, not only to sort out my affairs and review my decisions, but also to explore self-therapy options like those listed at the Whistling by Candlelight blog.

There may be other precautions that are advisable for your particular plans. They may involve lawyers, guns, and money. They may require further thought. For instance, if you leave your body behind, somebody is going to have to clean it up; someone is going to have to pay for its funeral. But if you don’t leave your body — if, say, you tie a rock to your foot and jump out of a boat in the ocean — there may not be a gravesite where people who loved you can come to visit and think. Point is, there are things to arrange.

Along with precautions, there may be any number of destructive things that a person could do before or while killing him/herself. This is the category for everything from the suicide bomber to the self-sacrificing soldier. I can’t claim to set out a simple rule, here, that would cover all of the various reasons for murder and mayhem that might involve the risk or certainty of one’s own death. In war and peace alike, there have been many assassinations and other actual and attempted felonies (e.g., plots to kill Hitler) that have sought to make the world a better place.

Like those items on the bucket list, murder and mayhem tend to involve danger. When you feel that you’ve got nothing to lose, you may be well positioned to do dangerous things of another type: you could volunteer in some place where sensible people don’t go — again, risking your life, but this time doing it for someone other than yourself. Serving in war zones or nuclear power plant meltdowns; becoming a police officer, teacher, or other public servant in the worst part of the city (or, if you like, becoming a recorder and witness of police misconduct) — the list goes on. Just for the record, volunteering need not be long-running or exotic. You can pick up the garbage on your street, make sure the homeless people in your town have food and shelter (or at least a blanket), volunteer to drive drunk people home from bars, and assist in treatment of people with contagious diseases. If you prefer, you can counsel people online from the comfort of your home. And you can pursue these and other kinds of volunteer work while also indulging some hedonism.

If you want to do something really dangerous, try telling the truth. Just go to work or school and be honest with people. That doesn’t mean overdoing the harsh, negative stuff. The truth is rarely black and white. In one of the most frightening things that a person can do, you might have to admit where you made real mistakes, where you were hurt or cared about someone or something. The point is, if you have deep, dark secrets that should be told, tell them. You can’t very well complain about the dishonesty or falseness of life if you keep on facilitating the worst of it to the bitter end. And don’t just write it down. That’s not necessarily admissible in court; it can be misconstrued; and what you write may leave out important things that you didn’t know — things that could come out in a face-to-face conversation. God forbid, you might learn something. Write it out as your background preparation, if you wish, but then talk about it with people. Some of them are likely to surprise you.

One kind of surprise that often does occur: miscalculation as to how others will respond to one’s suicide. While the metaphysical dimensions of the matter remain unknown, in social terms the decent thing to do would usually be to outlive one’s parents. Not always: as acknowledged in a “Survivors of Suicide Fact Sheet” produced by the American Association of Suicidology, suicide can bring relief to some who remain behind, “especially if the loved one had a mental disorder.” Of course, one’s departure can be convenient to others too, as discussed below. But with very limited military and law enforcement exceptions, society is understandably unwilling to let others decide whether a person should stick around. So don’t be buffaloed into a decision either way. For virtually any extremely difficult situation that humans have ever faced, there are some who have decided to kill themselves, and some who have decided not to. This is your decision. Take your time, learn what you need to learn, work through it carefully, and move on as you, in your sole discretion, deem appropriate.

It will probably take some effort to avoid mistaken assumptions, when it comes to how others will feel about someone’s suicide. It can be hard enough to find out how everyone in a group really feels about where to go for lunch; the question of how they will react to suicide is obviously much more complex. Key emotions experienced by suicide survivors, as reported by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, include not only shame (which may amount to a feeling of being disgraced) and self-blame but also confusion. I wouldn’t assume that everyone will get the message you may have intended. This seems like something to investigate, so as to reduce the risk of being completely wrong about others’ reactions. Note also that people just may not know how they will feel until it happens. They may surprise themselves. (A note on terminology: “suicide survivors” usually refers to the loved ones of a person who kills him/herself, whereas “suicide attempt survivor” can ambiguously refer to the attempter as well.)

On another level, contemplation of suicide can lead to decompensation. Personal deterioration, in other words. One blogger observes that there may be no reason to brush your teeth or answer the phone if you’re going to kill yourself anyway. This viewpoint may make sense to people who are sick of life’s grand farce or fakery, or who are too depressed to bother. Note: if you’re that depressed, you’re probably going to do a poor job of taking care of things before you kill yourself. In that case, you should probably get yourself some medication and some therapy and get your act together. If you do ultimately take your life, you can at least try to do a decent job of preparing for it.

I’ll close this brief look at the subject with a general observation. A lot of people kill themselves because their financial, legal, political, or other circumstances have become unbearable. My impression is that people who kill themselves tend not to feel deeply loved, important to others, and significant in the world at large.

In other words, there are probably people who would be happy to see you dead. As Mark Twain famously put it, “I did not attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” When you kill yourself, you are giving some of the worst people in your life exactly what they want. Once you’re gone, they will eventually get whatever you had — your money, your spouse, your home. You will no longer be in their way. If they are so inclined, they will probably be able to make you out to be a complete loser. And the things that ruined you — including the economic, social, and political realities of your world — will just proceed merrily on their way.

In that sense, people who quietly kill themselves are removing an important tool for social change. If you can get beyond your own problems, consider that staying alive may be, in itself, a thumb in the eye for the things that have ruined you. Or if you’re determined to die, try to die like that Tunisian fruit seller who burned himself to death in protest against his government and, in so doing, started the Arab Spring revolutions. Self-immolations on courthouse and statehouse steps are likely to get attention.

It may not be necessary to go to that extreme to focus public awareness on the conditions, whatever they were, that led you to this point. You may find that political or other movements, online or out in the public, have already identified some of the reasons why things went wrong for you. You might be able to make a constructive difference, in your specific problems, by participating in that sort of enterprise.

Killing yourself is not the end of the world. It’s just the end of you. Before killing yourself, try to make the most of what you’ve got. When you reach the point of suicide, you’re in a special place, in your mind, and there are positive things that can come of that.

Good luck.

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  1. I have since written a separate post, on the inordinately male nature of suicide.
  2. This post was previously located in my religion blog. There are some reader comments there.