Myron

Myron lived on the street, at the corner of Clement and Funston. Yesterday, he died there.

This morning, on my walk to the gym, there was a small memorial where Myron used to be.

Three or people were there, talking quietly, taking pictures. “He was a good man.” “A gentle soul.” “He always cared about other people.” “He’d tell you to dress warmly.” “He’d tell you that Jesus loves you.” “He’d say that he loves you.” “He’d always say it was a beautiful day, even when it wasn’t.” “He was always cheerful.”

I walked on. A block later, the driver of the 2 Clement bus honked at me from across the street.

“Did Myron die?” She asked. I nodded. “I saw an ambulance at his place yesterday, I was afraid of that.” “He was a good man,” I said. “It’s a hard world,” she said.

Should we have done more for Myron? I gave him a dollar or two many times although he never asked. He gratefully accepted and offered God’s blessing in return. It seemed like all I could do.  I don’t know if he would have gone to a shelter, or if any of the city’s homeless programs ever reached him. I never asked.

I saw him one day in his usual afternoon place at the corner of Ninth and Clement. He used to be on the Walgreen’s side, but then moved across the street to the bank. I suspect Walgreen’s complained but I don’t really know. Anyway, this day he was beside the bank, surrounded by pigeons and looking like St. Francis himself, but Myron was a little down because the pigeons were feasting on his dinner. He had spilled a container of rice from a Chinese takeout. “It was my good rice,” he said. I gave him a couple of dollars to get more and he thanked me with Jesus’ blessing.

“The Homeless Problem” is a big deal in San Francisco and it is a problem. There are far too many people on the streets and many of them are ill, addicted, or both. Fixing it requires lots of money, compassion, and the will to systematically tackle a difficult problem. People need housing combined with access to services that can help them regain a sense of purpose. It’s not impossible. We are in a time of enormous economic expansion. There is money; what we need is a renewal of the spirit of sharing that was once a hallmark of this country. We once believed that the proper role of government was to help those who needed it. We lost that in the eighties when taxes on corporations and the wealthy were cut, immediately followed by a cut in services to those who needed them most. Greed became acceptable. The path to change runs from the people to the elected leaders. It will never come from the top down.

There were days when Myron smelled so bad it was hard to be near him. There were days when he was incoherent, although I don’t think it was a result of drugs or alcohol. I was surprised that he died but I shouldn’t have been. It’s a hard world.

There were a few more people at Myron’s place when I walked home. One neighbor told me there will be a memorial service January 1 at 8AM at Star of the Sea, his church.

Myron
Myron

©2016 Ron Scherl

YOGI

It was a good life.

Yogi was a ballplayer, a great one by many standards and, when judged by the standard of winning, one of the greatest ever. But Yogi’s appeal wasn’t based on his athletic prowess – he played on New York Yankee teams that featured such transcendent super-athletes as Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle – no, Yogi was loved because he seemed real, accessible, without pretense, a guy you might run into on the street.

DiMaggio hid behind his own insecurities, Mantle was often lost in the fog of alcoholism, but Yogi was there for us, putting a smiling human face on the most dominant baseball team ever. And we could relate because that face wasn’t pretty, that short, squat body didn’t look like a superstar, he looked like your super, the guy who cleaned out the pipes under the sink, swept the sidewalk in front of the building, and let you in when you forgot your keys.

Yogi was a catcher, the least glamorous and most important position on the field. Catchers call the game, control the pace by controlling the pitcher. In many cases, that’s enough, they aren’t expected to contribute very much on offense. But Yogi was a great hitter when it counted, leading those Yankee teams in RBIs seven times, and he was the Most Valuable Player in the league three times.

Yogi’s fame after the game was based on the legendary wisdom contained in the “Yogi-isms,” double-edged malapropisms credited to him. Yogi never staked a claim to everything that was attributed to him, once explaining: “I really didn’t say everything I said.” But his or not, they stuck to him and, in our super-charged culture where the allotted fifteen minutes of fame has been cut to fifteen seconds, Yogi endured.

I can’t think about him without smiling. What a gift that is.

He will be missed by all of us who dwell in baseball land.

Reboot

Ending the silence. My mother’s horrible death left me exhausted and more in need of repair than sharing, more than I knew, which for a time took what remained of creative inspiration. Finally, I encountered another detour, this time an opportunity to get my photographer hat out of the closet, ironically as the result of the illness of a former colleague. Now the job is done, mom is gone, and I begin again.

Angle of Reflection is currently resting with an agent who has promised to read it within a reasonable amount of time. That was about a month ago, so we’re probably about half way to any reaction. This agent had read an earlier draft more than a year ago and offered positive feedback and suggestions for change, but ultimately said no. This is a very different book: darker in tone, closer to the bone, probably not at all what she expects. Of course, I can’t decide if that’s a good thing but it does help shape my anxious waiting. My fingers are crossed, which is probably why it’s taking so long to type this. (Nervous laughter).

I’m about ready to get back to work on the next novel. It’s a much more ambitious project and had to wait until I felt I’d exhausted the possibilities I’d launched with Angle; of course I realize that should anyone want to publish it there will be more work to do, but until that happens, I’ve taken it as far as I can and it’s time to move on. I see Angle as the book that taught me how to write a novel, a much more difficult process than I ever imagined. It was about two and a half years of writing, considering, assessing, and revising, a very different process than making photographs. Doing it – and having a completed novel be the result – has taught me what works for me and what I can anticipate in the next book. It’s very hard work, more difficult than anything I’ve done before, but it also required a very intense emotional investigation that only came in small increments. Each draft dug a little deeper, each step went a little further. Then, in the middle of the process, I decided to quit using antidepressants and my path to the truth seemed much smoother. I didn’t know when I started this book that I was also launching an exercise in self-therapy.

The photo job was an effective jump-start. It wasn’t a creative opportunity, but it got me back out in the world. The need to work and interact with others got me out of the house and out of my head and, as a result, seems to have reignited the spark needed to get my butt back in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard.

Adieu

“Ruthie’s gone. Ruthie’s gone. Ruthie’s gone.”

-Evangeline Finlay, her caregiver

They took mom’s body and left a rose on her bed.

She just stopped breathing, after eleven days without food or water, eleven days with her family waiting for the end, she just stopped breathing. Her heart continued beating for a few more minutes then slowed and stopped. It was over. Just like that. It was over.

Ninety-seven years. A long life. Eleven days. A long death. And then she just stopped breathing. I expected more. I expected a poetic moment. I’d read accounts of a profound change when the living spirit departed its container. Nothing. Perhaps it takes a soul more poetic than mine to see what I couldn’t. Or maybe a spirit more evolved than mine. Or maybe all those accounts were truly poetry.

Now we’re held captive by ritual. We cannot bury her during Passover, so we must wait until Sunday. She was a cultural Jew, not much on religion, but as a Jew she’ll be buried – after Passover.

They took mom’s body and left a rose on her bed.

I liked the men who took her body away. They were extremely respectful, wore ill-fitting black suits and white plastic gloves and their papers said they were from a removal service. They wrapped her in the sheet from her bed, covered it with a red velvet cloth and wheeled the gurney to the elevator and a waiting van. There were no witnesses. None of the residents, waiting their turn, were in the hall when she passed by. I thought the management might have closed the corridor but surely everyone would have known why.

They took mom’s body and left a rose on her bed.

Adieu mom.

 

Lord of the Flies

I watched Zorba the Greek the other night. I know, I know, I called this piece Lord of the Flies. Just bear with me. There’s a scene near the end where the old woman is dying and the village crones come into the house to wait for her end so they can ransack the house.
Now we’re doing the same. We sit and wait for her to die, but mom is not cooperating. When she’s gone, we’ll store her body and get rid of her things.

It feels like we’re the subjects of a sadistic social experiment: confine five members of a family and two strangers in a small space, subject them to a massive amount of stress and sorrow and see how they react. How long will it take for social norms to break down? Who gets drunk? Who flees in terror? What will distract them, make them cry, make them laugh? How do they cope? Lord of the Flies.

It’s been a week now, no end in sight. No one can say how long.

And what about mom? Breathing seems to take more effort today but her blood pressure is an enviable 120/60. She hasn’t taken food or water for eight days. The doctor who didn’t think she’d last this long has increased her morphine so she gets it every two hours now. She wakes when the nurse administers the drug and begins to moan. There’s a sign of recognition when a family member comes to comfort her and she’s able to lift her arms for a sort of hug. Her moaning increases because she cannot talk but the recognition of family seems to indicate some sense of awareness of her condition. She knows, but is as powerless as we are to change anything. She is trapped in a useless body. In any real sense, she is already dead.

Why do we allow this? When death is inevitable, when life holds nothing more, why do we persist in maintaining breath? Even people with faith in an afterlife, in God’s blessing, who believe in some reward for good behavior, do not agree to end life when it is no longer viable. Even when they believe they’re going to a better place. Suicide is a dirty word and to hasten my mother’s death would be murder. We’ve got it all wrong.

Waiting – Watching

All we can do is watch. She sleeps with her mouth open, a gaping void with three teeth, the two in front and one more after a gap. Her breathing is labored and noisy, currently about nine breaths per minute, but subject to change. One bulging eye is part open but blind, we think. Her skin, mostly purple now is so thin it barely covers the bones that protrude at the joints. Her legs, once her great pride now just pale sticks. My eyes trace the purple veins in her hands and watch the pulse still beating in her neck. She looks as if her still-working organs would be visible beneath the nightgown.

When she wakes she seems agitated, tries to speak but can no longer form words. She moans and stretches out her arms as if seeking a human touch and my embrace – hesitant from fear of hurting her or a lifetime of awkward affection – does seem to comfort her, or so I choose to think. We talk to her, not knowing if she can hear. We tell her we’re here, we love her and we’ll be all right when she leaves. Nothing that has gone before matters now. It’s OK for her to go now, we say, but she can’t agree. We give her permission but she has no more control of this than we do. Or does she? Is she fighting to stay alive, raging “against the dying of the light” Who can say?

It seems so unlikely, it was never a happy life, why fight to continue it? Because her lack of faith leads to fear of the unknown? Maybe.

There is a nurse from hospice and a full time aide. They watch “Ellen” with the sound off. They chart every event, record imperceptible changes. They will not leave her alone and they won’t leave us alone with the morphine. They will keep her comfortable but they won’t speed her journey. They say if we have private thoughts to express they will leave the room for a moment. I can’t think of anything I need to say.

They tell us to talk to her, reassure her, tell her it’s OK but I don’t think she can hear, or could understand if she had somehow regained the hearing she lost years ago. I think this advice is meant for us, to let us feel we are doing what we can, to comfort us. They tell us there may be moments of clarity, or not.

Her breath is shallow now and has fallen to seven per minute. “American Idol” with sound, kept respectfully low. A swab with water for dry lips causes her to close her mouth tight. She wants no more. She sleeps. Does she dream? Sometimes there is eye movement beneath the lids but does it signify a dream?

And she wakes and begins to moan. It’s too high pitched and scratchy to be a moan but it’s not a whine. It sounds like an old 78 recording of a soprano past her prime. It is the sound of anguish, of reaching, of need. The nurse administers morphine, Atavan, and Seroquel by syringe without needle in her mouth, then massages her throat to make her swallow. She sleeps again.

So we watch – and look for signs of change. Has her breathing slowed? Or is it faster? Have her feet turned purple? Blood pressure down but sometimes it rises before death. Pulse? There is no pattern, our deaths, like our lives are unique. And this is the one body process we cannot know from the experience of others.

The Today Show. No change.

Meredith

Divorce Court

Weight Loss Program Advertising and Bankruptcy Lawyers

One Life to Live

Local News

No change.

We are seven waiting for mom to die.

Her hospice nurse and aide

The three children

The two grandchildren

Waiting

No change

Her breath is a little slower now, maybe six per minute and the time between is longer.

Watching her breathe, ten or fifteen seconds between breaths is a lifetime. It seems too long. I think she’s gone but no, her chest slowly rises and falls again accompanied by a raspy moan.

It will be 83 degrees and sunny tomorrow.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Mom

Mom is 97 years old, suffering from severe dementia; her mind is no longer connected to reality, yet the burden of her body continues. One dark, unseeing eye bulges out of her head; the other struggles to focus through a cataract. She cannot hear much. Her arms are covered with purple bruises, her legs bandaged to cover skin too thin to protect her. She is tiny, except for a severely bloated stomach that houses the tumor that refuses to kill her.

Her thoughts are trapped somewhere between disappointment and fantasy, in a world that never existed. It was never a happy life and that it continues in this painful demented manner is a terribly cruel punishment. She lost her parents at the age of twelve: her mother died, her father sent her away. She never recovered. Such an unhappy life that refuses to end.

Yet there is nothing we can do. We cannot end her life. That decision is not for us to make. She is in pain, partially controlled by morphine. She is agitated: perhaps frustrated by growing mental incapacity, perhaps fearing death. Xanax helps a little. She is depressed, always has been, and there is Zoloft for that. This is maintenance, not life. We give her all these meds because she is demented and we fear she will succumb to the pain and despair and kill herself. What is rational behavior in this circumstance? Is it reasonable to preserve a worn out body by controlling a dysfunctional brain with drugs that render her senseless?

She can no longer make her wishes known to us, but this is consistent with a life-long pattern. In our family, no one ever makes clear what she really needs; we all persist in equivocating and deferring until we get what we want because some decision had to be made, or, more frequently, just move on, unsatisfied and slightly resentful. So mom wouldn’t tell us what she wanted when she was able, now she cannot.

She was frightened when we first arrived, not knowing my sister and I, perhaps thinking we were the ones who would take her away. I sat with her a while, holding her hand, offering what comfort I had to give. She became calmer. I wanted to will her to die. I told her to let go. She would fall asleep, I’d watch her breathe, wanting to make it stop. Then she’d wake with a small spasm, turn to me unable to see, not knowing who I was. Once she said she wanted to go home and I thought she really wanted to die, but it may be that she was still looking for a place for herself that she had never been able to find.

We were going to take her away, we came to move her to a home for people with dementia, but there’s not enough left to move. She is beyond the attention they would give her, more dead than alive.

There is nothing to be done. She has an aide who bathes her, feeds her, changes her diapers, and laughs at her plight in the kindest way. “That’s what they do when they get old,” she says, and then cleans up the mess. She makes her comfortable and mom kisses her hand in appreciation.

We don’t handle death very well in our culture, partly because we have huge industries manufacturing drugs and services whose sole purpose is the preservation of life, regardless of the quality of that life. We crucified Kevorkian and only a few states allow a person to choose the time and manner of death. We consider suicide to be insane. We need to rethink our priorities and reimagine our death. There comes a time, as in mom’s case, when preserving a useless body is the truly irrational act.