Note: BWIWD = Back When I Was Dying. See previous posts December 9 through 11.
Interlude (again): From My Journal
October 27, 2008
Amos Joel, my father-in-law, died just past midnight two days ago, five and a half years after the death of his son Jeff. Back then, when I called to tell Amos that Jeff had died, he had of course been devastated to learn that he ha outlived his son. Outliving his wife Rhoda, who had died the year before, had been bad enough, but his own son! “I’m so glad Rhoda wasn’t here to find this out,” he told me. “It would have killed her!” Neither of us noticed the humor in this remark.
All he had left were his twin daughters — and me, his daughter-in-law. After Jeff died, I continued Jeff’s long-term filial duty, both visiting his father once a year and phoning him once a week.
The overnight visits were difficult, increasingly so as time went on and his energy waned. I would drive down to New Jersey from Massachusetts (where I was visiting my children and grandchildren during Christmas vacation), at the mercy of winter conditions. Nor did I ever settle on the “best” way to get to the retirement village where he lived — and got lost more often than not.
Each time, on the four hour drive to and from, I’d wonder how long he had left, and wish the ordeal would be over. He was obviously not happy, or even content. Rather, he was just existing, waiting to die without saying so, and yet wanting to live on forever.
It was his long drawn out dying process that solidified my own views on death and dying. It seemed to me that way too many of us hang on way too long, at huge interpersonal, social and financial cost for others — and for no obvious reason other than fear of death which we never talk about, never mention.
Of course a part of me felt guilty for feeling that way.
Yet I could certainly understand Amos’s fear, given his atheism. For him death was it, the end. Caput. Even so, I still longed for his final journey to be over. His presence in the world felt like stuck energy, a black hole that threatened to swallow not only him but everybody that worked with him — his home aides, his daughters’ energies, my own.
Was I callous, unloving? Apparently. And yet, when I did see him, our meetings themselves were always heartfelt. We would reminisce about our memories of his son, as that was the connective tissue between us.
For the last two visits, rather than stay overnight, I made a date for a meal together, bringing my little family with me — two sons, daughter-in-law and two young grandchildren. I thought that the energies of children might revive him at least for a short while. And during our first visit, they did. We all had a good time in the cavernous dining room with ghostly old ones hovering like wraiths and two kids playing on the floor without a care in the world.
But by the time Christmas 2007 came along, our visit felt forced. Everybody was exhausted, as we had driven into a snowstorm and arrived around 9 p.m. Amos was clearly much more frail, and though he did go out to dinner with us — he wanted to go to a pancake house! — I could tell it took great effort, an effort he had not made for some time. I resolved then that this would be our last visit.
But I did continue my weekly phone calls with him; then bi-weekly; then, about a month ago, on hanging up the phone I decided that I would not call him again. That it was simply too difficult for him to try to talk with me. He was no longer here in the sense that you and I are here. He had entered a kind of confused limbo state.
For the last few years, despite his non-belief in the afterlife, his daughters told me that he would talk about Rhoda, saying that she was there with him, that she slept on her side of the bed. I never heard him talk like this. And did not feel that it was appropriate for me to bring the subject up. I was only the daughter-in-law who, as the years since my husband died grew longer, seemed more and more like an outsider to that little family.
During Jeff’s phone calls to his Dad, nothing of substance had ever been communicated, no real connection made; each time when Jeff hung up the phone he would sigh, both morose and resigned.
Those phone calls weren’t easy for me either. Amos had always been such a brilliant, selfish, self-centered man. When someone asked Rhoda, for example, where she wanted her ashes to go, she quipped, with great feeling: “Scatter them at Bell Labs; because that’s where he spent the best years of my life!” So we did.
Amos once asked Jeff to accompany him to a conference in Europe, since he was getting old and needed a companion. Yet, for the flight over, he sat himself in first class and his son in coach!
And yet, during the year after Jeff died, I’d email Amos my journal entries, and he would invariably tell me that they made him cry, that they were so well written and Jeff was such an amazing man that I should publish them in a book. I did publish that book, This Vast Being: A Voyage through Grief and Exaltation, in 2007, with the intention of making sure to get it into his hands while he could still appreciate it.
I just made it. Though he was in no shape to read it again at that point, he did very much love the fact that Jeff’s life had been memorialized this way.
In his field, telecommunications, Amos was very well known. “Famous Amos” received many awards, including the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton in 1992. Inventor of over 70 patents, he was known in the industry as Mr. Switching, the man who had invented the technology that made the cell phone possible.
He was accustomed to adulation, and as a convinced atheist, dying was not on his agenda. His way of life was to continually push further into new heights of glory. So his move to the retirement village after his wife died felt, I’m sure, like a humiliating defeat. Gone was his third-floor study where he could command the view below; instead he was housed “with a bunch of old people” in his own condo on the road to the sick ward. He’d tell me that he’d just sit all day and watch the ambulances leaving for the hospital or the morgue.
His next goal was to have been the book he wanted to write, a history of telecommunications. And up until two years ago, the best way to engage him on the phone would be for me to ask about this book, for which he was forever taking notes and trying to make an outline. I knew, and his daughters knew, that it was the thought of the book that was keeping him alive.
At some point he began telling me that he wanted to give a talk on telecommunications to the retirement community at one of their weekly programs. But I don’t think that ever happened. I remember thinking at the time that, for him, wanting to give a talk there must have felt like a come -down from his glory days of speeches and awards before national and international audiences. Why didn’t they put him on the program? Did he ever actually ask for a slot? And if so, did they just look upon him as a dotty old man and his subject of no interest?
His daughters were determined that he should reach his one remaining professional goal, aside from the book: an induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. They figured this was something that should have happened years ago, and over a two year span, pulled the necessary strings. In February and April of this year they traveled with him by limousine to first, Washington, D.C., and then Akron, Ohio, for the ceremonies of induction to Amos’s final honor.
Two days ago Andrea called to tell me of his death at around midnight the night before. He had been in the hospital again, she said. He had told someone there that he was tired, that he “just wanted it to be over.” Stephanie, the twin who lives in New York had visited the day before. Andrea arrived from LA in time to make the arrangements to get him home that afternoon, where he wanted to be. She sat with him that night, talking to him in a soothing tone, saying everything was okay, that everything was taken care of, that he could go. I asked if he was conscious. She said she didn’t know, but that at one point it looked like he was trying to open his eyes. At around 11 p.m. the nurse told her that he would last the night, and she might as well get some sleep. About an hour later she got a call that her father had died. “He waited until I was gone, and until the nurse was out of the room to die,” she told me.
“When I came back and looked at him, it was so strange! He looked completely different. It was awful to see his body. Morbid. Stephanie wondered if she should view his body. I told her I didn’t recommend it, that it was too morbid.”
“Did she?” I asked.