Death’s practicalities

I think we all knew he would go anytime.  But when Renato Constantino — husband, father, grandfather, loved one – did go on September 15, his departure still came as a jolt.  Through the night he battled against a relentless heart attack, whose ferocity was neatly detailed by the indifferent machines monitoring his body.  At some point, the pains stopped.  I thought he had prevailed.  Then he gently slipped into that drowsiness that had shadowed him for much of the week.

His faithful doctor guided us through every step of this final moment, telling us what was happening inside the body as the heartbeat faltered and the pulse weakened.  The meager blood that is pumped, he said, is carried to the brain as if to defend the center.  All other functions are held in abeyance so that the integrity of the brain could be secured.  This clinical description brought to mind a BBC documentary on the inner secrets of the human body that was made possible by a miniature camera inserted into a vein and allowed to flow with the blood.  I forgot that I was watching a loved one die.

I suppose it is this perspective that permits doctors and nurses to attend many deaths in their lives without being shaken by grief.  Death is stripped of its meanings, and only its scientific referents remain.  At the precise moment that your loved one is being taken away from you, you are insulated from loss.  You cannot weep while death puts on its show.

When it was over, my mother-in-law gently kissed her husband on the forehead.  Instinctively, we touched his face and ran our fingers through his hair.  All of us had waited for this, but when it came, I do not think anyone knew exactly what to do.  The nurses, however, knew. Quietly, they began to remove all the tubes that had imprisoned their patient’s body.  They wheeled out all the machines they had used to extend his breath.

Soon enough, the rituals of cleaning up that we were witnessing reminded us of the many things we ourselves have to do in the next few hours and in the coming days.  Close relatives and friends have to be informed.  Appointments have to be canceled and flights rescheduled.  One of us has to prepare the obituary, another the press announcement.  We must decide whether to hold the wake at home or to have it in a funeral home.  If the latter, which one and for how many days?  What kind of casket?  What should he wear?

I half-expected my mother-in-law Letizia to pull out a prepared checklist of errands, phone numbers, and a division of tasks.  For she is one of the most organized human beings I have known.  In the late ‘60s, my wife and I had a chance to travel with her and my father-inlaw.  I remember being amazed by the methodical way she reduced the risk of forgetting or getting lost to zero.  She knew exactly where to go, what to see, and where to eat at every destination.  She had detailed maps of places, how to get there, where to stay, what to buy, what to avoid.  She kept a careful account of all expenditures, and a list of  what to do from day to day.

Yet on the day her husband died, she confessed she had not prepared for it.  She could not produce a list.  Luckily, this is a family of journalists.  Somebody brought out a notebook and began to take notes as we took stock of the situation.  Before we knew it, a plan for the entire week materialized.  And that is how death’s practicalities have kept us from being paralyzed by grief.

As friends and relatives stream in to express their sympathies, our minds are transported to the realm of social duty and community.  For the next few days, there would be no space to indulge our pain or solitude.  Our children have busied themselves recording every wreath or prayer card that is sent, welcoming and introducing themselves to guests they have not met before.  We take turns keeping vigil for a man who means something to us in a deeply private way, but who belongs to the nation as well.

Yet, I suppose no one can really teach you when and how to handle a personal loss.  The other day, one of the grandchildren was quietly sobbing in a corner.  She held in her hands the emptiness of a piece of tissue paper.  She was grieving, and I had the mindlessness to ask, “what’s wrong?”  Death is everywhere in a funeral parlor, but the conventions of dealing with it as a public event constrain you from thinking of it in personal terms.

Having lost my own father almost twenty years ago, I know that the pain visits you at the most unexpected moments, as when you lie down exhausted, but sleep cannot oblige you yet.  There is a sudden warm flush in your eyes, and your mind drifts to the loved one whose passing everyone else but you has mourned all day.

The compulsion to implant a meaning into something that cannot be fully understood seizes you, and sometimes you may become angry. But you remind yourself that even the good and the noble must die.  I always supposed that being an intellectual, my father-in-law was curious about death as a sensation.  Now he knows, and I can only envy him for his wisdom.

Having watched him over this past year that he patiently went through the discomfort of daily dialysis, I am certain about his attitude towards death.  It would not be very different from that of Nietzsche who tamed it by befriending it.

“The same life,” Nietzsche wrote, “that comes to a peak in old age comes to a peak in wisdom, in that gentle sunshine of continued spiritual joyfulness; you encounter both old age and wisdom on one ridge of life – that is how nature wanted it.  Then it is time, and no cause for anger that the fog of death is approaching.  Towards the light – your last movement; a joyful shout of knowledge – your last sound.”


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