- This Week
DEATH ISSUE: Saying goodbye isn't easy, but it's an important part of life. We explore the Bay Area's evolving relationship with the end of life, from Boomer care and Death with Dignity to the "death midwives" movement.
10.29.13 - 3:47 pm | Steven T. Jones |
Image from Paul Koudounaris's book "Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs"
Our iconic Golden Gate Bridge has the dubious distinction of being the site of more suicides than any bridge in the world, with more than 1,200 people choosing to end their lives there, including 10 in August alone — a sad statistic considered local officials approved a suicide barrier in 2008, but they still have yet to find funding to build it.
Death Café salons that started in Europe have begun to catch on here, and from Latin America we borrowed and popularized Day of the Dead, which on Nov. 2 will fill the streets of the Mission District with thousands of people and Garfield Park with creative shrines to the dead.
"The way that we used to talk about death in the United States was as a sudden event. Now, it's an anticipated event," Death Café facilitator Shelly Adler told a small crowd that had assembled on Oct. 23 in the Great Room of the Zen Hospice Center. "The dying process is now thought of, not as something you can prevent, but as something you have a little control over."
That's what my grandmother had: a little control over her death, but not a lot. She was able to choose the place of her death, but not its time or manner, like she might have been able to do in Oregon or other places that allow the terminally ill to gather loved ones together and self-administer a lethal final cocktail.
I was able to get some final quality time with this amazing woman before she passed, watching her light up at the memory of teaching me to ride a bike, laughing at the distant thought of running alongside her wobbly five-year-old grandson. And then she laughed again when I said that I still ride my bike everywhere I go, and that I even brought it down with me in the car I borrowed from my girlfriend because I don't own an automobile anymore.
It was the last laugh she had, my mom told me later. The next day, propped up in a rental hospital bed in her living room, was when she really began the slow, arduous descent into death. The pain and morphine sapped her spirit and fluid steadily filled her lungs, slowly drowning out the last of her life.
But longevity runs in my family, and Grandma could have hung on for days or weeks like that. Her husband, my 97-year-old Grandpa Bonin, had suffered a similarly massive heart seven years earlier, also looking for awhile like his time had come, but he fought his way back and was healthy and strong as he sat by her bedside. You just never know.
So, with pressing deadlines at work and lots of other extended family members flying in to say their goodbyes to Grandma, I said mine on Thursday evening, Sept. 26.
Four days later, I got the call from my mom, a voicemail waiting for me as I returned from yoga class. I was struck by the fact that Grandma died almost at the precise moment that I was finishing my shavasana, coming out of my corpse pose as my grandmother was permanently going into hers. It's left to the living to ponder confluences like that and to search for meaning within the mysterious expanse of death.
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