On Death and Dying (With Apologies to Elizabeth Kubler Ross)

I wrote in my last kountryking blog that I am 77 and as far as I know in reasonable health. Longevity is mine from my mother’s people, from my abstinence from common life-shorteners, and from my modest dedication to physical fitness. Still, I am dying.

Yes, we begin dying from the moment we’re born but I mean I am dying. Do I have some fatal disease? Not according to the doctors here. But I am dying. I feel it in my body. My ability to do the things that I enjoy is diminishing at an accelerated rate. The aches in the muscles I use less frequently and the pains in the joints worn with use can no longer be ignored and “worked out”. I’ve given up trying to learn the names of new people and to whom they’re related because I can’t remember the names of people I’ve worked with, taught, or shared some other experience with in recent years. For someone who has taken pride in his mind and body, two tools that have kept me ahead in life’s race for so long, it is difficult to accept all this deterioration. I’ve been hit by a tsunami of aging and I’m being flushed out to sea. I can’t swim against the tide and I can’t mentally locate a solution to my dilemma. The fact is, there is none. Death is part of life.

I can’t say I have a timeline. No doctor has given me x-number of weeks, months or years. It’s just something I feel. I’m  aware of the beginning of the decline. It started when our church school closed at the end of 2010. Having been blessed with a second chance to teach was so uplifting. But then I suddenly found myself with more time on my hands and nothing meaningful to fill the space on a full-time basis. Ensuing changes in my church further left me rather isolated from the human contact everyone needs. Moving from Barrio Nuevo to Barrio Centro diminished my casual contacts with passers-by for verbal intercourse. Our new street is rather dead. I truly relied on my students, colleagues, and fellow church activists to improve my Spanish and understanding of the local culture. You don’t learn either from books.

I have done my best to keep alert by writing blogs, communicating with peers and family via E-mail (such as have interest in me and my life), and over-connecting with Facebook friends. I do crossword puzzles. I accept other challenges that come via Internet. I find most as easy as ever, but some formulas and tricks elude me on challenges that used to give me little problem. I enjoy conversing with educated people because they speak Spanish on the level at which I learned it. The Salvadoran Vulgate is horrendous. I enjoy conversing with kids because they speak Spanish at the level to which mine has deteriorated. My daughter gives me lots of practice. Sometimes I don’t understand my wife at all. On these occasions I don’t even bother. I feign listening and act out the appropriate body language based on hers. In church it’s the same way. If the person at the pulpit speaks clearly and at a moderate rate of speed, I’ll follow the message. If not, I contemplate the bananas on the tree outside the sanctuary window. My interest level has also sunk to “I’m not going to miss anything”. That’s another sign of dying. So is “Tell me something I haven’t heard before”.

The ankle I broke in 1980, the shoulder surgeries I had in 1999 and 2001, the knee wear from years of almost daily distance running, and creeping arthritis in my finger joints have forced me to stop running, doing push ups, and enjoying my guitar. Lately, walking has become painful. Getting up from a long session at the computer hurts my knees. Being unable to play guitar as fast or as accurately as I once could (not that I was ever a very good guitarist) is not only physically but mentally painful. All of the above can be depressing. I want to do things but I just can’t.

Today I did something I’ve been putting off for years. When I came to El Salvador, I sold, gave away, or trashed most of what was near and dear to me. I kept some papers, letters, my school records and entrance exam test scores. I threw away the card that American MENSA sent me when I qualified to join that group of geniuses. (“Mensa” in Spanish means “crazy” so I didn’t want to have to explain that to Customs or my neighbors.) What I kept was in manila folders in my desk. For ages I meant to go through them to see what I had but never did…until today.

I had report cards from elementary school with notes from my teachers relating my strengths, weaknesses, and unsocial behavior. I was reminded of “not living up to his potential” and “willful and continued disobedience”. This was long before schools had accelerated programs for “gifted” students. I read letters between my mother and the bitch-teacher I had in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades, as well as with the superintendent of schools. I didn’t realize how articulate she was and how much she fought on my behalf. She was aware that I was not an angel but that the teacher was not doing her job. She had to write letters again when I didn’t graduate high school with my class because a teacher who thought he was doing me a favor cost me the credit and I had to go to summer school to make it up. She also had to write for a letter of support from the superintendent in that school district so I could enter college without my diploma. That would come the following year.

I found letters to and from lawyers, Legal Aid, Attorney General Jerry Brown, journalists, and newspapers regarding my phony conviction that cost me my career, my reputation, and my family. There were articles by and about others who had been overzealously prosecuted for various illicit reasons. Some had their cases reversed. Others were futilely seeking justice. I’d hoped I could get justice as well. But during the past 25 years I’ve given up hope and accepted a life in exile and relative safety. If there was any justice it’s in the knowledge that the guy who prosecuted me was given the opportunity to resign rather than get fired when he was finally confronted. He now works for the Public Defender in another county. But there’s never been an investigation of his convictions to determine how many victims he put away and who should be retried.

Two items I kept and scanned to my laptop. The first was from the local paper. It had a photo of my mother in 1976 with a cook book assembled by senior citizens. The author/chefs represented different ethnic backgrounds which made for a tasty batch of recipes. I guess the reporter interviewed her and found her story interesting. Seeing the article after having read her letters and a graduation card left me sitting in tears. She was able to physically abuse me as punishment for my actions and call me the most awful names. These did nothing for my self-esteem or social life as I grew older. (I wanted to say “matured” but that would be a lie.) Still, she introduced me to culture, provided me with musical instruments and six-months of piano lessons (until the teacher moved to Florida), books and encyclopedias to fill my mind and salve my curiosity about the world, and encouraged me to excel. Well, encourage may not be the word I want. Cattle prodded me toward the unattainable perfection she desired?

1976 Berdie Brown001

The second piece I found was a letter and hand-made birthday card from my beloved sister Sally. It was mailed to me when I turned twenty-one. Before I reveal its contents, let me tell you something about my sister and how much she has meant to me. My life with my mother was one of constant fear. My father did his best to avoid conflict with her.  He commuted to his job in New York and made himself busy working in his workshop, being a volunteer fireman, or helping neighbors with all kinds of repairs. He was very skilled with his hands and tools. My sister, my only sibling, is eight years my elder. When she wasn’t studying or involved in her social life, she would play with me. I could always look to her for the emotional support that my parents weren’t equipped or of a mind to give. Not having a big brother to look up to or learn from, my sister was my mentor and inspiration. She taught me my first guitar chords. She let me look over her shoulder when she studied and I picked up a lot of French and math while I was still in primary grades. If only the bitch-teacher could have been more like Sally. She went to college, worked at a camp or a mental hospital during her vacations, and got married. I missed her, but such is life. Friends and playmates come and go but your sister is supposed to be for as long as you live. Sadly, that’s not been the case.

The letter on a legal sheet of yellow paper in the envelope postmarked Nixon, N.J. Jun 9, 1957 reads as follows: I remember the cold winter nite your were born or rather, I really remember the morn — Daddy woke me & said, “You now have a brother” and he lifted me up so I could see over the dresser & chifferobe & right into their room….no mother! And right after school I moved in with the Scotts for 10 days, an experience I guess I’ll remember always— Goldy’s good cooking. I remember that, and then, too, there was Libby’s cat (crawled on my face at nite) and Sammy & Libby fighting over a particular chair and screaming, “You’re putting yellow vapor in the air!” (day & nite)

And then Mommy came home and I rushed in to see you, Roger, My Brother! What a disappointment—so red–so wrinkled—so ugly—Can’t we change him for another? And you cried and you wet but you smiled and then you walked and you tipped over my potty and got into my trunk, but you talked! Ethel’s “Golden Keppele”, Yampolsky’s “Pompush”, Meyer White had a pet name for you too. A smile for everyone, a cheerful hello–and how those golden curls grew.

Until one afternoon when we were all at Germaine’s, Daddy took you home & clipped your locks. Lovely curls on a cotton bed–‘neath a glass–in a blue box. How we cried! And I wrote:

I have a smiling brother And I know there’s not another. He can smile away your sighs With the twinkle of his eyes.

And now I write: I have a singing brother And I know there’s not another. He will sing his way to fame or Mushkee tala ma platt is not my name.

The Mushkee thing was one of our private fun things. We’d look at each other and know the look that told us to recite those meaningless syllables. We had other brother-sister craziness as well.

Sally's birthday letter, page 1

Sally’s birthday letter, page 1

Sally's birthday letter, page 2.

Sally’s birthday letter, page 2.

The birthday card will need some explanation. If you grew up in Stelton in the late 1930s and 1940s maybe not so much. Here are two panes of the card:

Back & Front of 21st Birthday card from my sister Sally

Back & Front of 21st Birthday card from my sister Sally

If I ever knew what the first frame represented I’ve forgotten. It looks like a play pen with a bearded fellow stuck behind the bars. Maybe Sally was prophetic. I didn’t have a beard in 1957. I barely had to shave twice a week. The bow tie looks like one of the ties I’d wear to perform. The second frame is Sally wearing a cake with 21 candles. We had a running joke about her nose. It was so big there was a little man living in the 14th precinct. Her nose really wasn’t big. 

Inside panes and envelope.

Inside panes and envelope.

You’d probably never guess what the left pane is about. I’ll tell you. It’s a drawing of the coal stove in the corner of the front room in our first house. It was a Windsor with stove-pipe leading to the chimney behind the wall. There was always a chinik, Yiddish for tea kettle, on top. The stove sat on a metal plate to keep it from burning the wood floor. What’s missing is the coal pail and shovel that sat beside it. The shovel became my mother’s weapon of choice if one of my little toys got in her way or for whatever justification she had for beating me. But the stove was warmth in the winter. It was the place to get as close to as possible when coming in from the snow. You’d feel the cells of your body tingle as they danced apart from the sudden warmth. Grandma Nellie’s rocking chair sat across the kitchen entrance from the stove. It was always a favorite place for a little boy to sit or to be rocked on the lap of a parent.           

The right pane is our yard. The weeping willow tree was the center of the family’s social life, especially during the war. By day it offered shade and a sense of coolness when the narrow leaves and thin branches would blow adding to the ventilation. By evening, GI’s from Camp Kilmer, neighbors, and friends would initially meet there. Or my sister’s school friends would gather to party and sing. The Southern GIs brought their guitars and country music. I had to go to bed early but I could hear the music in its native twang. Who could know that one day I’d be earning money from following their tradition. So there are the soldiers and the guitars. All these things were important to my life and my family’s.

At the bottom is the envelope these came in. How quaint to see the three cent embossed stamp, the postal address with Nixon on it, and even my sister’s married name stamped in the corner.

I would never want to live my life over again. There have been many highs but as many lows. The old house has been torn down and a new one put in its place. Only one family still lives there who can relate to this accounting. My sister has estranged herself from me believing I was guilty of the crime that never occurred. My parents are long dead. My children feel I have abandoned them. First from my move to California. Then to my new home in El Salvador. I live now to love and serve the God who gave me so many gifts which I abused or didn’t use to their full potential. I love my wife Margarita and our two little kids. Reading the notes from my teachers made me think of some of the problems our Luís has with his own identity and self-esteem. I want to be there for him and help him to become a good man. Adriana amazes me with her creativity and mature understanding. Oh, she’s still a child and has her moments. But we can talk about things and she understands well. Even with my fractured Spanish. It’s to see her grow up and become whatever she chooses to become for which I want to live a long and healthy life. But I’m not worried or fearful of dying. It’s inevitable and often I look forward to the rest and the end of pain and sorrow for opportunities missed.

One can never retrace his steps through time and edit regrettable events or actions. One can only own up to his sins and ask forgiveness. I feel I have done that. If a loved one doesn’t understand who I am after so many years, I won’t be able to alter their opinion before I go. Materially, I have less than I’ve had since early childhood. You know what? I don’t care. God has seen fit to make sure I’m not alone as my grandfather was when he died in 1929. I feel the love every day that Margarita has for me. Adriana has become a real daughter in so many ways. Luís still needs a bit of work on personal responsibility. He’s spoiled as have been all of Margarita’s children. I have friends in and outside of my new church. I get hugs in the marketplace. I enjoy tending the chickens and watching the cute chicks grow into dirty, ugly, hens and roosters. I’ve accepted the fact that I can’t be here, in North Carolina, New Jersey, Wyoming, and (certainly not) in California to participate in the lives of my middle-aged and thirty-something children, and my adult and young grandchildren. I’m sorry they are not moved to communicate with me using the electronic marvels of the day such as Email and Skype. Not my choice.

So with all of the above and knowing that overall my life has been full and blessed, I’m ready for the next phase when it comes. I’ve prepared not a will, but a set of instructions for Margarita on how to inform those who care that I have gone. She’ll do her best with the kids’ help to relate the circumstances. Some folks will need a translation. She’ll have the password for this computer and Adriana will know how to use it. Adriana also knows how to access accounts at the bank. Margarita’s still a bit shy of contemporary technology…such as it is in El Salvador. I won’t care what they do with the few valuables I will leave. I trust Margarita’s wisdom and she knows their value. As I’ve said, I’d love to be alert and strong enough to see my daughter become an independent woman. Whatever God’s plan, it’s fine with me.

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