February 21, 2009

You may remember that E.S.’s parents moved in with us some months ago so that the family could be together during the last days of Mr. S., who had recently been diagnosed with end-stage esophageal cancer.

Well, Mr. S. died several weeks ago. I haven’t written about it because people commented on the above-linked post as if I were doing something deeply heroic, which was not true. I mean, your fiancé says, hey, can my dying father move in with us so the family can be together during his last days, and you’re going to say “no”?

In any case, as I’ve mentioned, I have a great deal of experience living with the terminally ill, experience which I had assumed would come in handy as Mr. S. faded. When his blood relatives found themselves emotionally unmoored, I knew, I would be able to help them find ways to handle what was going on.

I was, however, wrong.

Because it seems that Protestants don’t deal with death by continually making morbid jokes about it.

Jews are not like this. The closer somebody is to death, the funnier Jews are about it. People have been killing Jews for millennia, so we’re used to the idea; it’s a well known joke that the answer to “what’s the meaning of [any given Jewish holiday]?” is “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”

My mother was Episcopalian, but she’d been married to a Jew for decades, so her pseudo-Anglican sensibilities had been blunted into non-existence. And when she was dying our house might as well have been the set of a Comedy Central special. It was unthinkable that any of us would ask whether anybody wanted anything from the drugstore and not be answered with, “Some morphine or a casket, whichever’s cheaper.” My favorite moment came a few days after my mother died. My father was talking about the snazzy new car phone he’d bought a few months before (this was in 1992, before cell phones). Our conversation went something like this:

MR. FAUSTUS: I was just so glad to have that phone, because it meant that your mom could reach me no matter where I was–at the office, on the way home, wherever. It really was a lifesaver.
FAUSTUS: Well, not quite.

Now, given that E.S.’s parents have a spirit guide named 28, one could argue that they ought not in fact to be classified as Protestants, but they are from Iowa, where apparently people are Protestant no matter what religion they are.

And so within a few hours of Mr. and Mrs. S.’s arrival, I learned that the way I could best help would be to keep my fucking mouth shut. I don’t remember the attempts at humor I made–doubtless the S.s’ appalled reaction has led me to repress any knowledge–but I do remember that when Mr. E.S. said he’d spent his whole life working and being busy and now what was he good for, I bit my tongue before “fertilizer” came out of my mouth, and realized I had a difficult time ahead of me.

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10 Responses to You may remember that E

  1. FortWorthGuy says:

    If not “deeply heroic” then certainly deserving of sainthood.

  2. Jess says:

    I can relate. Fortunately, Marc got to know both of my parents and their quick wits and senses of humor. My Dad was like a crash course in that special, humorous view Jews bring to life.

    Between that and the better part of 14 years with me, he has been thoroughly corrupted. His very Christian family is another story, however. As a result, every visit with them requires major restraint on my part! I practically sever my tongue from constantly biting it!

  3. Naomi says:

    Should I ever come down with a terminal illness, I want you as my hospice nurse.

    But yeah, you’d go over a lot better with the Jewish side of my family than the Protestant one. (The Catholics would like you OK, though. But they’re Irish. Which is almost like being Jewish, but with whiskey instead of bad wine.)

  4. Jeffrey says:

    A lot of my mother’s friends growing up were either Italian (thus she makes good lasagne) or Jewish (thus she gives good guilt), and I think the death attitude may have rubbed off on her. (Wait, does that sound as condescending as saying “Some of my best friends are gay”?) In any event, she wants to be cremated and scattered in the rose garden in Regent’s Park when she dies (which means I get a free trip abroad out of it). When I told her the public health officials might have an issue with that, she said, “Only if they find out.”

    But thank you for letting me know that when my mother or father dies, my Jewish boyfriend will be completely unhelpful.

  5. Brian says:

    So funny to be reminded of the “Jewish way of death”.

    I recall working with hospice and visiting a Jewish home for the first time and the patient telling me a VERY LONG joke that ended with the terminally ill protagonist’s wife scolding him for eating cookies reserved for the Shiva.

    We weren’t supposed to keep in contact with families post-death but this family was having none of that telling me I was now family. The wife went so far as to bring baked noodle casserole to my front door months later when she heard I had been down with the flu.

    I loved them.

  6. anne marie in philly says:

    “I mean, your fiancé says, hey, can my dying father move in with us so the family can be together during his last days, and you’re going to say NO?”

    sure, you can say NO; it’s your house too. but you put your fiance and his family above yourself – that IS heroic. and generous.

    my sympathies for your loss.

  7. TED says:

    It’s a wonder you have any tongue left, and in your case, no tongue would be a tragedy on so many different levels.

  8. David says:

    Honestly, Joel, I don’t think the “fertilizer” joke would have gone over well in my fully Jewish family either. My mom has never been a fan of morbid humor and my dad shies from any form of confrontation. Maybe my sister and I could have bantered like that, but that would be it. Very sorry for your lose.

  9. Esther says:

    Humor is a great way of dealing with pain and hurt, though when it comes to humor and death, the amusement is probably only there for the one making the comment. Most people think death is too serious a matter to “mock”. However, I have been telling my 88-year-old mother for years that when she dies, the first things to go will be the multitudes of margarine tubs and plastic bags…. that’s as close as I can get to talking about her death with her.

    You know, you may have felt that it wasn’t really an option not to have the S. family move in so they could all be together as Mr. S. died, so you don’t see that accommodation as heroic, but is it not a dream of being a hero to imagine that you could hold it all together for them when they could not do that for themselves? No offense, but there’s some delusion of hero there. Kind of like how I used to want to be able to scoop a child out of the path of an oncoming car, or perform CPR in the middle of a mall, or happen upon a car accident and do all the right things to save someone. Thank goodness these events never played out, because I’m sure I would have done all the wrong things, or just been entirely useless, but don’t we all want to be a savior in some way? Just a thought…

    I’m sorry it got so messy at the end. It was just real life (and death), not a fairy tale after all.

    My condolences to the S. family.

  10. Tracey says:

    My mom and my best friend’s mom both died within a week of each other. The only thing that kept us from falling apart was the fact that she and I could joke about the absurdity of the situation.


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