I was well into musing about what I would write today when I realized that some who read my posts may feel a need for reassurance. This piece is about death.
I am fine.
Although I like to joke that by the time Mozart was my age he had been dead for 35 years (Brahms for seven, my dad for three), I actually am quite healthy. Yes, I have had two heart attacks, but the second one was due to a faulty stent that collapsed. The first one was eight years ago, and for almost all of the time before and since then I have been doing well.
Maybe the relative ease with which I speak of death is connected to my familiarity with it. When I was a child, my father’s serious heart problems were managed through his somewhat sedentary life and early heart medications that seem almost primitive now. He had dozens of heart attacks and was hospitalized frequently in his 40s and 50s. He was an early surgical patient in a process that used veins from the leg to replace arteries near the heart. Still, at 67 he died in my sister’s driveway, determined to drive there to visit his grandchildren.
His death happened in the first weeks that Paul and I were dating. Eighteen years later, Paul was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and we were told he would have about three years to live. If ever anyone needs to be convinced of Paul’s single-minded determination, consider that he never remembered the prognosis we were given but rather remained determined to have the most active life he could muster for eleven years beyond that early survival estimate.
My father’s death also happened in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. HIV prevention and treatment has consumed much of my personal and professional life. To some extent it gave me the life I have, including my perspective on death. I cannot long think of death without recalling Larry, Marty, Steve, Barry, Gary, John, Hector, and many, many more. I have crawled into bed with some of these men to comfort them when the squeamish could not. I have kissed their lips, dried their tears, and held their hands. These experiences took nothing from me, but rather gave me practical skills in caring for Paul at the end. Weeks before he died, I danced with him on a mat at the hospital. He could not stand or move his legs, but his laughter was substantial as we rocked back and forth, pushing and pulling in time to Lady Gaga.
Not so many years ago, I heard an elder comment about the transition from thinking about time passed to thinking about time left. I believe that I am in that transition now.
A year after Paul died, I called together a group of friends: Jason, Josh, Kurt, and Patrick. I asked that they think with me about my future and my eventual death. Paul had been my health care power of attorney, followed by my friend Chris. But she, like so many others over 50, had siblings, parents, and single aunts whom she was tending. I needed to spread the wealth of experience. I picked these guys for who they are, their considerable skills, and their age. I need them to outlive me. When we met over brunch at the house, I shared with them the various duties of power of attorney, health care power of attorney, executor, and trustee. I talked about my finances, my possessions, my philanthropic interests, my will, and the trust I had established to care for Paul, had he survived me. I asked if they were willing to take on these duties and, if so, which ones interested them. Kurt opted for health care power of attorney because he “always wanted to say, ‘Do not resuscitate!'”
The point of breaking the silence on death is, like for money and sex, we do not benefit from being mute about it. I do not feel competent to lead a discussion on death, but I am completely sure I never will be if I don’t talk about it. Further, I love these men who will pass along my legacy. I want them to be confident in what I believe they will need to do.