John Thorndike | The Last of His Mind |

Posts Tagged ‘death’

Message from Camilo 6

Sunday, November 27th, 2016


I’m glad I’m not in Miami. All that cheering and banging on pots and pans and dancing around in the street. My heart couldn’t take it, because no matter what they say, they’re cheering for Fidel’s death.

At the same time, I wouldn’t care to be in Havana now either, headed for nine days of mourning. Raúl, please, we could use a little pura vida here. A whole lot of political blather is what we’ll get, without a word from those Cubans who’ve been secretly fed up with Fidel for years. Official speeches and mourning for nine days! I suppose Fidel might appreciate it, wherever he is now—but don’t ask my opinion about that kind of thing.

It’s the opposite of all this posturing that I loved about our years in the Sierra: the rawness of it, the simplicity and violence. I know I’m not supposed to like war, with people getting killed all the time. But people were getting killed all the time before the Revolution started, murdered by Batista’s secret service and his Guardia Rural. Celia Sánchez had it right when she said we were better at war than domestic life, that we didn’t know what do do with husbands and wives and children, or with tranquility of any kind. And politics, to me, was more difficult than domestic life!

I do wish I’d been there when el jefe was dying. Not so I could take a side, but to be close to him in his last minutes, and remember him the way we all knew him at the start, as the great light of Cuba. Many who came to hate him, started out by loving him.

Living here in Costa Rica, I have some distance on all of it. And what I think about now is that anyone who cheers, either for Fidel or against him, is bound to be cheering against members of their own family. Because inside every Cuban family—every one, if you spread the net wide enough—is someone who loves Fidel, and someone else who’s glad that he’s finally dead.

Coño, I could make some trouble. All I’d have to do would be to go back to Havana, let them know it was me, and start telling the truth as I see it. I’m just about the only Cuban that both sides love, so I’m sure they’d listen. But Raúl would also listen, and after I’d talked about him for a while, I’d probably be back in jail.

The next thing that will actually happen, of course, is that Clare will read this and jump on me for ever imagining that I could put myself in that danger. But that’s how it goes with Fidel: even beyond the grave, he stirs everyone up.

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Obsessions, Grand and Less So

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

I’d like to be obsessed with travels to distant lands, with a book on the best-seller list, with a flood of easy money or a new and sumptuous love affair. If any of this comes to me in the next few months, I promise a complete depiction.

Instead, what I keep perking up to these days are stories of death and old age, of how patients confront disease and their own mortality, of what people do in their advanced years—or simply their last years. All rather grim subjects, perhaps—but I’m long past fighting what interests me, I just follow it.

What woke me up last week were some comments by Loudon Wainwright Jr, the singer-songwriter, in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. Loudon Wainwright Sr. worked with my father at Life, and once described my father as “a handsome, bright, reserved, efficient fellow…ambitious and proud,” and marked from the start for bigger things. So I’ve listened to Loudon Jr.’s songs with extra interest, and I was fascinated to hear what he had to say about Charlie Poole, the banjo player and leader of the North Carolina Ramblers. Wainwright’s latest album is called “High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project”, and on Fresh Air Wainwright described the end of Poole’s life, at the age of 39. Basically, he drank himself to death.


Wikipedia puts it this way: “Poole’s life ended after a 13-week drinking bender. He had been invited to Hollywood to play background music for a film. According to some reports, he was disheartened by the slump in record sales due to the Depression. Poole never made it to Hollywood. He died of a heart attack in May 1931.”

He went out the way he wanted to live, high wide and handsome. Or one could see it that way. Perhaps it was a good deal more desperate than that—especially with that note about being disheartened, which sounds a lot like depression.

Could I just go crazy like that some day, just to stir things up? Could my father have faced his oncoming dementia with a more violent, a more exuberant response?

Probably not. We are usually so much who we are.

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Never Dreamed of and Never Prepared For

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009


I come from a generation that was separated from birth and death. All my grandparents, I believe, were born at home, and half of them died at home. But my father was born in a hospital, I was born in a hospital, and my son was born in a hospital. I managed to keep my father at home for his death, but only by moving in with him and living with him for a year, and by getting some help from Hospice. Otherwise, most likely, he’d have wound up like the majority of men in this country and died either in a nursing home or a hospital bed. Not what he wanted, and not what most of us say we want.

As Nancy Mairs writes on the back cover of my book, mine is “a generation who, as people live longer and longer, find themselves on a journey they never dreamed of and so never prepared for, caring for elderly parents with deteriorating health and dwindling mental faculties.”

We may never have prepared for it, but more of us are doing it. Families may be spread farther apart, but someone takes in the patient dying of cancer, someone takes in the memory- and language-impaired. And often enough, we’re there when the patient dies.

Before my father, I’d never seen anyone die. Indeed, other than the embalmed, I’d seen very few bodies: a man who fell out of a truck in El Salvador and now lay on the hot pavement, his face covered with palm fronds. Two people by the side of a mountain road in Ecuador, victims of an accident, their faces also covered. And more recently, a friend who died of cancer here in Athens, Ohio.

I doubt if having more direct experience with the dead would have prepared me for the death of my own father. But now I’ve seen it close up, and somehow it makes a difference. This is how it works for many people, I’m sure, and has worked for thousands of years: you grow up with hardly a thought for death, then your parents die and suddenly—as the author James Salter says—the way is clear for your own end.

How much my friends and I now talk about that end. Death, which philosophers and sociologists have been insisting we consider, and which we have steadily ignored, is now a daily topic. Before it seemed too distant to worry about, but now it’s all around us. Death has come back into our houses and, given that eventually it’s going to come for us, I think it’s best that we have some acquaintance with it.

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