A Case of the Human Condition: Death is the Only Guarantee

Olompali State Historic Park, CA, trees dying against a blue sky. Photo by Barbara Newhall.

Oak trees dying at Olompali State Historic Park, California. Photo by Barbara Newhall.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, June 3, 1987

My 13-year-old compact sprang a leak in its transmission. I spread a piece of cardboard beneath it, like a bandage, to collect the transmission fluid.

“You might want to consider giving up on it,” Larry said gently. “It will cost $400 or $500 to fix.”

Larry has been repairing my little sedan for five years now. He understands how I feel.

My sister-in-law has a van that I covet. It has seatbelts for seven – just the thing for the kindergarten carpool. Maybe it is time to let go of my sedan.

Bodies should be more like cars. When they fail, you should be able to trade them in. It isn’t fair that some of us are required to interrupt our lives midstream just because the machinery has broken down.

There ought to be some sort of 72-year warranty, a guarantee that each of us will be permitted, at the very least, to live out our allotted life expectancies before we step through those Pearly Gates.

My Car Was Dying . . .

Our neighbor on the uphill side stopped by a few months ago. There was a bounce in his walk and just the hint of a smile on his face. This was something new. He had been sick and under the weather lately.

He told us he was getting his affairs in order, deeding his house over to his children. The doctors had X-rayed and found cancer of the colon. They would operate on Monday.

“It’s OK,” he reassured us. “I’m 79. I’ve lived my life.”

Our uphill neighbor is a widower. He spends his days in his tool room, building things. He paints his house himself. By the time he finishes the last wall, it is time to begin again. Every few years, he works his way around to our side of his house and we watch as he struggles with ropes, ladders and buckets of paint.

a mother is dying -- and a child will be left behind. Photo by Barbara Newhall

My daughter Christina and her friend Amanda at Children’s Fairyland, Oakland. Photo by B.F. Newhall

Monday night, we called his son. The tumor had been removed. The prognosis was excellent. We were delighted, but wondered whether our uphill neighbor would be as pleased. He would have to get out the ladders and go back to painting his house.

I saw Bethany over at Alta Bates Hospital a couple of years ago.

She was thin and her head was covered with an elaborate scarf. I caught sight of her name on a lab slip. Otherwise, I would not have recognized her.

I was at the hospital because I was trying to get pregnant just one more time. Bethany had Hodgkin’s disease.

She was going to have a bone marrow transplant. “It’s my last hope,” she said softly.

Bethany was keeping a journal of her experiences as a cancer patient. She carried it around with her like a life preserver.

No, I did not become pregnant. And, no, Bethany did not survive. She was 32.

Amanda’s mother told me she was going over to San Francisco to buy a wig.

She knew just where to go. This was her second go-around with chemotherapy for breast cancer. The chemotherapy would cause her hair to fall out soon. She wanted to be ready.

Amanda is 3.

It would be easier letting go of this life, if we could just know for sure what lies on the other side of those Pearly Gates. Sometimes I believe in God. I feel Him right there next to me. But that is only sometimes.

Miriam believes most all the time. She reads the Bible every day.

. . . And So Were My Friends

She earns her living taking care of old people. She cleans their houses, feeds them lunch, helps them to the bathroom and cleans up after them when they don’t make it.

She and Mrs. L. used to talk about God. Mrs. L. was 95, the widow of a university professor, and now very frail.

Hers had been the life of an intellectual. She had filled her days with books, lovely clothes and an elegant house and garden.

When Miriam talked about God, Mrs. L. listened, but she could not make herself believe. As Mrs. L. grew weaker, Miriam did her best to prepare her for the moment of death.

“If you see Jesus,” she told her, “grab Him.”

Mrs. L. remained skeptical.

Miriam was summoned to the hospital one Sunday night. Mrs. L. was dying. She had no children, and the relatives who would inherit her house and considerable estate lived scattered across the country. She wanted Miriam.

For 24 hours, Miriam sat with Mrs. L., holding her hand, unable to ease her panic.

Finally, Monday night, Mrs. L. sat straight up in bed, eyes wide open, then fell back onto her pillows. Minutes later, she died.

Miriam thinks that, in that moment, Mrs. L. saw Him. But she is not certain. Not even Miriam is certain.

I prefer to think about my new van. Picking it out will be fun. And if it gets into a crash, the insurance company will buy me a new one.

© 1987, The Oakland Tribune, Reprinted by Permission

A lot of people have gone out of my life since I wrote this column back in 1987. Beverly, Bethany and my uphill neighbor are gone. So is my father and quite a number of aunts, uncles and cousins. I miss them all. But it’s nice to sit here in my writing room, remembering them. I have that, don’t I?

You can read more about those missing loved ones at “A Case of the Human Condition: When a Young Mother Dies.” Also, “How to Be a Glamorous Gal at Age 98.”

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