Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Memento Mori

“The most wondrous thing in the world is that all around us people can be dying and we don’t realize it can happen to us.” From the Indian epic poem “The Mahabharata”
above, Frans Hals, "Youth with a Skull," circa 1626
It’s long been my friend David Malham’s ambition to have a letter or op ed published by the New York Times.  He recently got his wish, an essay entitled “Memento Mori” (“remember that you have to die”), also the title of a 1958 Muriel Spark novel.  He sent it to me along with the announcement that he has A.L.S. (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).  He has known this for about a year but only recently began telling family and friends.

David, who is my age, 73, was my first brilliant student at IUN and after earning a master’s degree in History at IU became a grief counselor, working for many year with MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving).  After Dave, Angie, and I were victims of a traumatic home invasion in 2000, he provided us with much needed counseling.  We see each other infrequently, but it’s always like it was only yesterday.  He is one of the wittiest storytellers I’ve ever met.  Even in his original essay, which led off with the above quote from “The Mahabharata,” he joked that when his doctor approached him with an unmistakable look of concern, this conversation ensued:

“What’s the worst case?” I fearlessly asked.


“AFL?” I queried.


“LSU?” I countered.


“Ellis Island?” I insisted.


That clever opening did not survive the New York Times editor’s cut, some of the 900 words deleted to fit the Opinion section’s 1,500-word format.  Part of a series called “The End,” about end-of-life issues, this is how the pared down version started:

I would not have chosen A.L.S. at the Pick Your Disease store, but there are worse things that can happen and worse ways for a life to end. The very fact that it was happening to me and not to my family was itself a relief. Navigating one’s own pain or fear is much easier than navigating a loved one’s.

David wrote that his professional training had taught him to focus not on “why me?” but “what now?”   His first reaction was to worry about wife Shelley dealing with widowhood.  When she got wise to him, she said, “Stop it. If you die before me, I will grieve and I will survive. If I die before you, you will grieve and you will survive.”  It made him aware of the recent emphasis in grief therapy on resilience.  As he wrote:

People normally find healthy ways to adapt and live with loss. That’s not to say it’s a quick and easy task. It’s not that grieving suddenly ends and the person forgets and moves on. No, what happens is that a weight that initially feels unbearable becomes, in time, manageable. The grief becomes compact enough, with the hard edges removed, to be gently placed in one’s heart.

David addressed the question of why we should remember that we have to die.  The religious argument is because there is an afterlife.  The secular argument is that we should value each day and live mindfully. David added this insight:

The awareness of premature or unexpected endings can motivate us to routinely demonstrate our love to those important to us. Let’s not save our affection, as if a rare wine, for special occasions. Give and receive it as essential nourishment.

David concluded on an upbeat note with a self-deprecating remark and an affectionate word for wife Shelley:

Finally, I like what Thomas Moore wrote in “The Soul’s Religion”: “I have made many mistakes and done a lot of foolish things, but when I look back on the person I was, I feel affection for him and laugh at him.” A comforting sentiment. Also comforting is my wife’s promise that she will dress in mourning for no more than two years. One would be enough but I know her, and she’ll insist on the full two.

In his email David said that Shelley was excited when The Times told them that the story is the fourth most commented on and that she is expecting an invitation to be on “The View” and for Meryl Streep or Diane Keaton to play her in the film adaption. I wrote back: “I just got your email and am still trying to process that you have ALS.  Needless to say, I feel terrible about this; what you wrote about Shelley is very touching and on the mark.  Better Streep to play her than Keaton and for you, Bill Murray?  I like what you had to say about resilience.  It sounds like you are handling things, but do former grief counselors get to go to other grief counselors?  David replied: “Thank you. And, yes, Bill Murray should be the one (but I’m flexible; for Shelley it’s not negotiable – it’s Streep or Keaton or forget it; she’s insistent that only those two can bring the necessary gravitas).”

In “Educating the Calumet Region: A History of Indiana University Northwest” Malham related this anecdote about my co-author Paul Kern:

Paul Kern was a born storyteller, combining passion with the delivery of an actor.  At the podium sometimes his eyes would narrow or his teeth clench.  He had a slight lisp, and his s’s would sound like sh.  His account of a power structure between a Holy Roman emperor and Pope Gregory mentioned how in order to get back into the pope’s good graces the emperor humbled himself by going to Canossa as a penitent.  Centuries later when Chancellor Bismarck was involved in a similar power struggle, he uttered the symbolic line, “I will not go to Canossa.”  Meaning, “I will not submit to this.”  When Kern uttered the line, it sounded like Kenosha, Wisconsin.  I thought to myself, “Shit, I wouldn’t go to Kenosha either.”  But the sh in Canossa did not mar Kern’s power as a superb storyteller.  He knew how to deliver a line.

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