July 14, 2021

The Rose That Failed to Bloom: Memories of My Mother

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Part III

Rose at the End

This final episode coincides with the exact 75th anniversary of my mother's marriage to my stepfather, Ray.  It was on that date, July 14, 1946, that she made the second fateful error of her life that would lead in time to her ultimate disintegration, which you will now read about in the blog to follow. 

In December, 1991, as I was preparing to take a trip to Venezuela with my then current lover, Maude, I received an urgent call from California. My stepfather had just been discovered to have an advanced and fatal form of cancer and had already been hospitalized. Because my mother was by then old and demented, and because I was her only child, there was no other choice but to cancel my holiday plans with Maude and leave for California as soon as I could purchase my tickets for the flight.

A day after Christmas, I was on my way to the Bay Area to help take care of my mother but chiefly to do whatever my stepfather needed. At that point, it was mainly a matter of filial duty; in the end, it turned out to be a journey of love.

What follows is an edited version of the diary I kept of that visit.

When I first arrive, I cannot find my mother.

I drive to my mother’s fortress -- she lives in a gated community in San Leandro. It is impenetrable from the outside.

She does not respond to my voice message.

There has been no word from my mother by 9 a.m., and I am about to discover why not.

When I was still in Connecticut, in a plangent voice, she had averred that she no longer wanted to live, that she did not know how to live without Ray. As you now know, my mother had for years been an unknowing addict to Valium and had suffered terribly as a result of having been made to withdraw from it “cold turkey.” Had she perhaps taken an overdose of her tranquillizers? Would I find her unconscious or even dead when I was finally able to enter her home? Or might she have simply wandered away, in a disoriented demented daze of grief, unable to stay in her house and too confused to be able to call anyone for help?

Fortunately, George had a set of keys to her gate and to the house, so I am able to get in at last. I pause for a moment at the door, trying to compose myself for any eventuality.

When I unlock the door, I smell the stench immediately, and then hear my mother’s raspy voice call out, “Ken? Oh, I was frightened that it might be someone else.”

She is wearing only a rumpled blouse and her underwear. Her lank hair has gone completely gray, and her lips are twisted into a grimace of pain. She shuffles down the narrow hallway and approaches me warily, like a wounded animal.

Embracing her gently, I begin to take in the dimensions of the noisome squalor that has been my mother’s home for so long. (I had not visited my parents at their home -- had not been permitted to -- some ten years. Now, in an instant, I knew why.) 

The hall mirror I am facing does not reflect me -- or anything. It is caked with grime from top to bottom. There is a large and still spongy wet strain on the carpet beneath me upon which heaps of towels have been laid in an only partially successful effort to sop up the water. The nearby bathroom is unusable, the toilet blackened with scum and smelling like the shit it was stuffed with. Clothes are strewn everywhere, helter-skelter, and great masses of wadded up tissues are scattered all over. 

Entering the kitchen, I find the linoleum floor ruined and covered with a sticky film of encrusted dirt. A carton filled with empty Sprite cans sits on one counter next to a large but empty refrigerator, which I soon determine is no longer working. (“It’s on the blink, Ken,” my mother helpfully explains.) But in the middle of the kitchen is a small working refrigerator at least. However, when I peer inside, I find it full of spoiled food, empty milk cartons and some still barely eligible food, mostly dairy products on which my mother apparently has managed to subsist. All around on the counters is discarded debris -- dirty dishes, soiled paper cups, half-empty plastic pill bottles left uncapped, piles of unopened mail -- the material detritus of years of fitful neglect. On the floor are assorted grocery bags of still undiscarded garbage.

My mother has turned into a bag lady who lives in a garbage dump of her own making.

Looking through the kitchen toward the living room, my eyes spot a large round table stacked high with letters, bills, business cards and whatnot -- another mountain of chaotic papers and documents that appear to represent my father’s desk and working area. To its left is what used to be the living room with a couch and chairs littered with old newspapers, clothing and the apparently ubiquitous wadded-up tissues. There are some books still lying on the coffee table -- I notice one about the history of the Holocaust and other serious books, along with broken candy dishes and a pile of mildewing clothes. (I make a bad pun to myself -- “awful offal.”) An enormous television screen -- it must be nearly three feet square -- stares blankly at me.

When I enter my mother’s bedroom, I find it in darkness -- she likes to keep the lights off, she tells me, and I can soon discern why once I flip them on. On her double bed on which she is now lying, her head on a pillow, are two crumpled blankets, seemingly almost twisted into knots. To her left are masses of used up tissues. Her nightstand also has reams of tissues splayed about as well as many notes that have been scribbled nearly illegibly onto the backs of envelopes. On her dresser is an assortment of objects covered with dust and seemingly unused, including two non-functioning electric clocks. There is still another clock sitting on an ironing board facing the bed that is otherwise covered with my mother’s clothing deposits, more of which are scattered around the floor.

It was as if I have walked into a seemingly abandoned Gothic house, only to find it occupied by a demented elderly recluse. The interior of the house seems to reflect the state of its lone resident’s disordered brain. In fact, all that is missing is the fecal matter on the walls (though I may have missed that). It seems to be a nut house gone wild in which I find my mother lost in the wilderness of her own mind.

And sadly but hardly surprisingly in view of what has greeted me when I entered, I soon see that my mother is indeed demented. Although she is still capable of lucidity at times, when her attention is elsewhere she soon lapses into protracted utterances of imprecations, curses and self-blame, muttering that she isn’t crazy but in general talking like one of those street crazies that one encounters so often in New York. I have the spooky feeling of listening to my mother’s thought stream in audible form, and it is nothing other than a farrago of a rant.

She also begins to undress herself in the presence of others, as I later discover. She takes off her slacks and stands around in her underwear, and then begins to unbutton her sweater, exposing her bra. She changes her clothes very often, all in a few moments, while out of my sight. And then she shuffles around, muttering to herself, her voice rising in occasional shouts of anger while lost in her own confusion. My feeling is that every resentment she has had to suppress when living with my father is able to come out now that he is no longer there to inspire her fear.

Then she comes out of her fog, becomes sensible and coherent again and speaks rationally. However, she denies -- vehemently -- that she talks to herself. She is just thinking, she says. And she is right -- that is exactly what she is doing. She just doesn’t realize that she is vocalizing her thoughts and that I can hear them.

At this point, still not knowing in what condition I will find my stepfather, I now have deep concern about what will become of my mother after Ray’s death. She doesn’t even know (nor did I then) whether Ray owned the house or, if not, to whom the rent was paid. She is living, not unreasonably, in fear that she will soon be evicted. She does not know or cannot tell me how much money Ray has in the bank, where his checkbook is, much less what bills need to be paid. She is a fount of ignorance on all such practical matters, and I can only hope that Ray will still be able to answer those questions for me.

Standing before my mother in this state, she seems like a lost and confused child without her father-husband, and all I can do is to try to reassure her that I will take care of things, of her, and not to worry. I tell her that she certainly will not be evicted, but that I need her help in order to start helping her.

First, I make out a list, with her help, of questions I need to ask Ray. I find out the name of her bank and call it to explain the situation. Since my father has been heavily involved in veterans affairs, I am able to get in touch with some of his vet buddies who are glad to offer their assistance. I erase the answering machine with Ray’s outgoing message and substitute one of my own. Then I show my mother how to use the answering machine of which she is not only ignorant but seemingly afraid. (“All machines are inherently aggressive,” said Carlyle.) And then reassuring her that I will be back in the afternoon, I leave for the hospital wondering what more horrors may lie in store for me there….

Before leaving, I tell my mother that she will probably be moving to The Jewish Home for the Aged, and try to inform her as much as I need to about Ray’s plans for her. I have to reassure her again and again of his concern for her welfare and of his unwavering love, even as he is approaching his own death.

My mother is still in a confused and disoriented state, but she appears to be able to absorb most of this information. (Nevertheless, she later calls me for further reassurance, saying she is still confused about what is to happen to her.) Ro finds it difficult to keep from reverting to longstanding fears, which have plagued her entire life, it seems. She may also now have a memory deficit so that things have to be explained to her over and over….

It takes me fully five minutes just to clean the mirror in the vestibule until I can finally begin to see the glass. Coat after coat of Windex is necessary in order to scrape away the grime and encrustations of years -- who knows how many? -- of neglect. The next two hours are spent picking up litter from the carpet in the hall and adjoining corridors -- hair curlers, pink plastic pins in abundance, perhaps a hundred pennies, and countless wads of tissues -- and then sweeping clean the little cabinet underneath the mirror on which stands a small dirty vase containing a single pathetic plastic red rose. (An apt metaphor, I can’t help thinking.) After all this, I can finally vacuum the carpet itself. Two hours -- and just a small corner of the house has been liberated from its debris…

When I arrive back at my mother’s house about 2 p.m., I am distressed not to find her at home. But I soon discover her outside, a little old lady wearing a black beret, dressed in brown (at least she has clothes on!). She is slowly padding up the sidewalk toward the house whose front door, by the way, she has left open.

I endeavor to do a wash. My mother, however, is difficult to deal with in this matter. She attempts to round up her dirty clothes -- God knows this must be a difficult task for her in her disoriented state of mind -- but soon loses track of her objective and wanders off, muttering. 

I hear her loud, angry quasi-whisper: “Geez, that’s crazy! He’s going to think that’s crazy. I’m not crazy.” She repeats these statements or similar ones frequently, but when I approach her, she immediately ceases -- as if I have found her engaged in some indiscretion. When I try to confront her gently about this, she denies talking to herself and becomes defensive.

Then, when my back is turned, she starts again to undress herself down to her underwear, and when I reproach her, she claims that she is just changing her clothes, something that she does often, she says.

So goes the way of the wash, which finally, small thanks to her, gets done.

Once I get all the clothes into the washing machine, we have a little talk during which she is entirely, so far as I can tell, present. I tell her that she has to see Ray -- that it is very important to him, and why. She appears to understand and agrees to do so without resistance. I try to explain to her that she will be moving and in general how things will be from now on, and again she appears to grasp the gist of what I tell her. Throughout, I have to reassure her about her finances, that no matter what, she will be taken care of.

After that talk, I start on the kitchen beginning with cleaning the counters and the sink. Then I take on the encrusted appliances, such as the electric can opener, the toaster and orange squeezer. Meanwhile, my mother resumes her aimless parade around the house, muttering fiercely as soon as she is out of my sight and trying to appear normal when she passes through the kitchen on her rounds to nowhere.

However, despite my remonstrating with her, she has by now unbuttoned a bit of her sweater while elsewhere in the house -- a little gesture of defiance, a small assertion of her control over at least her body, which is all she retains dominion over these days.

I clean, she wanders about vacantly. So passes the afternoon.

How ironic, then, that Ray who is loved by so many of his veteran friends only really cares about receiving love from the one person who has always withheld it -- my mother. They have been married for 45 years and, as I have mentioned, never once in all that time has my mother ever explicitly said that she loved him. My stepfather, on the other hand, claims that not a day has passed when he hasn’t avowed his love for my mother. Probably an exaggeration, but still, I suspect, a substantially true statement. I don’t think I have ever known a man who has for so long and so passionately loved a woman with so little to show for it -- 45 years of a tormented unrequited love.  What could be sadder -- and for both -- but my sympathies lie largely with my stepfather. Indeed, in my final days there, I have had a kind of healing with Ray and have come truly to love him. We have had some extremely tender and loving moments together as he approaches the end of his life. I wonder whether my mother will make one last gesture and go to see him before he dies so he can tell her once more how much he loves her, and perhaps finally hear the words from her that he has waited in vain to be spoken all these years.

Meanwhile, she continues to pad around the house like a zombie. Out of my sight she mumbles harsh curses and sometimes shouts angry phrases. Seeing me, she stops and attempts to act normal. She is always “changing her clothes,” i.e., undressing. I try again to reassure her that she will be taken care of, but I’m not sure how much sinks into that softened brain of hers.

Truthfully, I am finding Ro to be a bother and a nuisance, and my patience sometimes wears thin. Of course, I don’t want anything bad to happen to her, but I’m aware that all my feelings of love and care are going to my stepfather while toward my mother, I am all duty. How different it was for most of my life when I only cared about my mother while ignoring my stepfather. Life is full of ironies -- and unexpected reverses of affection.

She never does go to see Ray. She balks, refuses to go.

After Ray’s death, my mother was a basket case. My then girlfriend Lucienne and I drove her down to Los Angeles so that she might stay with an older sister. That didn’t work out, so I had to fly out there again and drive her back to the Bay Area where I was finally able to place her in a “board and care” home in Berkeley where residents are still ambulatory. At least they would look after her there. (I could not afford to place her in The Jewish Home for the Aged, as my stepfather had wanted, because she was now indigent. The house did have a lien on it and was lost.) 

Some of my women friends sometimes joke that they fear that when they become old, they will turn into bag ladies. Unfortunately, that’s what became of my mother. She would wander off, with permission, on the local streets and poke her nose into garbage bins. But she could do some surprising things, too. Once when I was visiting her, the staff told me that they -- and the other residents -- really enjoyed hearing my mother play the piano. I never even knew that my mother played the piano!

Sometimes Lucienne and I would fly out there in order to see my mother and take her out to a local restaurant, Edy’s, that she had liked to frequent when she was younger and lived in Berkeley. She was impossible and would eat nothing.

Eventually, she developed “contractures” and could no longer walk. At that point, she had to be moved to a nursing home in Berkeley, which was her final home. She shared a room with three other women, all but one demented, though by that time my mother had recovered most of her faculties. She always recognized me and was able to carry on coherent conversations.

During her first years there, I was still living and teaching at the University of Connecticut, and though I explored the possibility of flying my mother out there so she could live near me, for various reasons this was impossible. (Indeed my mother had never flown in her life, and never would.) So I could only visit her whenever I could arrange to get out to California, about a half dozen times a year.

But in 1996, I moved back to the Bay Area and once I arrived, I saw her regularly, usually once a week. When the weather was clement I would push her around the neighborhood in her wheelchair and try to keep up a certain level of chatter. She complained that I talked too much.

Here’s a photograph that was taken around that time.

Otherwise, we would sometimes sit out in the backyard at a table and play cards (usually gin). Or sometimes I would read to her. She was particularly fond of stories by Chekhov. I read quite a bit to her. She seemed to like that better than to listen to me natter on.

By then, although her mind had pretty much recovered, she was becoming hard of hearing and had developed glaucoma as well. But she was largely uncomplaining unlike her son who frets whenever he has a pimple. I’m sure my mother never read Montaigne, but she was a model stoic all the same. I hated to leave her, seeing her in her bed, surrounded by women who would be crying out in lunatic fashion, unable to move and uninterested to listen to the radio I had bought for her or to watch TV. She didn’t even like to be touched.

Once, when I thought she might not have long to live, I spent five minutes or so telling her about my work on near-death experiences. Finally, I asked her, “So, mom, what do you expect will happen when you die?”

She narrowed her eyes and replied in a flat voice: “Nothing. I expect to be dead.”

On another occasion when we were outside, as I was pushing her wheelchair along, I asked her to name some things that had really made her happy in her life. She took a while to answer.

“You,” she said.

She lived until she was almost 89 and died on June 30, 2001. She is buried next to her beloved sister, and my aunt, Mary. Never separated in life, now forever together in death.

July 7, 2021

The Rose That Failed to Bloom: Memories of My Mother

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Part II

The Withering of the Rose

He had still been a sailor when he met my mother, but he took to her right away, and she, desperate for the security of a stable relationship after my father’s long absence and years of unfaithfulness, succumbed to this young, vigorous and enthusiastic he-man. Indeed, Ray Ring was a muscled, tattooed bull of a man, still in his mid-twenties and full of life. To me, however, it was as if an alien creature had suddenly burst into our house with a kind of demonic energy and taken over the lives of my mother and me. I had, without any warning, acquired a stepfather and lost my own father forever at the same time.

Before Ray’s entrance into our lives, my mother and I had continued to live with my aunt, uncle and cousin in a fairly roomy house in Oakland where I had in fact grown up. However, as soon as my mother and stepfather were married in July of 1946 -- I was now ten -- the three of us moved into a very tiny down-at-the-heels dwelling in a dilapidated court in the same general area where I had grown up near Mills College. Another life was beginning for all of us, and the deep bond that had grown up between my mother and me during the war years was sundered at this time by this strange intruder, my stepfather, who was so unlike all the other members of my own family.

Below is a photograph of my mother and Ray shortly after they were married, which was taken in the postage stamp of a backyard of the house we were all living in at the time. Look closely at this photograph. Does my mother seem at ease to you?

Meanwhile, I could see that something was happening to my mother. She had gradually become more withdrawn and seemingly troubled. Of course, my suspicions immediately centered on my stepfather, and eventually, when he was out of the house, my mother started confiding in me again, telling me of her unhappiness with him. Although she was not specific, she intimated that her sex life with Ray was deeply unsatisfying. She just wasn’t attracted to him; indeed, in some ways, she seemed repelled, even frightened, by his physical ardor. She had made a mistake in marrying him, she said, but she could see no way out now. From what my mother indicated to me, however, although she was always oblique about this too, I knew she had -- even then -- other suitors and that one of them, a furrier, wanted her to leave her marriage so that they could be together. Naturally, by this time, I encouraged my mother to do exactly that. I wasn’t any more happy than she was in this new family constellation, and I urged her to find a way to break free. But she never had the courage to do it, and this is when I began to lose respect for my mother. She would only complain, but she would never take any action. She was defeated, a captive in a marriage that she thought would save her, but had only confined her to a prison run by a benevolent but completely controlling warden. It was at that point that my mother started her descent into mental illness, which was her only escape.

Something, then, was beginning to happen to my mother, although at that time, when I was completing high school and beginning my college studies, I was too preoccupied with my own life to pay that much attention to that of my mother. I had also moved away to Berkeley during those years, so I also did not have as much contact with my mother as before. She was left alone now with her husband, another controlling man in her life, as her father had been, but from Ray there would be no way out.

I knew of course that my mother suffered from anxiety, that she was riddled by unnamed and untamable fears and was deeply unhappy in her marriage. And, naturally, all this depressed her, so that she was tempted to withdraw from life as much as possible. Stuck at home and unable to drive, she seemed to have no friends at all. Mary was her only companion and confidant, even more important now than ever since my relationship with her was no longer as close and intimate as it had been.

However, when my parents moved out to Berkeley themselves -- my stepfather had arranged to manage the apartment complex where they lived -- I was at least able to visit my mother frequently. We often played Scrabble together -- as a reader she was good with words. A longtime subscriber to The New Yorker, she introduced me to the magazine when I was thirteen (I have been reading it every since). And she did have a sly sense of humor. I think at that time, I was just about her only distraction from the tedium and stress of her marriage.  

My mother never was interested to talk to a therapist, and I don’t think Ray would have countenanced it, anyway. Instead, I recall that she frequently saw a Dr. Goodman about her ills, and it was because of him that she began to take Valium daily, something I never learned until years afterward. At that time, Valium was a frequently prescribed tranquillizer, and it was not then known that it could become addictive and, in some cases, could even lead to a Valium-induced psychosis.

That was the fate that was to befall my mother, but by degrees over the ensuing years.

By now, I was already a young professor at the University of Connecticut, so the only contact I had with my mother was through an occasional letter (and birthday card) and during my visits back to California. At first, I didn’t notice anything particularly alarming about my mother during my visits. There was one thing, however, that struck me. As I’ve said, she was not a demonstrative woman, but I noticed on these occasions that as soon as she saw me, she would invariably tear up.  

After a while, though, her behavior had become distinctly peculiar and a source of some concern. At that time, she and Ray were living in a condo in a gated community in San Leandro, but for some reason they never wanted me to visit them there. They would insist that we meet at Mary and George’s house in Oakland. That was fine with me because I particularly enjoyed spending time with Mary, long my favorite relative as I was her favorite nephew. But a typical visit with my parents would take this form: After about fifteen minutes, my mother would become agitated and say something like, “Ray, we really have to go now,” and so they would with a hurried goodbye. It left us all puzzled and perplexed, figuratively scratching our heads. Well, that was my mother, that’s just how she was these days, it seemed. But the signs were there and some years later I was to learn the devastating secret about why my parents never wanted me to visit them at their home.

So in those years, I was never able to meet with my mother privately, but, as I said, she would at least occasionally write to me. Sometimes it was to relate a violent quarrel that she had had with Ray who was choleric, impulsive, and was able easily to intimidate my mother and cause her to cower. He was never physically abusive toward her, but he ruled her with an iron will. But many of her letters were about money matters, particularly after Ray, in a characteristically rash episode, had taken all of their money (including some that had belonged to Ro, and without her permission) and invested it in a “get rich scheme” that predictably had gone bust, with the result that they were suddenly far worse off financially than ever. (George to the rescue again.) 

This had created both a family and financial crisis, and my mother wrote me several anguished letters about it, and her seething anger at Ray for what he had done -- not only acting foolishly without consulting her, but also because he had committed an act of theft. She was understandably bitter.

After that, she often wrote me about certain bank accounts of hers (apparently they had been replenished to a degree at Mary’s insistence through George’s grudging largesse) that she wanted me to be sure to know about in case she died. She had always been a secretive woman, and she was determined to keep these accounts hidden from Ray. He would never learn about them. 

But, meanwhile, with my mother’s continuing use of Valium, her behavior was becoming more erratic, as Ray himself told me once when he had come to the airport to pick me up. This in itself was unusual, as I had spent very little time alone with him, nor did I care to, during my years away in Connecticut. But this time he wanted to talk to me; he was also beginning to be concerned about Ro’s behavior. I knew he wouldn’t want her to see a therapist; he seemed to think only her doctor and drugs could help her. But he confessed that he was at a loss as to what to do, and I doubted that he would be open to any advice that I might offer. I actually think he mainly wanted to talk to me just to unburden himself.   

What made this such a memorable encounter, however, was when he told me something I had never known. He said, pretty much in these words, as I recall, “You know, Ken, in all these years your mother has never once told me that she loved me, never once!” How I then felt for my stepfather who, for all his flaws and failings, did so deeply love my mother, despite everything. How he must have suffered from this knowledge, and how much courage it must have taken for him to disclose this to me. Still, afterward, I could not help reflecting that my mother, in her two marriages, had never loved either husband; she had passed her life in two loveless unfulfilling marriages, and now seemed to be spiraling out of control in a vertiginous descent into increasing despair and mental disintegration. 

Unfortunately, the worst – far worse – was still to come.

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This is the second part of a three-part blog about my mother. The next episode will be posted on Wednesday, July 14th.

June 30, 2021

The Rose That Failed to Bloom: Memories of My Mother

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Part I

Rose at the Beginning

Today, June 30, 2021, is the twentieth anniversary of my mother’s death. I have spent a lot of time this month remembering her and her sad life. My mother, née Rose Friedman, was a rose that never bloomed. By her mid-thirties she had started to wither, and before many years more had passed, she had died long before her death.

Apart from my daughter, Kathryn, I imagine no one but me ever even thinks about her these days, and I am the only person still living who knew her intimately from the time she was a young woman until her death.

Friendless and all but abandoned except by me at the time of her death, her passing hardly caused a ripple even within my small family. We did have a little gathering at my house two months afterward, which I had intended to be at least an informal memorial of sorts for her, but even that affair quickly turned to other family stories, particularly revelations about my father and grandfather, thanks to my Uncle George, then in his nineties, who relished his role as the genial raconteur of family gossip.

So my mother had died, but was not really missed or mourned, other than by me, and even then, I can’t say that I did much to keep the flame of her memory burning for long. I did visit her grave twice in the first year or two after her death, but I haven’t been back since. Thus did my mother pass into oblivion, as we all will, of course, but before I do – I am now on the far side of 85 – I want to take the time to relate something of her story and tell you how it was that this once beautiful woman lost her way and why she failed to bloom. This is my love offering to her before it is too late. 

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My mother was the last of five siblings to be born, but her immediate older sister, Mary, soon forged a very strong bond with my mother which would endure for the whole of their lives. Mary was the elder by two years and always served as Rose’s protector, advocate and advisor. Mary was the strong and competent member of the pair, Rose, the shyer, less confident and more troubled.

My mother grew up to be a beauty – the only one of the Friedman children (there were two boys and two other girls) who had exceptional good looks. So much so that as a teenager she had entered and won at least one beauty contest that I know of.

Here is a photograph of her when she was nineteen that begins to show her classic beauty.


I don’t know how much, if at all, she dated during this period of her life, but I know she was much sought after. Eventually she met a man who, according to what I was told, she fell passionately in love with. Rose’s father was apparently a rather tyrannical man, and I know my mother was eager to get out from under his thumb as soon as she had finished high school. She felt that the man she was in love with could be the means, and she was eager to marry him. But fate had other ideas; he turned out to be a homosexual. My mother was desolated when she discovered this. As far as I know, this man, whose name I never learned, was the only man she ever loved.

But Rose did have other suitors, and one man in particular had begun to court her ardently. His name was Phil Kurman, and he was an artist. At that time, he made his living playing the piano in clubs, but he had aspirations to become a painter. Phil apparently had a great deal of charm, was intelligent and articulate, and although he was not particularly good looking, with a somewhat long nose, he was far from unprepossessing. He also was buoyed by a great deal of self-confidence, and from what I was later to learn from Mary, he was wild about my mother.

It was at this point that my mother made the first of her fateful errors. She consented to marry Phil – on the rebound. He would now be her ticket out of her own household and her father’s control over her life. She was already twenty-two, both of her older sisters had already married, and Rose would not be left behind.

In the mid-1930s, my mother’s family moved to California, and to begin with, my mother and her new husband lived with Mary and her husband, George, in San Francisco, where, toward the end of 1935, I joined them. Although for reasons I will soon explain, I don’t think I was a desired child, but all the same after I arrived my mother seemed happy to have me.


The reason I believe that, at least on my mother’s part, I was an unwelcome baby is that I know by the time I was born, my mother was convinced her marriage had been a mistake, and now with a child to raise, she was stuck. She did not love my father, and as I was later to learn, she had never loved him and never would. Phil, however, had certainly loved her, and at first had loved her passionately. But to no avail. And no one in the family seems to have taken a liking to him either. He apparently was full of himself, tended to brag about his talents and, from what I later gathered from Mary, he was generally found to be an obnoxious character. Again, according to Mary (my mother would never talk to me about Phil and later destroyed all of his paintings and almost all the photographs of him), Rose – who by that time preferred to be called “Ro” – had become “turned off” by Phil and refused to have sex with him any longer. Phil, naturally, was forced to turn elsewhere for physical affection, as he did. According to George, who knew my father well, after a while Phil was “in and out” of the marriage even before he departed permanently during World War II. Probably my mother was relieved to see him leave. From now on, it would be just my mother and me.

Ro and I soon formed a close emotional bond. My mother clearly had changed her mind about me. Actually, I think she did shortly after my birth because I was a happy baby, easy to care for, with blond curly hair, and from an early age I loved to sing (my mother told me that I would sing along to jingles on the radio even before I could talk). In effect, I believe I was the compensation to my mother for the unhappiness in her marriage. All her love went to me and not to her husband.

Nevertheless, my mother was not a physically demonstrative woman (I can’t recall whether she ever hugged me as a child or even in later life), but I never doubted her love for me. I remember how she used to say goodnight to me when I was young, perhaps seven or eight. I can still recall the purple and black checkered comforter on my bed. Before I went to sleep, my mother would steal into my room. She wouldn’t kiss me, but she would look playfully into my eyes and then softly press her check against mine.

During the war years, we were living in Oakland, still with Mary and George, and, as of 1940, their son, Cliff. During those years, I became very close to my mother emotionally, even though my main caretaker was my aunt Mary, since my mother had, even then, psychological problems, mainly, so far as I later was able to discern, having to do with her feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression. Once, when I was about eight, I believe, I discovered a book in her nightstand by a psychiatrist named Cowles whose title I still remember, Don’t Be Afraid! That said a lot about my mother’s fragile psyche of which I had already become aware.

As a naïve child, of course, I was not familiar with psychological concepts; I did not realize then that my mother was a depressive. Mostly, I remember her tendency to sleep late and often resting, but she did confide in me about her problems, and I know I listened sympathetically to them. I realize now I was the only person she then had to whom she could express her love unreservedly, but the fact is, I felt very loved by my whole family, and cherished. My own nature was sunny and seemingly uncomplicated.

Nevertheless, my mother was mostly a recessive character in our household. She did not cook or bake; she left that to Mary. The only foods I can ever remember her preparing for me were an occasional artichoke or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She didn’t work, never held a job and couldn’t drive. I do know that she would occasionally take me shopping with her in downtown Oakland and that she liked to sunbathe. I later learned that she was a reader, but did she ever read to me? Not that I recall. In a way, she was a kind of a recluse in the house she shared with her sister and her husband, almost like a guest. She was there, but absent at the same time.

Suddenly, during the spring of 1945, as the war in Europe was drawing to a close, I learned that we -- my entire family -- would be moving to Brooklyn, New York, for the summer. I had actually been taken to New York once before, in 1941, for a short time, but living there for an entire summer would be another matter altogether, especially now that I was nine years old. Ostensibly, the reason was that George’s mother, who was widowed by then, was in ill-health and George needed to be there to help take care of her. Only years later did I come to learn that there was another reason for us to travel there at that time.

Unbeknownst to me, my father was about to be discharged and had arranged to have a surreptitious meeting with my mother in July of that year -- at least it was a meeting that was kept secret from me. It was only from Mary many years later that I learned about it and more about what my father had been up to during the war. From what my mother had disclosed to her sister at that time, Phil had apparently been something of an “operator,” rather like the character Milo in Joseph Heller’s classic novel, Catch-22. He was, my mother said, always “making deals,” and seemingly had managed to enjoy his time while in Europe as millions were dying -- and where at the time, with the war there over, millions of survivors and refugees were starving and fighting among themselves.

Therefore, my mother must have listened with complete stupefaction to the shocking proposal my father had come to New York to make to her. He had so loved being in Europe, he told her, that he wanted to return after the war to make his home and his living there— and he wanted my mother and me to join him as soon as possible!

Of course, I have no idea how my mother actually responded to this preposterous proposition, but I like to imagine it was something along the lines of -- “You want me to take my only begotten son and myself to Europe while it is still on fire and people are starving and in rags there? Are you completely daft, Phil?”

In any event, my mother, for once, made a definitive decision for herself. She would of course have none of it. That didn’t stop my father, whose penchant for Bohemian adventurism had obviously only been enhanced by whatever opportunistic contacts he had made during the war. Born in Europe, he was returning home and would take up the life of an itinerant artist there. Thus it was, even without my knowing it then, that my father left me for the second time, this time for good. My mother and I went back to California shortly afterward.

While we were on the train heading home, the Japanese surrendered, and since the train was already crammed full of servicemen, the hoopla and celebrating made it a very memorable trip. My mother, still beautiful and no longer tethered to her European-bound husband, was now in fact being wooed by several servicemen. One of them, a sailor named George (who, I remember, told me that he weighed 236 pounds) tried to charm my mother by teaching me how to play pinochle. Unfortunately, George succeeded only in charming me.

After we returned to Oakland, Mary was forced to confront my mother with a problem that she would have to take steps to solve, and soon. As I was to learn years later, during the war years George had been providing all of my mother’s financial support. But now that it was clear that Phil would not be returning, George had put his foot down -- Ro had to find some other means to support herself, either by working or finding someone to marry after her divorce became final. Accordingly, since many veterans were now returning home, Mary advised Ro to go to the service clubs that were then so popular and see if she could find someone suitable to marry her. My mother was still a “looker,” and dressed well, as you can see from this photograph that was taken of her during the war when she was in her early thirties.


It did not take my mother long to find a number of men who were attracted to her (though it helped that she lied about her age).

A few months later, I would take another train trip with my mother, this time to Reno where she would obtain a “quickie divorce.” My mother was about to make her second fateful mistake.

**********************************************

This is the first part of a three-part blog about my mother. The next episode will be posted on Wednesday, July 7th and the final installment on Wednesday, July 14th.

June 6, 2021

The Silent Epidemic of Our Times

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

I recently read a very touching story about a woman named Virginia, who is 92 years old, and her cat, Jennie. She adores her cat who is almost always nearby. She likes to look at Jennie’s green eyes. She likes that Jennie is with her in the morning when Virginia wakes up. And sometimes when Virginia feels sad, she just sits in her soft armchair while Jennie rests on Virginia’s stomach. She nuzzles, purrs, stretches and just does her cat-like things.

Talking to an interviewer, Virginia said, "I can’t believe that this has meant as much as it has to me." When she dies, she thought she might bring Jennie with her. 

Jennie is a robot.

I came across this vignette in a recent article in The New Yorker that was written by Katie Englehart, the author of the book, The Inevitable, which I featured in my previous blog. In the article, she was addressing a problem that two English researchers, writing in The Lancet, had characterized in the following way:

Imagine a condition that makes a person irritable, depressed, and self-centered, and is associated with a 26% increase in the risk of premature mortality. Imagine too that in industrialised countries around a third of people are affected by this condition, with one person in 12 affected severely, and that these proportions are increasing. Income, education, sex, and ethnicity are not protective, and the condition is contagious. The effects of the condition are not attributable to some peculiarity of the character of a subset of individuals, they are a result of the condition affecting ordinary people.

The condition to which these authors are referring, as you might have guessed, is loneliness. And, as we also now know, this condition is particularly acute among the elderly,  which is why caregivers have been interested to see whether providing them with robot pets will help to alleviate their loneliness. In fact, as a number of researchers and scholars have recently pointed out, the pervasiveness of loneliness among the old in America has now reached what the Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, was frank to call an "epidemic." But in contrast to the pandemic we have all been through for the last year and half, this has mostly been a silent epidemic. The plight of the elderly, despite suffering unduly from the pandemic and dying in much greater numbers than younger people, did not receive the kind of sustained attention that we gave to families having to cope with children underfoot or workers who had lost their jobs.

This is understandable, of course. As a society, we no longer venerate the old, assuming we once did; all too often, we simply abandon, forget or ignore them. To be sure, individual family members usually continue to care for their elderly loved ones when they can. And we have all heard horrific stories of the contagion of COVID and resultant deaths that plagued our nursing and other old age homes during the first year of the pandemic. But as a society, we no longer provide the kind of social welfare net that permits most older people to continue to live out their lives in relative comfort in the company of other family members.

There was a time, of course, when, even in America, many people lived in extended families, either in the same house or nearby in the same neighborhood. In those days, when grandma became old and frail and could no longer hear well, she would still be cared for, and could still enjoy the loving company of her family. These days, however, grandma is usually shipped off to a nursing home to live among decrepit and often demented strangers, who cry out piteously during the night and during the day often sit, vacantly, strapped into their wheelchairs. This happened to my mother, too, when she had become old (I was living in Connecticut then while she, who had never flown, had to remain in California). During those years, I would continue to visit her as often as I could arrange to come out to California, but every time I had to leave her in her bed alone and without friends or other family, I felt a wracking guilt.

But even when older people can continue to live in their own homes, they are often left alone, and when that happens, they can suffer from acute loneliness and feelings of abandonment. And more and more of our elderly do live alone now – more than ever – as a result of the modern way of family life which has seen the rise of isolated nuclear family settings at the expense of extended family networks. Statistics show that nowadays almost 30% of Americans over the age of 65 live by themselves, most of them women.  And during the period when COVID raged, this isolation, as we all know, was even more of a torment to the old and to their families who could no longer see and comfort them. How many of these elderly died, alone and afraid, without a hand to hold? One can only shudder when one imagines people dying in this way. How many tears have been shed by their helpless family members? Perhaps you were such a person or knew others who had to endure such emotional and traumatic distress.

Even before COVID struck, however, the deleterious effects of isolation among the old were evident to researchers. Let me take just a moment to acquaint you with the range and severity of some of these effects.

To begin with, 43% of the elderly in America complain about being lonely. According to Englehart, loneliness can "prompt a heightened inflammatory response, which can increase a person’s risk for a vast range of pathologies, including dementia, depression, high blood pressure, and stroke." To amplify this point, consider the following statistics that come from a book dealing with the effects of social isolation in older adults:

•  Social isolation has been associated with a significantly increased risk of premature mortality from all causes.

•  Social isolation has been associated with an approximately 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia.

•  Loneliness among heart failure patients has been associated with a nearly four times increased risk of death, 68 percent increased risk of hospitalization, and 57 percent increased risk of emergency department visits.

•  Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) have been associated with a 29 percent increased risk of incident coronary heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke.

Of course, old age in itself is hard enough to endure for most of us oldsters, quite apart from the dangers, physical and emotional, of isolation, which I have just briefly adumbrated. The so-called "golden years" are really just the olden years when sentiment is absent and the reality of life as one ages is bereft of any illusory euphemism. Growing old is scary enough when one contemplates the prospect and then the reality of increasing decrepitude, loneliness, illness and then, finally, dying and death. If you have the misfortunate of living long enough, you may even find yourself not only alone but without anyone any longer knowing who you are and what you have been in your life. This is probably the most terrifying kind of existential isolation.

I remember when I was in my early eighties and was writing some (mostly) humorous essays about my own vicissitudes of aging that I eventually collected into a little book I puckishly called Waiting to Die, I had one of those moments of anticipatory existential fright. This is what I wrote at the time:

One day long ago I had a shocking realization. I received a new credit card whose expiration date was November, 2023, when I would be almost 87 years old. Surely, I thought, I would expire long before that. But, then, a horrible thought occurred to me: What if I don’t?! What if I live to 86? Honestly, before seeing that card, I had never imagined such a thing. No, no! Will I still be walking on this road toward death, still waiting to die, for years to come? What a ghastly thought.

I realized I’m not afraid to die; I’m now afraid of living too long!

At that time, I could still half-joke about such a prospect, but now that I am halfway to 86, it seems that some of my fears may no longer be a laughing matter!

A few years ago, the well-known physician, Ezekiel Emmanuel (you have probably seen him often interviewed on television where he became a frequent commentator on the pandemic), wrote a now famous piece in The Atlantic, which he provocatively entitled, "Why I Hope to Die at 75." In it, he reflected my own thinking, but took the time to lay out his reasons. This is how his article began:

That’s how long I want to live: 75 years.

This preference drives my daughters crazy. It drives my brothers crazy. My loving friends think I am crazy. They think that I can’t mean what I say; that I haven’t thought clearly about this, because there is so much in the world to see and do. To convince me of my errors, they enumerate the myriad people I know who are over 75 and doing quite well. They are certain that as I get closer to 75, I will push the desired age back to 80, then 85, maybe even 90. I am sure of my position. Doubtless, death is a loss. It deprives us of experiences and milestones, of time spent with our spouse and children. In short, it deprives us of all the things we value.

But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.

Exactly. Which is why I argued in my previous blog that people should have the right to terminate their own lives. Emmanuel would not choose to do that, but many people who no longer wish to live doubtless would if they could do so peacefully. Who, when young, dreams of getting old? Instead, we pretend it won’t happen to us. I never really thought it would happen to me either. But one day, after I had turned 81, I realized that my time had come.

Right now, even though I live alone (and have for many years – it’s easier for us introverts), I am lucky to have a loving girlfriend, now nearly 80 herself, who is able to spend some time with me as well as a caretaker who can assist me when I need someone to go grocery shopping or do errands for me. But my three children all live far from me, and I would never want to burden them with my care if one day I should find myself alone in this world. But who knows – it may be that I will eventually be one of those people I have been writing about -- on my own, sick and feeling forlorn, lost in my dotage, just waiting to die. Knowing what I have learned about the effects of isolation, I am not keen on spending my last days like this, even if I should have a robot cat to keep me company. 

Of course, old age needn’t be a drag or a seemingly unending series of tribulations and sorrows. It’s important to keep things in balance after all. As Emmanuel implies, old age can also be rewarding and full of pleasures, including sex. I have an old girlfriend, now well into her 80s, who frequently writes me about her deeply satisfying sex life with her husband. And there are certainly people in their nineties who are happy still to be alive and able to enjoy life.

Since this blog has been grim and uncharacteristically sober (at least for me), suppose we take a moment for a little levity to lighten the mood. One thing that I’ve been struck by is how many comics live to a great age and seem to leave this world laughing, at least figuratively speaking. To take one example, I can choose one of my favorite comics from an earlier era, George Burns, whom you may remember as God since late in life he became famous (again) for playing God in a film with John Denver. I mention him and comics generally because, as I have previously argued in some of my blogs, humor is often the best defense against the trials of aging and the prospect of death.

George Burns died at 100, and like other centenarians, he was asked to explain the secret of his longevity. He was inclined to attribute his success to smoking cigars daily. But there were other factors as well that contributed to his aging well until the end, as witness this obituary:

George Burns died at age 100 on March 9, 1996. Mr. Burns spent his lifetime in show business and created millions of laughs. It is reported that Mr. Burns was buried with three cigars in his pocket, had on his toupee, his ring and watch, which was a gift from his wife, and in the pocket of his suit were "his keys and his wallet with ten 100-dollar bills, a five, and three ones, so wherever he went to play bridge he’d have enough money."

Several years ago, he was asked by an interviewer if he ever considered retiring. "Retire to what?" an amused Mr. Burns asked. "I play bridge for two hours a day to get away from work. Why the hell would I want to retire to play bridge 24 hours a day?" George Burns played bridge every day of his life. He loved bridge. But at 3 o’clock, he could be in the middle of a hand, he’d stand up (and say) "Thank you gentlemen," and go home to take a nap. He used to say: "Bridge is a game that separates the men from the boys. It also separates husbands and wives."

Burns was perhaps one of the best bridge players in Hollywood. Well, if not the best, the funniest.

I loved George Burns, and his raspy voice – from all those cigars, no doubt. He knew how to enjoy himself and when to rest. He also did yoga. We oldsters can all take a lesson from George Burns. Keep laughing and don’t allow yourself to languish – that’s the ticket.

Still, George was the rare exception. Most people suffer when they get very old and often yearn to be free of the burden of living. Nevertheless, even though life is hard for the old and is in end universally fatal, as long as we are still here, we old-timers have to make the best of it. What will help us get through our battles with loneliness if robotic animals aren’t enough?

We are social creatures, and older people, who were so cruelly deprived of that kind of vital contact during the pandemic, are particularly vulnerable to the lack of face-to-face interaction. They can starve psychologically without it, but they can rebound and even thrive again with it.  We must find ways to address the social deficit of the aged in order to forestall, if not completely defeat, the insidious dangers of loneliness.

And social workers and other caregivers have not been slow to realize this. Here’s just one example of this kind of intervention:

The good news is that friendships reduce the risk of mortality or developing certain diseases and can speed recovery in those who fall ill. Moreover, simply reaching out to lonely people can jump-start the process of getting them to engage with neighbors and peers, according to Robin Caruso of CareMore Health, which operates in 8 states and the District of Columbia with a focus on Medicare patients. Her "Togetherness" initiative aims to combat "an epidemic of loneliness" among seniors through weekly phone calls, home visits and community programs.

What can you do? It’s obvious: Visit the old. So what if they just natter and chatter – they matter! Now that the COVID cloud is finally beginning to lift, don’t go out solely for your own pleasure. Do you have a loved one or someone you know who is living alone or in a nursing home? If so, visit them. Even better, bring them a pet, a real pet, not a robot, if they don’t have one. And don’t just visit once. Come back. Help to assuage their loneliness. You’ll be doing a mitzvah. You will be old one day yourself. Sew some good karma while you can. It will come back to you.

Englehart found that many older people whom she visited were reluctant to see her leave. They relished the time with her; they wanted her to come back. As she writes about Virginia:

It was the same with almost every robot owner I met. "I haven’t had anybody to talk to for a while, so chatter, chatter, chatter," Virginia said, when I first called. Near the end of my visit to her home, she insisted that I take a doughnut for the road and told me to come back sometime. She thought she would probably be around, though she also wondered if she would die in the big empty house: "Maybe this is the year."

"Your bags are packed, right?" her daughter-in-law said, laughing.

"Gotta go sometime," Virginia said. When she died, she thought she might bring Jennie with her. She liked the idea of being buried with the cat in her arms.

May 26, 2021

The Last Dance

 By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Half a lifetime ago – I was in the summer of my life then – I was running the newly formed International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) at the University of Connecticut. It was at that time that I became acquainted with a then noted anthropologist named Virginia Hine who was one of the first persons to become a member of this organization. We hit it off immediately and soon became good, even loving, friends.

I had actually heard of Ginny before she joined IANDS. I had read one of her articles on altered states of consciousness, which had impressed me, and a bit later, her book, Last Letter to the Pebble People, which dealt with the death of her beloved husband, Aldie, of cancer a few years earlier.

Over the years, our letters grew warm and loving despite the fact that we were never able to meet. She mostly divided her time between her home in Florida and her organization, Rites of Passage, in California. Whenever I traveled to Florida, she seemed to be in California, and vice versa. Once, when she came to Connecticut, I was away myself. We came to joke about our mismatched schedules. The closest we ever came to meeting face to face was a single telephone call. I remember that she had a beautiful voice.

When one day I received a letter from Ginny informing me that she had decided to choose the manner and time of her death, and that the time was coming quite soon, I was stunned. I had not known or suspected her plans. I remember thinking, "Now we will never meet!"

I thought a good deal about that letter of hers before replying to it. I could see that she had considered the matter extremely carefully and that she had discussed her plans thoroughly with her friends and family. She had secured some Seconal, which she knew would allow her to die peacefully, which according to her family, as I was to learn later, had indeed proved to be the case.

She did not need nor did she ask for any advice from me. I certainly did not attempt to dissuade her – it was her choice, and I respected that. I knew she had been ill with cancer and in pain. In the end, I could only send her my love and prayers for a gentle passage into death. I also didn’t think that it made sense to regard Ginny’s death as a suicide. Instead, I viewed it as an example of a well planned and rational chosen death.

I had occasion to think of Ginny recently as a result of reading a new book by a journalist named Katie Englehart entitled The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die. It is full of cases like that of Ginny’s. These days, many people are choosing to die the way Ginny did, and an increasing number of them are doing so by finding ways to circumvent the law.

Frankly, if you will indulge a brief confessional aside, now that I’m in the deep winter of my life, I have to admit that in recent years, I’ve thought quite a bit about the fact that I definitely do not want to wind up, decrepit and demented, in one of those warehouses for the those slated for death that we euphemistically call "nursing homes." No sirree, that’s not for me! After all, would anyone, given the choice, opt to spend their last years in such a depressing environment surrounded by scores of wheelchair-bound human wrecks just "waiting to die," to use the title of one of my recent immortal books?

I have a couple of friends who share my concern about these end of life matters, and we have had a number of conversations over the years about how best to dispatch ourselves. A few years ago, for example, we all read and discussed Derek Humphry’s 1991 best seller, Final Exit, which describes various ways to kill yourself (the book has sold over two million copies in twelve languages). I did not find any of the methods Humphry offers particularly appealing nor did my friends, but one of them has since made plans to lay in a supply of drugs that she feels would do the job for her. The three of us don’t exactly have a "pact" with each other about how to prepare for a self-administered exit, should one become necessary, but we have certainly explored a number of options.

Englehart, however, has encountered people who have made such a pact. In fact her book begins with such an example. She had interviewed a New Yorker whom she calls Betty who had made such a pact with her two best friends. "We have a pact," Betty told Englehart. "The first one who gets Alzheimer’s gets the Nembutal."

Although Betty herself was in good health in her seventies, she had been around a number of even older people, including one man in his nineties, and was distressed to see them in deep pain and just "hanging around," to use her phrase. But worst was having to witness her husband die.

Her own husband had died quickly enough. Seventy-five years old. Cancer. Still, he suffered. Sometimes he cried. In his final days, Betty imagined taking firm hold of a pillow and smothering him, partly because she thought that’s what he would have wanted, but also because she couldn’t bear to see him that way. In the end, he grew so agitated that the doctors gave him enough painkillers to knock him out. He spent three days in a morphine-induced languor and then died. Betty and her friends agreed that they would never let themselves get to that place and also they would never rely on a physician to help them, because who knew where the bounds of a doctor’s mercy lay?

(Incidentally, Betty’s account here reminded me of Michael Haneke’s marvelous and moving 2012 film, "Amour," in which an elderly husband eventually has to suffocate his demented wife with a pillow because he was unable to bear her suffering any longer.)

Betty wound up going to Mexico where she had learned she could buy in pet stores a lethal poison that is used to euthanize dogs. She was able to score enough for her and her friends. The story of her escapade is actually quite amusing and was not without risk, but you’ll have to read the book for that. However, the point is that in New York, physician-assisted death is still illegal. If you wanted to orchestrate your own death, it had to be a DIY endeavor.

Actually, in the book, Englehart doesn’t spend much time talking about people like Betty. Instead, she focuses on those who have serious, debilitating and often very painful illnesses, and who are often desperate to die, but who do not qualify for physician-assisted death even in the states where it is legal. She also spends a great deal of time interviewing doctors, nurses, researchers, authors, advocates for and opponents of the right-to-die movement. In each of her six chapters, she focuses on one personal story: two about doctors who specialize in helping people to die and four case studies of people who wanted to die because of unbearable suffering they were forced to endure. One because she had lived too long and nothing worked anymore; one who was suffering from multiple sclerosis; another who had progressive dementia; and a fourth who was mad.

Engelhart is herself not an advocate for the rights of the dying; she is a reporter who simply narrates these stories and who tries to listen to them without judgment but with compassion. She is open to a variety of perspectives. Self-administered death, like abortion, is a controversial subject. But when you read the heartbreaking stories of those who do not "qualify" to die because they do not satisfy the eligibility requirements, such as having been certified as being "within six weeks of dying" or for other reasons, it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for those who find themselves having to operate outside the law in order to effectuate their own deaths. It’s like reading what pregnant women had to go through or still do where abortion is illegal. The Inevitable is one long horror story. But it is also the story of some very courageous physicians who have risked everything in order to help such people.

One of themes that runs through Englehart’s book – it almost becomes a cliché or a tired trope – is how many people yearning to die because of their needless suffering often mention that we euthanize our dogs and cats in a loving way. One man, at a conference on death with dignity, sported a t-shirt saying, "I want to die like a dog." Does it make sense that we can compassionately end the suffering of our beloved pets but can’t extend the same mercy to ourselves? After all, we didn’t really need Darwin to tell us that we are animals, too.

Recently I was reading an article about all the horses who died a couple of years ago at the track at Santa Anita – 37 of them in 2019, causing a scandal. It made me remember the old film, "They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?" (although that film wasn’t about horses). But we don’t permit horses who have no hope of recovering from a painful injury to survive. We act to end their suffering as soon as possible. What sense does it make not to grant the same privilege to people who are suffering from incurable conditions or simply from enduring, intractable pain?

I mean, why should such people suffer needlessly? If those of us who believe in abortion rights hold that women, not doctors and certainly not politicians, should have dominion over their own bodies, why shouldn’t we have dominion over our own lives? Don’t our bodies belong to us?

This same question was raised in another old film I saw some years ago, which was entitled, "Whose Life Is it, Anyway?" In the film, the main character, played by Richard Dreyfuss, is a sculptor who becomes paralyzed from the neck down as a result of an automobile accident. Since his life depends on the use of his hands (his whole life is sculpting, he avers), he finds there is no point in living, and he chooses to refuse treatment in order to die. The drama of the film centers on the reactions to his choice on the part of his friends and the medical staff and hinges on the question whether the medical and legal institutions in which he was enmeshed will respect or prevent his choice to die.

This film also brings to the fore a central thorny issue of Englehart’s book – whether dying is a matter for medicine to decide or whether it should be regarded as human right. One of the doctors who has been active for a long time in the right-to-die movement, a man named Philip Nitschke, the author of the book, The Peaceful Pill Handbook, is a staunch defender of the latter position. This is how he frames the issue:

The medical model is where we see this as a service that you provide to the sick. If a person gets sick enough, and all the doctors agree, the person who is very sick and keen to die gets lawful help to die. The rights model, which I’m strongly in favor of, says this has got nothing to do with sickness. The idea is: having a peaceful death is a human right. And as a right it’s not something you have to ask permission for. In other words, it’s something you have simply because you’re a person of this planet. The rights model, of course, means that doctors don’t necessarily have to be involved … The right of a rational adult to a peaceful death, at the time of one’s own choosing, is fundamental.

This perspective, still very controversial and the subject of heated, often rancorous, debate, is nevertheless seemingly gaining strength and more adherents in America. After all, it’s well known that the right to die movement is already strong in such countries as the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland, and even physician-assisted death, as limited and hedged in by complex legal and medical regulations as it is, is now permitted in a number of states. If you were to read Englehart’s book – and I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in these matters – you would quickly learn about all the latest techniques doctors and engineers have devised to ease people into death, the books available on the subject, the organizations devoted to the right-to-die movement, and so forth.

But there is still another reason to think that in the coming years this movement will continue to grow stronger, and that has to do with demographics. The elderly are now the fastest growing segment in America. In 2010, there were about 40 million Americans 65 or older. By 2030, it is projected that one in five Americans will have reached that age. If so, that means we will soon be saddled with a population that is increasingly afflicted with dementia or otherwise seriously physically compromised. And since a quarter of all Medicare spending goes to people in the last year of their lives, there will be an even greater financial strain on our social networks, such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

What this portends, to put it crudely, is that in the future, many old and infirm people will be virtually begging to die, their younger relatives will be motivated to help them to do so (since their economic well being is threatened by having so much of our national wealth having to be diverted to care for the elderly) and organizations like the AARP and other organizations that lobby for the old will have to become advocates for the right-to-die movement. You can see the writing on the wall. The demographics make it plain. We can no longer afford (literally) to let death take its course. We must find ways to ease the burdens of life on the old by helping them to die with dignity and lessen the financial burdens on the young so that they can live without themselves suffering unduly. Medical technology has indeed enabled people to live longer than ever, but it has also served to prolong their years of pain and debility, ending with their complete dependence on others. Does this make sense? Is it humane?

Before concluding this blog, there is one more issue I need to deal with that has been with us from the very beginning. It was implicit in the story I told at the outset about Virginia Hine’s death and was explicitly brought out in the film I mentioned, "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" And that is the question having to do with the S-word. Should such deaths be regarded as suicides? And if so, what can people expect to experience when they die in this way? This is a question that can be addressed, even if not definitively answered, by the research on near-death experiences for people who nearly die, but don’t, as a result of a suicide attempt. In fact, whether one prefers to call deaths like Ginny’s "chosen deaths," or regards them as a form of rational suicide, we still want to know what will such people experience when they cross the threshold into the house of death.

But first, let’s look at some statistics concerning suicide in America, especially for the elderly. Older adults make up 12% of the US population, but account for 18% of all suicide deaths. This is an alarming statistic, as the elderly are the fastest growing segment of the population, making the issue of later-life suicide a major public health priority. Moreover, in 2018, seniors ages 85 and older had the second-highest suicide rate in the nation. From what I have already written, I think you will understand why. Finally, estimates suggest that for every reported death by suicide, an additional 29 attempts are made.

Now turning to what we know about what people experience when they make an unsuccessful suicide attempt, the data both from my research and that of my longtime friend and colleague, the psychiatrist Bruce Greyson, are in agreement. Although many people who come close to death in this way remember nothing (that is true as well for other modes of near-death onset, such as a cardiac arrest), those who do tend to report the same kind of classic, radiant NDE as do people who nearly die from injuries or cardiac conditions. Greyson has found that about 25% of his suicide cases report such NDEs. My findings were similar. I concluded therefore that there is nothing unique about NDEs triggered by a failed suicide attempt.

Furthermore, most of those who do experience an NDE are not tempted to try suicide again, and, indeed, often conclude that suicide would solve nothing – even if they had succeeded, they seem to feel that they would have to deal with the same issues that prompted their attempt in the first place. But most importantly, they typically don’t feel that they would be punished, much less "sent to hell," because of trying to kill themselves. As with NDEs that occur in other ways, they are not judged, but usually experience compassionate understanding and unconditional love during the time they hover between life and death.

However, most of my cases, and I suspect this is also true for Greyson’s, involve people who are relatively young and who normally have attempted suicide because of personal problems, such as alcoholism, drug addiction, financial troubles or a failed love affair. These we may call collectively "despair-based" suicide attempts. But for the elderly, the motivations tend to be different in many cases. For them, there is often a feeling that their lives are complete, that they are suffering needlessly for no good reason, and that they simply "want to go home." For such people, suicide is more of a considered rational decision, not one governed by an impulsive act stemming from an acute condition of despair and despondency. At least, this is the sense one gets from reading the many cases to be found in Englehart’s book.

The trouble is, so far as I know, we don’t have much if any data on what is experienced by elderly people who take this route toward death, in large part, of course, because they succeed in taking their lives. So here I can only speculate.

First, from all the research I’ve done on NDEs, I know that someone who nearly dies in whatever way is not judged. Instead, they tend to be greeted by a warm loving light. They feel that they are home, where they belong and where, in some eternal sense, they have always been. As one man I know well put it, "It was eternity. It’s like I was always there and would always be there, and that my existence on earth was just a brief instant."

Since I’ve mentioned several films in this blog, I can’t help thinking of a famous film actor from another era, Charles Boyer. He often played the part of a sophisticated lover. These days, he is probably best remembered for his role in "Gaslight" in which he starred with Ingrid Bergman.

I mention him here because I remember reading some years ago that he so loved his wife that when she died, he was so distraught that could not bear to live without her. Two days after her death, he committed suicide by taking Seconal.

I was very touched when I learned that. Personally, I just cannot persuade myself that Charles Boyer, when he took that last dance into the Light, would have been made to suffer for his actions. No, that’s just inconceivable to me.

Likewise for my friend, Ginny, who also chose to die so that she could again be with her beloved husband, Aldie.

It is my profound hope and prayer for all those who, having lived a full life and who no longer choose to live in pain, that they, too, will find surcease in the Light. That would only be just, don’t you think?

March 2, 2021

How It All Began

By Kenneth Ring

One evening in November, 1977, I was in my kitchen stirring some cream sauce when the phone rang. Still stirring the pot with my left hand, I reached across for the phone and heard an unfamiliar voice on the line speaking with a southern accent.

"Hello, Ken?  This is Raymond Moody."

"No shit?" I replied.  [Yes, I actually said that.]

I stopped stirring my cream sauce.

Raymond wanted to invite me down to Charlottesville, Virginia, where he then lived, along with several other researchers whom he had heard were following up on his work, and someone had drawn his attention to me. That someone – a sociologist colleague of Moody’s named John Audette – would soon be in touch about the arrangements, but meanwhile Raymond was hoping I could come down.

Could I!

At that time, I was living near the University of Connecticut, where I then taught, with a former student of mine, Sue Palmer, and my daughter, Kathryn. Sue was one of the persons who had been of inestimable help to me in carrying out my first NDE research project, which would eventuate in my book, Life at Death, which I published in 1980, and is now recognized as the first major scientific investigation of NDEs.

Sue also was keen to go, so in short order, we loaded up my car and headed down to Virginia where I would meet not only Raymond, but several other professionals who were to play key pioneering roles in the development of the field of near-death studies – in particular, Bruce Greyson, Michael Sabom, and John Audette, all of whom were to become close colleagues of mine. Everything of importance really began from that first meeting.

Here’s a photo of “the four amigos” who met the next year at a conference and were soon to create The International Association for Near-Death Studies [see below]. That’s me on the left with John Audette hovering above me. Bruce is in the middle and on the right is Mike Sabom.

But here I want to focus my attention on Bruce Greyson for reasons that will soon become evident.

I have a vivid memory of when I first met Bruce. It was November 19, 1977, at the University of Virginia, where we had all gathered to meet Raymond Moody. Raymond whose little book, Life After Life, had by then to his surprise become a huge best seller, had been inundated with mail and had had to interrupt his medical training. He was eager to pass on the torch to some of us so he could finish his residency and become a practicing psychiatrist. I was in my early 40s; I think Bruce was about 36, and he was a stud then, dark-haired and handsome. As it turned out, Bruce and I really connected at that meeting, and together with John Audette, we went on to establish The International  Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) a few years later – actually, exactly 40 years ago.

Once IANDS had been situated at the University of Connecticut early in 1981, I founded and edited an NDE journal, which then had the unfortunate and forgettable name of Anabiosis. But by the next year, I was due for a sabbatical during which I wanted to finish my book, Heading Toward Omega, so I asked Bruce if he would be willing to edit the journal while I worked on my book.

He was, and continued to do so for the next twenty-five years! If any of you have ever edited a journal, you know what a selfless and time-consuming task it is. You had to be willing to sacrifice your own career in order to enable other professionals to publish their own works. That’s the kind of person Bruce was and is. Totally dedicated. And while all of us in that original group eventually moved away from involvement with IANDS, only Bruce has remained faithful to it to this day. In my opinion, no one has done more to bring professional recognition to the field of near-death studies than Bruce. I have long held the view that his contributions to the field over more than forty years – his editorship of The Journal of Near-Death Studies, his many excellent and important research studies, the books he has co-edited containing his own articles, all the public lectures he has given, his service to NDErs as a master therapist, and so much more – mean that Bruce is without doubt the most important and influential professional in NDE studies. 

That’s one reason I wanted to tell you about Bruce whose name may not be as familiar to you as that of some of the original pioneers whose work set the stage for the study of NDEs, such as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and Moody himself, who coined the expression, "near-death experiences." But soon Bruce will at long last gain the widespread recognition he deserves. I will get to that – the second reason I wanted to write this blog.

When we met, Bruce was working as a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia where his specialty was working with suicidal patients. When he had started his career there a year earlier, he knew nothing about NDEs. Indeed, he had never heard of them, and if he had, he would have dismissed them as hallucinations. Bruce had a strong skeptical bent, and was not religious or interested in spiritual matters. That was all to change, of course, and I will now tell you just how that happened.

One day Bruce was in the cafeteria munching his spaghetti lunch when his pager went off. The sound startled him, causing him to drop his fork and to splatter some spaghetti sauce on his tie. Peeved, he tried to remove the stain, but in vain. He would have to clean it later. Meanwhile, he found out that a patient had tried to kill herself and her roommate was waiting in the ER to speak to him.

Bruce first went to the patient’s room to examine her. Her name was Holly and she was unconscious, so Bruce could not speak with her at the time. A staff member who had been placed there for security purposes assured Bruce that Holly "had been out the whole time." Bruce would have to return the next day when she presumably would be conscious again. In the meantime, he would seek out Holly’s roommate, Susan. Bruce interviewed her extensively that evening.

When he returned the next day to examine Holly, she said to him, "I know who you are. I remember you from yesterday."

Bruce knew this was impossible. Holly was unconscious at the time. But Holly went on to explain, "Not in my room. I saw you talking with Susan, sitting on the couch."

Bruce said, "The staff told you I spoke with Susan last night?"

"No," Holly insisted, "I saw you."

And then the clincher: "You were wearing a striped tie that had a red stain on it."

What?” Bruce was completely flummoxed by what Holly had told him. It was impossible.  

But Holly then repeated what she had told him and went on to give an account of the conversation Bruce had had with her roommate, mentioning all his questions and Susan’s answers. Holly also recounted Susan’s pacing and Bruce’s moving a fan during his interview. All this was correct. How could Holly have seen this? Bruce’s skeptical boggle threshold went through the roof.

Bruce remembers that "the hair rose on the back of my neck and I felt goosebumps. She couldn’t have possibly known all that."

The puzzled and skeptical psychiatrist couldn’t explain it but he couldn’t accept it either. He figured it must have been some kind of a trick. He tried to put it out of his mind. Just one of those weird things out of "The Twilight Zone."

But Providence intervened. Not long afterward, Bruce encountered a psychiatry resident by the name of Raymond Moody and learned about Moody’s book, Life After Life. And a bell went off in Bruce’s head. So Holly’s experience, as inexplicable as it seemed to be, was not that unusual. Raymond had discussed a number of such cases in his book. Bruce wasn’t hooked right away – he was still skeptical – but he was intrigued. And as the years passed, he was more than intrigued. He became the foremost NDE researcher of his time who did more than anyone else to establish that the NDE was an authentic phenomenon and that it deserved serious attention from scholars and professionals.  

Bruce and I came to spend some years together at UCONN when he was at the medical school there while I was in the psychology department. I got to know him well then, and we had so much fun, too, especially when we would have time for a long lunch together after one of his presentations to my NDE class. It was during that time that I came to love Bruce as a brother. This photo will perhaps give you a sense of our closeness and camaraderie.

Which brings me at last to the second reason I wanted to write about Bruce here. And that is to tell you about the book he has just written, which describes in very accessible language the work he has done over the past 45 years to help us understand how experiences like Holly’s could happen. He has given his book an unusual title, After. As he explains, the title doesn’t just refer to what might happen after death or what happens after NDEs, but what might happen after you read his book. Rilke famously said, "You must change your life." Reading this book might change yours.

I’ve just read it, and it is humdinger. For anyone interested in NDEs, it is essential reading, and is surely destined to become a classic. Perhaps what I’ve already written will encourage you to buy it, but if I haven’t already persuaded you to do so, perhaps my "blurb" for the book will:

In After, psychiatrist Bruce Greyson tells the story of his personal and professional journey from a skeptical scientist to his becoming the most distinguished and important authority of near-death experiences in the field. Drawing on his treasury of forty-five years of research, and studding his account with fascinating cases, Greyson provides an always engrossing and illuminating survey of the basic findings and implications of NDE studies for the general reader. In his book, he shows us why he is regarded as the leading expert to put NDE studies on the map and establish it as a legitimate scientific enterprise. Moreover, he is not afraid to share his insights on spiritual issues that NDE research affords, including the possibility that death isn’t a dead end. Both inspiring and deeply personal, this is a book to savor and the culmination and capstone of Greyson’s outstanding career.