This was my first Death Cafe, and the first one for most of the 50 to 60 people gathered at the Sukhasiddhi Foundation, a Buddhist meditation center in Fairfax, California.
In small groups, mostly four people sitting around café tables with coffee and pastries, we discussed three hypothetical questions —
- If you knew you had twelve months to live, what would you do?
- If someone you were close to died and you could somehow speak to on from the other side, what would you ask them?
- How would you like to die and why?
There were twelve tables around the room, plus a group sitting on pillows in the middle. Each person got three minutes to answer the question, then there was a gong, and it was on to the next person. After the small group discussions, the facilitator opened it up to the larger group and moved around the room with a microphone.
Most participants were middle-aged, middle-class, and white. A few were under fifty. More than a few appeared to be over seventy.
Since launching in London in 2011, there have been more than 1,863 Death Cafes. As of this past Saturday. In the several days since, there have been at least a dozen more — in Zurich, Seattle, St. Louis, Toronto, and Auckland, to name a few locations. Most are small gatherings, according to our facilitator in Fairfax. For our gathering, they had to find additional chairs and pillows to accommodate the crowd.
The concept is simple. People gather to talk about death, with the aim of “increasing the awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.”
Death Cafe is a “social franchise” — that is, anyone who signs up to use the guide and principles can use the name “Death Cafe.” There’s no staff and no profit.
In our group, there seemed to be broad range of perspectives on death and what comes after. One person, for example, said that the second question implies there is another side after death and she doesn’t believe there is. What everyone seemed to agree on, however, was that it would be a good thing if we were more comfortable as individuals, families, and societies discussing death.
That’s why I attended. Last summer, my mother, who will be 92 at the end of this month, was coughing up blood and ended up in a Chicago hospital for two weeks. All five of her children, as well as most of her grandchildren, convened from California, New Mexico, Michigan, Illinois, and New York. We thought she might die. So did the doctors. Because she had a DNR (do not resuscitate) on file, we had to discuss almost every procedure. How much intervention? Did we want a breathing tube down her throat if it was necessary? No. What about antibiotics? Yes.
I also went because I am in the early stages of writing a novel about a man whose father, suffering from cancer and dementia, asks his son to help him end his life. (Here’s a draft of Quality of Life, Chapter 1: The Weight of a Nitrogen Tank.)
Several people shared memorable stories.
One woman, sitting on a pillow in the middle of the circle, recounted how a couple in her neighborhood, who’d been married for 65 years, “suicided together.” They were both members of the Hemlock Society, and they left detailed notes. The sheriff who arrived on the scene apparently said he had never felt so much love in a room. “As you can imagine,” the woman said, “this stirred up quite a bit of controversy and conversation in the neighborhood.”
Another participant spoke of a doctor who told people when and how he was going to die. The day he took his medication, his wife left and went away, in the company of other people, because if she would have been present, she could have been charged as an accessory.
I thought the question about how we would like to die was the most challenging. I started with the usual answer, the one most people give.
In bed, at home, in my sleep. WIth no warning.
But then I recalled my father’s death, where I was in the room at Evanston Hospital, with my mom and two of my brothers, and we were holding his hands and feet as he took his last breath. We could feel the warmth draining from his body. Being part of his death was one of the most powerful and profound experiences of my life, so I changed my answer. Said I’d like to die in the company of loved ones. At home. With plenty of morphine for the pain, I added.
The facilitator cited a recent California poll, showing that more than 70 percent of people would prefer to die at home in their beds. But in fact, about 70 percent die in a hospital.
You might think it would be morbid to sit inside on a sunny afternoon and discuss death, but for me, it was uplifting and fascinating. Death and how we want to die was on the agenda, but mostly we talked about how we want to live.
Find out more about Death Cafe at deathcafe.com.
(Also posted at Death Cafe.)
Here’s a silly piece I wrote a long time ago and dusted off last year for an audition.
I pride myself on being a sensitive enlightened feminist man. I’ve read Our Bodies Our Selves twice, once in hardback, and I never exploit women by opening doors for them.
I have a tough time at dances, however. I love dancing, but asking a woman to dance without compromising my integrity is where I get hung up. I can’t ask a pretty woman to dance because I’d be imposing my patriarchal standards of beauty on them. So I look for a woman I’m not attracted to. It’s even better if she doesn’t like me. Or men.
But then my body language gives me away. She can sense I don’t find her attractive, and I end up oppressing her by judging her with my internalized sexist standards, and we both feel terrible.
Fortunately, when I met Jenny, the music was loud, and we were dancing before I had a chance to think through all the socio-political implications. We made a date for the next night.
She came over to supper, because it’s hard to find a restaurant that can accommodate my diet. I used to eat meat and other oppressed foods. But now I don’t eat anything that requires the killing of any animals — or plants. I only eat fruits and vegetables that have already died of natural causes. (Of course, I also include onions in my diet because cutting onions is how I learned to cry.)
I was sobbing over the cutting board when Jenny arrived. One look at the wilted carrots on the table, and she said, “Let’s just catch a movie.”
But I had already made plans—to ride our bicycles to a civil disobedience against fracking. The perfect first date, I thought, getting arrested together for a good cause.
But on the way, she ran over some glass and got a flat tire. “It would be patronizing of me to offer to fix this,” I said, “so I’ll let you do it.”
“I’ve never been treated like this before,” she said.
I explained that that was because most men put women up on pedestals and don’t allow them to achieve their full potential as human beings or, in this case, bicycle mechanics.
“I don’t believe what you’re saying.”
“I forgive you for that,” I said, “because I understand that your mistrust of men is based on centuries and centuries of brutal oppression of women by white men, like myself. And—”
“You are one of a kind,” she said, “And why are you putting that broken glass in your pocket?”
“To recycle it course,” I said, but by then, she had hailed a cab and vanished. She didn’t even write or call me in jail.
I guess I’m just not as sensitive as I thought. So I’ve recently started a support group for men—the White Man’s Burden Support Group—because it’s crucial we men become more attuned to the plight of women.
Our first act of solidarity—since we’re not able to menstruate—is to go down to the Red Cross once a month and donate blood.
Not only was Wednesday the last day of April and the hottest day of the year, it marked the 40th month that I’ve exercised every day.* That’s 1,216 days, but who’s counting?
I hiked of my regular loops — Tennessee Valley-Coastal Trail-Fox Trail. Four miles. An hour and 10 minutes. About 1,000 feet of climbing. Gorgeous views. That photo at the top of the page is from this trail.
I started keeping track on January 1, 2011. My goal at that time was every day for the year. When 2012 arrived, I kept on going. Of course, my reward for reaching this milestone is to keep at it for another 40 months. At least.
So what counts as exercise? Walking, certainly. That’s what I do more than anything. Then, in order of frequency, there’s bicycling, lifting weights, Zumba/aerobics class, and, hardly ever, swimming and running.
How long before it counts? An hour, though I give myself some slack and 45 minutes counts when that’s all I can fit in. (On the stopover from Ecuador three years ago, I walked back and forth in the small San Salvador Airport at least a dozen times, which was about 40 minutes. But we had hiked the Inca Trail ten days earlier so I decided that was good enough.)
I’m not an athlete. When I bicycle to the city, the only cyclists who don’t pass me are tourists on rented bikes. After 15 years of Aerobics or Zumba, I still feel like a beginner. Most of the time, I do these physical activities myself, though I frequently walk with my wife and/or with friends.
One key to making the every-day routine work is, whenever possible, walking or bicycling to where I need to go anyway. For ten years, I commuted to or from work 2-4 times a week, from Mill Valley to downtown San Francisco. I walk to and from grocery stores, cafés, meetings, friends’ houses.
Since it’s so easy to make charts these days, I made one. This is an estimate, of course. (I kept track off and on, but then figured all I needed to know was that I did something, not what it actually was.)
As you can see, my most common activity, by far, has been a walk or hiking. But when does a walk become a hike. When I wear hiking boots and it’s on a trail? When it’s long and steep? Going to Peets on city sidewalks is a walk. Climbing a 14,000-foot-peak in Colorado is a hike.
Here are some photos of memorable walks and bike rides.
- Walking from my mom’s apartment in Edgewater to downtown Chicago (about 6 miles). Here’s Lake Michigan on a cold winter morning.
- Backpacking in a very different Chicago — the Chicago Basin in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness — with a wonderful group of Sierra Club folks two years ago. My first three (and only three) 14ers.
- I took most of my hundreds of rides to or from San Francisco as the sun rose or set. Here’s Richardson Bay on the way in.
- And here’s a recent hike with my love Z at Goat Rock Beach on the Sonoma Coast, where the Russian River meets the Pacific.
Sometimes this daily habit is a chore. I wish I didn’t have to do it. Like bicycling toward the Golden Gate Bridge on a summer evening, directly into the cold fog. Or dragging myself up the last steep hill home.
That’s when I tell myself that I’m grateful I can still do it, that I’ve avoided injuries, pain, and never really been sick. I’d like to believe my habits have something to do with that, but there’s no denying luck and genes.
I know that can’t last forever, but my goal is to keep this going for as long as I can. One day at a time.
*As to that asterisk above, in the first paragraph, no, I’m not taking steroids. But I did miss one week with the flu in June of 2012. I made up for it.