Dear friends and colleagues
I am writing to let you know that I am dying.
I just finished reading Atul Gawande’s book
Being Mortal and realized that I have many of
the symptoms of the patients in his book--therefore, I too must be dying.
I am a little sad about this, but to be honest
I knew this was coming and so was not totally surprised.
I learned when I was quite young that all people die,
though like most adolescents I believed deep down
that it wouldn’t happen until I was 110 or so.
But that attitude gradually died soon after I began
going to funerals.
Funerals were a big deal in the
Italian-American culture in which I grew up.
Our entire family went to the funeral home (no baby-sitters)
and walked up to the open casket to pay our respects.
The female relatives of the deceased all dressed in black
would be sitting in the front row of the visitor seats
mentally recording who showed up and who didn’t.
The women in black resumed weeping when friends visited
the casket and turned to embrace them, now both crying.
The casket was surrounded with a forest of flowers
that gave off a strong sickly sweet scent that often made me feel sick,
so I learned the trick of stealthily leaving the room to get a
few breaths of fresh air in the entrance corridor.
On one occasion of escaping into the corridor I noticed a
small room at the back with the door cracked open.
Being nosey I stuck my head in to find a dozen or more
people (mostly men, none of whom had a formal funereal role)
eating from a large buffet of food, smoking and drinking wine or spirits,
but it was the Italian cannoli that caught my eye when I was invited in.
Food and drink were (and are) common at Italian or Irish wakes.
Wakes were also an important occasion of reconnecting with distant
relatives and friends that we saw rarely. That and the food and drink
lightened the atmosphere, with eventual laughter in the background
recalling shared funny experiences long before. It also got us up to date
about who else had died or moved in the interim. It was a positive
social event at a time when many rarely travelled far and phone usage
was relatively expensive and used infrequently.
My mother would talk at home for days afterward about the news and gossip;
she loved that part of it. It was more effective than Facebook because
one got the information directly from a reliable source with all the gory details,
and everyone hugged and kissed to cement our relationships and love
for one another (my sisters and I aggressively wiped our faces of the juicy kisses from aunts and uncles as soon as possible).
In those days, wakes were held for three days (to some, shorter would
have been a sign of disrespect for the deceased).
That was a significant burden for the decedent’s family because after the wake
they still had to go to the funeral Mass on the fourth or fifth day
and then lead a parade of cars to the cemetery.
My father and I usually managed to avoid the multiple days
and the Mass. Enough is enough.
I don’t know when the tradition of long wakes died out along with
the shift to a closed casket with a photo of the deceased on a table.
Cremation was unheard of in those days due to some quasi-religious
taboos. My mother nearly fainted when my wife and I said we would
be cremated. Of course, when she died we had a traditional wake
for her as she wished.
So that is the story. I hope you don’t mind that I made this announcement
in such an informal way, but times have changed.
And since I have no date certain for my demise, I thought I would
take care of this bit of business while I was still able instead of burdening
my family with trying to contact all my friends and colleagues.
I’ve had a good, productive and overwhelmingly happy life with a loving family.
What more could one ask of life?