Being Mortal

I started reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal nearly a year ago and somehow never got around to finishing it. It’s admittedly a difficult read in the sense that it can be overwhelming at times. I finally finished it last night partly because my wife wanted to start it on the Kindle and also because my grandfather, or as everyone called him, Dada passed away on Sunday. He was the last of my immediate grandparents to pass away.

By all measures, he lead a good and charmed life. He was 95 and suffered from no major illness apart from heart disease that afflicts all Indian males. He lived couple of blocks from my parents and my dad regularly checked on him; so much so that my dad would refuse to come visit us for more than a few weeks because he didn’t want to leave Dada alone in case “something happened”. The “something” never happened. Dada was never limited in his movements and walked all around the town as far as I can remember. He passed away peacefully during his afternoon nap. It’s the kind of death that everyone wishes for but very few get. He outlived my grandmother who couldn’t recognize her own son by the time she passed away, by three and half years. Dada had a fractious relationship with his children and grandchildren. As they say, if you can’t say anything good about a person after he’s dead, you are better off not saying anything. So I’ll not say anything. All I’ll say is that I hope I don’t end up like him in spite of him leading a charmed life.

Going back to Gawande’s book, the premise focuses on the quality of life rather than the length of life and more specifically, the manner in which you choose to pass away. Medical science has advanced to such a degree that humans can be kept alive for a much longer time than you would imagine. But no one has stopped to ask the question of whether we should. Or as in Amitabh’s immortal (no pun intended) words, yeh jeena bhi koi jeena hai. Gawande cites several examples from his professional and personal life that focuses on the individual’s choice on care and ultimately, way to die. The Republicans’ favorite chant ‘death panels’ actually referred to the end of life counseling that doctors offered their patients. It’s the ultimate decision you can take for your life.

You do not choose to be born in this world and as of today, most laws even prevent you from actively choosing to die but at least you can choose the way you die when and only when you’re diagnosed to. The DNR is the most commonly known legal process in our pop culture and medical professionals are taught to honor it just as they’re taught to honor the first do no harm principle. Others like hospice care are fraught with emotions that you may not be fighting back hard enough. But after a while, it’s useless fighting nature.

Being Mortal will not only make you aware of your mortality but actually prepare you for it. I say that in the most humble and optimistic way. You aren’t immortal. You’re going to die. You’re born in perhaps one or two ways but you can die in umpteen different and uncharacteristic ways. The worst I believe, waiting to die which can be a long and painful process not only for the person but also for their loved ones. Modern medicine can perhaps keep you alive for as long as it is possible today but it’s entirely within your rights and choice to decide when enough is enough.

Even before I finished reading the book or even before hearing about Dada’s death, we had confirmed our appointment for signing our living wills and codifying end-of-life processes with an estate planning attorney. I have had the conversation with my brother about his role in the process. It reminded him to do the same as well. It’s the conversation we should feel comfortable having with our loved ones. It shouldn’t take a death to start having that conversation.

The Lives They Lived

The first one by Mike DeStefano is awesome on so many levels. Read them all.

And of the hundreds of stories we considered, we were surprised to find that many of the ones we liked the most are from people talking directly about facing death, either their own or someone else’s. These turn out to be very revealing stories. Not maudlin or despairing, just cleareyed, and occasionally hopeful. This is, over all, a hopeful collection of people.

[Source: The Lives They Lived]

What Happens After You Die?

No matter how many sacrifices you make to Lady Death, no matter how rich the offerings you lay before her altar, she will know where to find you. When she comes, she will hold you tight, and she will never let you go. Don’t be frightened. She takes us all.

[Source: Los Angeles magazine] Nominated for 2011 National Magazine Awards, this (long) article is an excellent narrative on what actually happens after you die…on Earth. Nope, it doesn’t mention the bright light at the end of the tunnel and you are unlikely to know about the process once you are dead. Grim at times, the author doesn’t shy away from making you acquainted with some brutal and often morbid realities. Not everyone is lucky enough to die in their sleep and not everyone dies with people that love them around them. At the core, our biggest fear is that no one will miss us when we are gone. Unfortunately, for many people it comes true.

And yes, in spite of the fact that the article was based in Los Angeles and deals with mortuaries and undertakers, the author must be commended for not once mentioning ‘Six Feet Under’. Until I read this article, my only understanding of what might happen to my mortal remains came from that TV show.

Travel to Titan

Interested in a once-in-a-lifetime journey to space and get paid $25,000 instead of shelling out millions for a joy ride? There is a catch – the trip is one-way.

Texas executes the innocents?

Cameron Todd Wilingham. Remember this name. He just might be one of the many innocent that the state of Texas has executed. No better case for abolishing the death penalty. Heck, as the article says, it is even cheaper to incarcerate a man for life than it is to execute him.

Bushfires in Australia

The bushfires in Southeast Australia look really bad. It doesn’t help that they are experiencing a heat wave as well with temperatures touching 115F.There have been more than 150 deaths so far. I hope they have it in control soon.

A Wedding Earthquake

A photographer shooting a wedding in Sichuan, China when the earthquake strikes. He continues to shoot. The poor bride never saw her wedding church go down this way. Sad part is that thirty-three guests were missing.

Anna Nicole Smith Dead

The Playboy model who had Barbie-like proportions and widely known for her legal tussle with the family of her octogenarian oil tycoon husband after his death, was found dead in a Florida hotel. I’ll freely admit that she was one of the models I had chanced upon in the early days of Internet “surfing” and was visibly “impressed”. And I fleetingly followed her life after that and the fact that she made news thanks to her yo-yo weight problem, controversial marriage, a reality TV show, and the unexpected and mysterious death of her son few months back didn’t make it difficult not to.

Her former lawyer said that she always wished to be like Marilyn Monroe so it is ironic that she died in a similar manner allegedly of a drug overdose. She embodied the life of a stereotypical rural white girl enamored by the glitter of showbiz only to be entirely consumed by it and extinguished at a young age. You may not agree with the choice of the life she led but it was a sad tumultuous life indeed. RIP, Anna.

Sidney Sheldon Dies

If popularity and readership are any measure, Sidney Sheldon would be considered one of the ‘better’ writers by Indians along with Harold Robbins, Arthur Hailey, or that author who wrote both The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Ask any average teenager if he or she has moved up beyond reading comics and they will proudly claim to be reading novels now and if you ask them whom are they reading, you will hear Sidney Sheldon more often than not. I’ll freely admit to having my Sheldon moments too and may have read all his books. When you start out, you think he writes thrilling and suspenseful stories but until after you have read his third novel, you can easily tell who is the bad guy after you are done with the first chapter. And it is quite simple really. I guess, he was the original Dan Brown and a flag bearer for pulp fiction.

So it is with great grief to millions of those readers I have to say that they no longer have to predict his next culprit. “Sidney Sheldon died Tuesday afternoon of complications from pneumonia at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage [MSNBC]. The protagonist of his stories were always women caught in dire circumstances and succeed beyond all expectations in the sexist world of men in their lives. When asked about the recurrent theme of women power against all odds, he said: “I like to write about women who are talented and capable, but most important, retain their femininity. Women have tremendous power — their femininity, because men can’t do without it.” Critically acclaimed or not, he certainly enjoyed tremendous popularity and was bestowed with many awards. He was also the creator of the Emmy-winning “I Dream of Jeannie” TV series.

So dare I ask, which was your favorite Sheldon novel?

How does death by hanging work?

“The modern method of judicial hanging is called the long drop. This is the method that Iraqi officials used to execute Saddam Hussein. In the long drop, those planning the execution calculate the drop distance required to break the subject’s neck based on his or her weight, height and build. With the knot of the noose placed at the left side of the subject’s neck, under the jaw, the jolt to the neck at the end of the drop is enough to break or dislocate a neck bone called the axis, which in turn should sever the spinal cord” [source]

Sounds ghastly and inhumane but truth is, such hanging when carried out with modern techniques, can be one of the quickest and most painless ways to be executed.

Can’t be Undone

The jury is still out in my mind regards capital punishment. While I believe that capital punishment has no effect whatsoever on crime rate; putting to death some hardened criminals seems to be the only way to mete out justice and find closure for the victims next of kin. The fact that life imprisonment according to Indian Penal Code means only 14 years in reality makes me wee bit uneasy that certain hardened criminals will be out on the streets. Jail time does no good to few sick souls who only relish in the grotesque pleasure of slicing up their victims.

But on the other hand, capital punishments cannot be undone and it can be a travesty of justice if an innocent person is put to death by the state. The Life of David Gale, starring Kevin Spacey had effectively underlined this plausible scenario. The Houston Chronicle uncovered one such real-life example. I read the Ruben Cantu case with interest over the weekend. According to the Chronicle:

“Texas executed its fifth teenage offender at 22 minutes after midnight on Aug. 24, 1993, after his last request for bubble gum had been refused and his final claim of innocence had been forever silenced. Ruben Cantu, 17 at the time of his crime, had no previous convictions, but a San Antonio prosecutor had branded him a violent thief, gang member and murderer who ruthlessly shot one victim nine times with a rifle before emptying at least nine more rounds into the only eyewitness — a man who barely survived to testify.

A dozen years after his execution, a Houston Chronicle investigation suggests that Cantu, a former special-ed student who grew up in a tough neighborhood on the south side of San Antonio, was likely telling the truth.”

The only witness, the man who survived the shooting has recanted and cites police pressure as the reason for testifying against Cantu. The co-defendant David Garza who’d been reluctant to talk about the murder-robbery since his trial, has now signed a sworn affidavit saying he allowed Cantu to be falsely accused. The story also revealed that the police interest in implicating Cantu was rooted in his altercation with an off-duty cop in a bar. The case was dismissed and it seems the police was waiting to pin down Cantu. It looks like they finally got their revenge and Cantu lost his life for a crime he never committed.

Saket had indicated his lack of trust in the Indian police system and although, American cops are pretty strictly regulated and are continuously in the media’s eye, such incidents just make you think again. Power in the hands of few is likely to be corrupted easily and
often crime deterrent methods like capital punishment are misused to abuse power. Unfortunately for Cantu’s parents, the Chronicle story cannot get their son back. But at least it exposes the dark underbelly of Texas trigger-happy system.

On a related note, name one Indian publication that has worked tirelessly (IE tries!) to expose the real killers of Satyendra Dubey (and now, Manju Nathan). Everyone probably knows who they are; the least the media can do is to investigate and report the truth. Punishing the killers can be left to the justice system (fat chance!). Maybe the holier-than-thou Indian mainstream media ought to take an honest look at their act and stop fighting blogs for a change. After all, you can wish Shah Rukh Khan and Sania Mirza a happy birthday next year too.

Money Matters

The funeral procession wound its way through the busy thoroughfare along Tulsi Pipe Lane amidst chanting of the lord’s name. The somber faces of pallbearers, clad in white reflected either tiredness or boredom but never sadness as we expect. The less-able mourners brought up the rear and managed to keep up the rushed pace of the procession. A shower of coins, mostly in low denominations rained down upon the shrouded corpse. Almost instantly, the accompanying urchins from the neighboring slums made a beeline, gathering up as many coins as their tiny palms could hold. The money of death made no difference to them if it bought them their next meal.

A chatter of excited noises at the plaza near an affluent Atlanta theater implied teenagers doing their “hanging out” routine and playing cool. Teenaged girls with plunging necklines and rising hemlines teased the guys with wrinkled shorts from really old old navy. Puppy love was in the air as hormones jostled for the opposite sex’s attention. The guy in blue wanted his wallet from the girl in pink. She threw it at him and a shower of quarters and dimes hit the pavement. Neither gave it a second look and rushed away. Nor did anyone glance at the enriched pavement for a solid twenty minutes. Finally a bored boyfriend waiting for his late girlfriend (as always) caught the glint of the coins in the setting sun’s light. He stooped down to gather them up as his girlfriend arrived. She didn’t hesitate to stuff her bounty into her already engorged purse. They will pay a little less from their pocket for the Spidey flick.

Free money evokes similar behavior anywhere. But does it really matter?

Jeeye To Jeeye Kaise

Care to see death in the glass eye of a hideous old woman almost witch-like or would you like to keep it in suspense and wait for the grand finale? In midst of seeing this amazing movie “Big Fish”, I doubted my strong belief in ignorance of the time and nature of my death. Although the movie raises many other interesting points, I felt closest to the one relating to death wherein the protagonist — an aging father who loves to exaggerate tales of his life, confidently states that this isn’t the way he would go so he need not worry.

Does knowledge of your death give you that extra confidence or merely makes you disrespect life? Until recently, I would have definitely chosen not knowing either the cause or nature of my death but would knowledge of my death supposedly in distant future add a spring to my step? As they say, tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life. It could very well be the last day too and you would have to be constantly on your guard.

Few years ago, I was forewarned by my mother that there was a high possibility of an accident next week for me, supposedly the handiwork of a corrupt astrologer. I usually rubbish such morbid predictions but it does sow a teeny-weeny bit of doubt in your sub-conscious and I spent the major part of the week looking over my shoulder, trying to spy an ever ready Yama with his buffalo. But let’s put it this way, if I knew I would be “tapkofied” at the age of 62 due to a massive cardiac arrest, I would be less apprehensive about the whole death thing. I am not usually paranoid nor do I care if death is waiting for me at the next corner but I would easily take a daredevil stunt confidently. Of course, I wouldn’t go around stepping in front of the Mumbai local or jumping off the Golden Gate but at least would rid my mind of the specter of death.

Now, on the other side, if I didn’t know the time and place of my death, would it really hover over my head like the Damocles’ sword? I could choose and ignore the possibility and live my life to the fullest but frankly who does that? Ever try bungee-jumping or sky-diving? The first question you would ask yourself is: would that damn cord break and plunge you to your death? You can chicken out or just challenge yourself and live on the edge. I guess it is definitely more fun that way rather than be aware of your end. The adrenaline rush that you get after a successful bungee jump is primarily due to the fact that you have just cheated death.

So how would you like it to be? Wanna know your doomsday or not?

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