“While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.”
– Leonardo da Vinci
While in the process of cleaning out some files and weeding my mostly irrelevant papers, I stumbled across a 1984 essay in which I eulogized myself – as if I were already dead. I’m not in the habit of writing about my own death, but this had been an assignment for a Death and Dying class at York College of Pennsylvania, taught by hospice activist Joy Ufema. I say “activist” because while hospice care is now considered mainstream, it wasn’t always so, and Ms. Ufema is one of the pioneers of the hospice movement, often locking horns with the medical establishment. She is also known for nudging the subject of death out of the shadows. I feel fortunate to have experienced such a seminal college course and with an important figure in the death and dying movement.
Ms. Ufema was a tough teacher who wouldn’t allow us to “euphemize” death, no “Angels took me to heaven,” “I went to sleep,” or even “I passed away” – just “I died.”
I suspect she deducted points for evasive language.
I recall feeling kind of queasy about facing my own death as if it were already a done deal, but the exercise was actually quite helpful; it’s amazing how many of my “regrets” turned into action, and I credit this essay for pointing me in directions I might not have otherwise taken. My life hasn’t been perfect, and there have been stumbles along the way, but, overall, I can’t complain.
While I remember writing this self eulogy, I hadn’t read it in almost 30 years; it simply sat in my attic, largely forgotten, so it was quite enlightening to revisit my 1984 self.
The students in Ms. Ufema’s class were forced to face a lot of fears having to do with death: not only were we required to write our own eulogy, we also visited a funeral home and a crematorium, participated in psychodramas having to do with death-related issues of the day (euthanasia and end-of-life decisions), and conducted interviews with nursing home residents (Rumor had it that Ms. Ufema had run afoul of the college administration for that last assignment, but I managed it because I had an acquaintance who was, at the time, in a nursing home, recovering from chemotherapy (This oral history can be read here). I’m a bit of a rebel, so having an instructor at odds with administration was somewhat exciting).
This essay is long and not exactly “literary,” but it is heartfelt and reflects the life of a young person as she contemplates her own death, albeit at a young age. I don’t expect a large readership and would not feel insulted if web surfers hit and run; this posting is mostly for my own benefit – not quite a universal treatise for the ages.
I was 34 years old, 66 days, and 12 hours old when I died at 8:30 p.m. on December 5, 1984.
I think I would have liked to live through the Christmas holidays, perhaps the New Year, maybe Easter.
And so my life went: a series of tasks and joys waiting to be finished and savored.
I really wasn’t ready to die at such a young age; after all, I had just made a life for myself, getting married on April 19, 1984, to Jerry, a fine human being who loved me even though I tended to be moody and overweight (he married me not because I was beautiful, but because I suppose he saw something deeper and more meaningful in my personality. Also, he liked my poetry and writing in general).
Yet because he is such a caring and sensitive human being, I fear that he won’t cope very well with my death, for he tends to give his “all” to his relationships with people, and he certainly gave me a lot of attention and love. I just hope that someone in the land of the living will help him through this difficult time.
Eric, my 14-year-old son, will also mourn my death, but it will be different with him. He will do his grieving and then go on with his life. He’s one tough kid, but in a positive sense. His sense of humor and brains will help him throughout his life, no matter what he chooses to do.
Perhaps Eric will help Jerry through the next year or so; those two seem to love and respect one another; I hope they keep in touch.
[Short paragraph cut to protect the privacy of a family member, this being the only cut in the entire essay.]
I would have liked to have said my special goodbyes to some other very special people:
My grandmother “Mo”: She and my grandfather raised me from the time I was four years old until I graduated from high school. They adopted me when I was nine years old because my mother was emotionally ill and could not care for a child. They were in their late 50’s when they took me in, years that should have been spent enjoying each other and looking forward to a happy retirement. Instead, they cared for and loved a difficult child in her time of need.
Mo and I never got along too well when I was in high school: we fought like we loved – vigorously and regularly. I remember the time I came back from Los Angeles, pale and gaunt from a year of experiencing the drug culture of the late 60’s.
[NOTE: I have since published Memoir Madness: driven to involuntary commitment, a memoir about that time and its aftermath.]
She looked sicker and more pale than I did from the worry.
She wouldn’t say much to me, but when she finally spoke, she merely said, “ If it had been up to me, I’da left ya out there to stew with those hippies.”
This was the first time I had ever heard her lie, but being an insensitive teenager, I snapped, “Well, why didn’t you?”
I only saw Mo once a year – she lives in Iowa and I lived in Pennsylvania, but we would still argue and carry on as if I were still an adolescent when we were together.
My husband was simply astounded at how quickly I regressed back to my adolescent years whenever the two of us crossed paths. She’s far from perfect (as I was). Her friends think she is too nosy for her own good; she tends to stick her nose into everyone else’s business, and sometimes it gets bitten off. Amazingly enough, she manages to bounce back with nary a scratch, but her cast of enemies has grown with each passing year. For example, Jeff, my ex-husband, simply detests her because she called him a dirty hippie when he was 18 years old (He’s 34 now).
[NOTE: I later discovered that Mo and my ex had made their peace and had actually conducted a rather cheerful correspondence. Go figure. I just wanted to set that record straight.]
Yet Jerry, my widower, really likes her. I think it’s because she speaks her mind, and he grew up in a family where everything was alluded to.
Also, Mo never called Jerry any names.
Finally, I’d like to tell Mo that I am in touch with Dee Dee, my grandfather and her late husband, and he’s doing well here in the spirit world. He’s a bit worried about her upcoming hip operation because although he would like to see her soon, he also realizes that she has some unfinished business in life. My mother is also doing better here than she did in life. When Mom died somewhat suddenly, Mo took it in stride. Oh, sure, she grieved, but she realized that Mom was better being dead because life was simply too harsh for my fragile mother. Another thing about Mo: she understood perfectly when I chose not to go to the funeral. Other members of the family were angry with me, but Mo knew that my mother had already died in my mind years and years before; as a child, I had grieved the loss of my mother just as much as someone [who] would have grieved an actual death.
Like it or not, [Mo] understood me more than I had ever let on.
Sue, my best friend. With Sue, I could talk about anything. We were friends for 12 years, but within the last year of my life, our friendship had cooled. I’m not sure why, except that, perhaps, as things change, so do relationships. Still, I would have liked having one last “all nighter” marathon talk with her, garnished with junk food, beer, and a healthy game of Scrabble. Sue suffered through my separation, my divorce, and my single years, during which time I was studying for my undergraduate degree. She celebrated my successes, mourned my boo boos, and lectured me whenever I did something utterly stupid, “immoral,” or dangerous. Silliness was always allowable, though, and I appreciated that. I wish I could have been half the friend to her that she was to me, but I suppose I never inspired the openness in her that she did in me. Now she’s having difficulties in her life, and I could not help her because she closed up to me. I felt very uncomfortable with that. If only she would have opened up to me, I would have listened with my entire being without being judgmental. Of course, I can’t tell her anything now...
Jeanette, my ex-mother-in-law. This woman will never know what she had meant to me. When I married her son, she said, “Now you’re one of us.” When I divorced her son, she said, “It’s okay, you’re still one of us.” And she meant it. Since my own family lives in Iowa, she and my ex-father-in-law became my “acting” parents, so to speak, giving me advice on several things, ranging from child rearing to automotive repairs. When I became serious about Jerry, I brought him “home” to meet the ex-in-laws. Jerry was slightly taken aback at first, but up until my death, he cheerfully came along on family outings and joined in holiday festivities with my ex-husband’s family. Anyway, my ex-in-laws cheerfully accepted Jerry as a part of me, and I wished I had told Jeanette how much I loved and respected her as a person.
Jeff, my ex-husband. Even though were no longer married, we shared some very important years together. When we married, we were very young and very much in love. I could never deny that bond between us even though we grew in different directions as we got older. Neither of us was the villain in our divorce; it just happened that we no longer had enough in common to justify our staying married to each other. I just wish that I had told him that despite the divorce, I did appreciate the six or seven years that we spent as a happily married couple, and that I would have wished him the best of happiness in his new marriage. Anyway, I’d like to think that my choice first time around wasn’t all bad.
There are other people I would have liked to have said goodbye to, but I don’t have the sense that I had left anything unsaid; these are simple goodbyes: my husband’s family, my family, my friend Sherrie, Florence, my colleagues, my son. Anyway, these people know who they are.
An unfinished life. As I said earlier, I was not ready to die. Too many things were left undone in my life, too many loose ends.
But I did accomplish some things that gave me reason to be somewhat proud. Up until I was 27 years old, I felt that I had accomplished very little in my life. Sure, I was Eric’s mother, but I never felt that I was that successful at motherhood or that I was that intelligent.
Then, one day (as I was most apt to do), I decided that I would try my hand at college. I worked and scrimped to pay for my first two courses: Accounting and English Composition. I aced both courses and found that I was hooked. I had found confidence after having none. That was the key to my life after 27: finding the confidence to do the things that needed to be done. Gradually, I began to believe that my good grades were not flukes, and four and a half years later, I graduated from York College with a 3.63 average, several awards, and two and a half years experience on the school paper as Editor-in-Chief. Besides that, I had held down a part time job during my college years.
But after graduation, I discovered that life on the “outside” wasn’t as generous as the college environment. Despite my good academic record, I got rejections (for graduate schools) from several top schools (I took it personally, too). Finally, one year after graduation, I got accepted at the University of Florida with an assistantship. By this time, I was dating Jerry, but I accepted the offer anyway and spent one miserable year in Florida. My grades and teaching were okay, but it wasn’t the same. I found the writing program tedious (as a general rule; there were some notable exceptions), and the graduate school environment terribly competitive in a negative sense. The professors seemed somewhat threatened by their students, and students seemed threatened by each other. It was without regret that I moved back to Pennsylvania with Jerry, now my husband (We had married while I was still in Florida).
At the time of my death, my life was still somewhat on hold. I was working at the college library, doing work that anyone could do, but I did it gladly because we needed the money. I always thought that I could do the things that I really wanted to do later.
Little did I realize...
Anyway, at the time of my death, I was not writing very much, nor was I sending out my work to editors. Perhaps my husband will find and gather my works into a collection now that I’m gone. What if he should choose the wrong poems or short stories?
Also, while alive, I had a dream of starting my own literary magazine for the area, or at least start one through the college that would involve the community. My goal would have been to involve the writers (poets, essayists, fiction writers) of the area in a publication that would publish their works when, perhaps, they would have difficulty in getting published elsewhere. I even had a name for my phantom publication: Ginseng. I always had excuses why I never started the magazine: too busy, too poor, not enough community interest. Now I know I could have started such a project with little effort on my part. For example, I could have spoken with the head of the English Department about the possibility, or he could have given me some ideas on where to begin. Plus, I knew people who might have been interested on working such a project.
Also, at the time of my death, my husband and I had been planning for a year in England/Scotland/Europe for three years in the future during his sabbatical. I regret having missed that opportunity because I had never been to Europe. Of course, before going to Europe, I would have needed to get over my fear of flying. How silly that seems now that I’m dead!
One last regret: I died as a fat person. At the time of my death, I was actively on a reducing program, but I didn’t make it. One of my wishes was to die as a normal-sized person, mostly because thin to me meant “control” of my life. Perhaps that’s wrong thinking, but weight had been a problem for me all my life, and I would have liked to have known whether I could have developed self control by getting thin and staying that way (but not becoming anorectic).
I had always felt younger than my years simply because I had the habit of “blooming” later than my peers. That’s one reason, I suppose, so many things were left undone. After all, many of the “greats” accomplished monumental works at an early age: Mozart, D.H. Lawrence, Chopin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Van Gogh. I guess I didn’t have a Grandma Moses chance to make a difference at an elderly age.
In general, I regret that I didn’t make a difference in the macrocosm. But I’m glad that I did make a difference in the microcosm – to my husband, son, and family, and that’s important. In my personal life, I feel completely at peace. I had gone through many years of turmoil before meeting Jerry; l simply had no personal life. I WORKED, WORKED, WORKED so that I wouldn’t have to think about what a shambles my home life was. At the time of my death, I felt completely in tune with my husband. We understood each other, which is not to say that we didn’t have disagreements, but we could say anything to each other without fear. He was my best friend, someone to tease, go to the theatre with, share troubles with, and simply be together with. In short, he was everything to me, and I had no regrets about our relationship. I just hope our good relationship will not cause him to grieve too long or too excessively. Because I loved him very much, I would like to feel that he could find happiness again, perhaps another wife a few years from now.
In closing my eulogy, I would like the following to be read at my funeral, and, perhaps, engraved on my tombstone:
The girl with the splintered bat,
once preferring to play rugged
with ivy-league men
by spreading her vines
(Jennifer S. Siegel, 1984)
(See also Oral History: “The Good Lord has Given Me the Strength...” (Interview with W.K., November 29, 1984)
“I Died on December 5, 1984, at 8:30 p.m.,” copyright 1984 - present by Jennifer Semple Siegel, may not be reposted or reprinted without permission of author.