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To Die in Los Angeles

For a Hungry Doctor, Mom's Death Was Just an Interruption Between Courses

March 14, 2004|Benjamin Bycel | Benjamin Bycel was founding director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.

At 86, my mother was officially declared dead in the parking lot at Spago in Beverly Hills. Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck had zilch to worry about. There would be no lawsuits.

My mother had not eaten in the swanky establishment, where Sir Elton John once held a post-Oscar party, Billy Crystal celebrated his birthday and President Bill Clinton hosted a Rock the Vote celebration. In fact, she never stepped foot inside the place. Arby's or Denny's, with a discount coupon, was more her style.

How then did she end up dead, stretched out on a gurney in an unmarked minivan hearse in the Spago parking lot? This is an only-in-L.A. story, and it's all true. Trust me, I'm a lawyer. But my brother Lee is a rabbi. He can vouch for it.

My mother Claire, after a long illness, had been moved to hospice care at the Jewish Home for the Aged in the San Fernando Valley. She had asked that no heroic efforts be made to save her life. She would take no food or water, she told my brother, to keep her alive. As she drifted into a coma, my brother called and I flew all night to Los Angeles. She was alive when I arrived, but the doctor warned that she would not live 48 more hours. Typical of this iron-willed woman, Mom would die when she was ready--which would not be for six more days.

My brother and I, my sister-in-law Judy and all our grown kids took turns at her bedside, talking and singing to her. The hospice nurse told us that my mother knew we were there, and that these activities would ease her final journey (the nurse's words, not mine). One of us held her limp hand all the time. Every few hours my brother led us in prayer. We cried some and laughed a little. We told stories of our youth--even had a friendly argument about an event that happened half a century ago.

She died late on the sixth day, Aug. 27, 2003.

We all hugged and cried. Judy asked the hospital staff to wait outside while we said our final goodbyes. We each read a prayer, or tried to, and kissed her forehead. We told Mom we loved her.

In what seemed like a matter of minutes, a young woman from the mortuary, pushing a gurney, arrived to take my mother away. She was dressed casually, as if she was on her way to a Laker game, and she seemed too cheerful for the job.

Not only would she drive my mother to the mortuary, she announced, she would also personally embalm her. Mom would have liked that--a twofer.

I smiled, as if pleased to meet my mother's embalmer. I also discreetly checked to see if the woman's fingernails were clean. When Lee went out to make the arrangements, Judy took his place at my mother's bedside: Under Jewish law, a dead person must not be left alone until burial. With this in mind, Lee asked the embalmer if she could make arrangements to hire a shomer to stay with my mother for the night. When I raised my eyebrows, Lee realized I had no idea what he was talking about.

He whispered to me: "It's a professional body watcher."

The embalmer made the call to the body watcher. When told my mother's name, he asked to speak to my brother. He enthusiastically said he would be honored to sit with the mother of a distinguished rabbi such as my brother--for a mere $150. With no time to comparison shop, Lee agreed, even though I knew Mom would have balked at the price.

I could almost hear my mother say, "For sitting and watching me be dead? Who needs it?"

The embalmer asked if a doctor had signed my mother's death certificate; without it she could not be embalmed, she explained. The problem was that the doctors in the rest home at that time of day had not known my mother. The head nurse, a tough Israeli, swung into action.

"I'll find one," she said.

She dialed the pager number of one of the doctors on call who had treated my mother, but he did not return the page. She tried again, and once again. We stood there, hovering around the nurse's station, waiting for the telephone to ring. When the doctor called after about 15 minutes, the head nurse chewed him out. Because they were talking to each other in loud voices, we were able to hear both ends of the conversation.

Head Nurse: Claire Bycel died and we need you to come here and sign the death certificate so she can be taken to the mortuary.

Doctor: Well, I can't get there right now. Can't it wait until later this evening? Or I can swing by the mortuary in the morning and sign it?

Head Nurse: No. She's going to be buried out of state, and with Shabbat coming, they need to prepare the body right away. We need it signed now.

Doctor: Can you bring her to me?

Head Nurse: You should come here.

Doctor: Can't do it--I'll take care of it here.

Head Nurse: Where?

Doctor: Spago, in Beverly Hills.

Lee: Did he say Spago?

Head Nurse: Did you say Spago?

Doctor: I said Spago. Is there a problem?

Lee: He's gotta be kidding? Right?

Nurse: I don't think so.

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