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Waiting for death, alone and unafraid

February 28, 2009|Thomas Curwen
  • Edwin Shneidman, 90, who has written 20 books about death, says dying is easy. Living takes effort.
Edwin Shneidman, 90, who has written 20 books about death, says dying is… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)

The silence of night never lasts long. It ends somewhere in the 5 o'clock hour with the purring of the heater and distant strains of Sam Cooke.

Edwin Shneidman looks at the clock -- an hour and a half since turning off the TV and closing his eyes.

"Mrs. Wiggles," he shouts. He knows that that's not her name, but he likes the joke.

Sitting in another room, Pauline Dupuy turns down the CD player and puts her Bible and crossword aside. She stands and walks down the hall into his room.

"My knee hurts."

"Would you like a pain pill?"


"Tramadol or Vicodin?"

"I don't care."

He lies on the side of the bed, sleepy, unshaven, his hair mussed. He never asked to live to be 90, to see the breadth of his life diminished, the allure of the world fallen further out of reach. He is ready to die.

All his life he has studied this moment -- from those who killed themselves and those who tried, from philosophers and colleagues, students and intimates -- and its lessons hold no real surprise.

Today will be the same as yesterday, the same as tomorrow, every day a waiting and a hoping for a good death, a death without suffering.

He lives alone but for the company of caregivers in the house that he and his wife bought more than 50 years ago, alone to consider the meaning of his life and the niche he has secured for himself in the memory of the world.

"Good morning."

He looks up. Vernette Elijio greets him with a smile and rubs the top of his head. It's 7 a.m., the changing of the guard. She will be with him for the next 12 hours. Dressed in a long white sleep shirt, he looks like a character from Dickens. She helps him on with his plaid robe, and he shuffles to the chair at the side of the bed.

His four boys call often. They love him, but they live out of state. Of course, he excuses them. If they lived closer, he knows he would take advantage of them.

Vernette fits the blood pressure cuff over his left arm. The room vibrates with the noise of the pump and then, silence, broken by the steady beep tracking his pulse.

He is not afraid of death. He has studied it all his life: 1955-66, co-founder and co-director of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center; 1966-69, chief of the National Institutes of Mental Health's Center for Studies of Suicide Prevention; 1970-88, professor of thanatology at UCLA.

"133 over 90," she says. "It's a little high."


People often ask him what the end is like. The answer is simple: You're driving down a road in the desert, and the engine suddenly stops, no Pep Boys, no Auto Club to help. Whether the road continues is of no consequence. It has ended for you.

His parents' lives ended here in Los Angeles. They are buried in Beth Israel Cemetery, close to the 5 and 710 interchange, half a world away from the czarist shtetls of Ukraine, where they were born.

He will be buried somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, at Eden Memorial Park, Row 722, Grave A or B -- he's not quite sure -- there beside his wife, Jeanne, "Beautiful, Bright, Loving, Serene." His epitaph will be as succinct: "Lucky, Bright, Loving, Ambitious."

No one has to die, he is fond of saying; it will be done for you. It's living, however, that takes effort -- to weather the sleeplessness and worry, the relinquishing of pride, the dependency upon strangers, the plea for respect and the struggle to remember.

There is the vulnerability, as well. Charm, a ribald sense of humor, tears and anger have been a defense, but they don't always work. Last year he was robbed by a caregiver who forged his checks.

Vernette brushes the middle finger of his right hand with an alcohol wipe. He trusts her.

She places a needle against the soft skin. He winces, the price of checking his glucose level, and it pricks him.


She squeezes a small drop of blood into the meter.


The reading is high, slightly hyperglycemic, but his body turned on him long ago -- hypertension, diabetes, congestive heart failure and prostate cancer. The end will come no doubt as the result of an acute cardiovascular event when the plaque in his arteries shifts like grains of sand, suddenly blocking a coronary or carotid artery.

He fears a stroke most of all, that this life might be reduced to gibberish or silence.

Actuarial tables say that he can expect to live 3.8 more years, but calculating the time and the place of one's death is not easy and never accounts for the uncertainty that any new ache or pain might bring. There is no knowing. In the next minute he might draw his last conscious breath.

He has considered buying a revolver and bullets. But that is only a fantasy. Suicide would be unseemly, given his lifelong work. Too many complications for the boys.

Jeanne was lucky. It was a Monday evening, almost eight years ago. She screamed, and by the time he got to her, she was dead, cardiopulmonary arrest. According to the autopsy report, "the interval between onset and death" was minutes.

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