Wow… Michael Jackson is gone. We are a bit beside ourselves in this household. Its hard to imagine that the death of someone you never knew could stir such emotion.

I guess in a way I feel like I did know him. At least I knew him through his music and his videos. I always respected and admired his prodigious talent to the highest degree.

As a little kid, just seven years younger than Michael, I grew up seeing him perform on television with the Jackson 5. Ben was one of the first songs I learned to play on the piano. I always loved that song.

His songs and singing alone were magic, coupled with unparalleled showmanship he became a one of a kind performer.

I know he brightened many a dreary day for me through his music. What he gave his audiences and his fans is amazing, wonderful, and as close to anything divine I can possibly think of.

I spent many moments of my day today choked up. I listened to him on the train on my in to work. I watched the news during my workout at the gym. I thought about him all day. I just can’t get over it.

I don’t know whether to follow that ever present impulse to move and groove when they play his clips on CNN, or hang my head and cry knowing the show is over.

On Dying And Everlasting Life

I’ve given a fair amount of thought to death.

It isn’t something I talk to other people about very often, death, so I can’t say I really know very much about what other people think. It does seem to me that there is a lot of denial. Religion attempts to soothe our worried minds with a promise of everlasting life. Thoughts of things like euthanasia or assisted suicide are beyond rational consideration. Doctor shows and drug company ads seem based on the premise that death is the ultimate failure. Life must be preserved and maintained at all costs lest we give in to a simple fact: everybody dies.

Someday I will die. You will too.

I realized that there are a few simple questions that when I faced honestly were very enlightening.

A dear friend once said to me that when she died she hoped to go to a wonderful place and be reunited with her lost friends and relatives. Its a very lovely thought, but it’s veracity is neither here nor there for me. What really made me think was the statement that followed, where she explained that if she were to find out there was no after-life, no heaven, and no friends waiting on the other side she would get a gun and blow her brains out.

I tried to imagine the millions of people living in misery, enduring pain with the hope that something better will await them when they die. Being the person I am, I of course had to pose the question – what if there isn’t anything?

I realized at that moment that regardless of a heaven, regardless of religion, living this life in misery only to hope for better luck or a happy reunion in the next is madness.

Immediately I asked myself a very important question: if I were to die tonight – if I knew I had an hour or two left – how would it feel? Would I feel frightened? Sad? Angry? Relieved? Guilty? Happy? It might be a little bit of all those things. But that question put my life into immediate perspective.

I realized that when my physical body is gone, the things that will be left of me are the impressions and effects I had on others. There is my wife, my children, my job. There are the students I have had. There are the people I was unfair or unjust to. There are the people who read my blog. ThereĀ  are people who love and who hate me.

So if I were to die tonight, what could I say of these relationships? Did I make my wife happy? Did I give my children enough information, enough of myself? Did I teach them? Did they know how much I cared about them and that the *only* thing I ever wanted from them was to see them happy and perhaps share in that joy? Was I an honest worker and did I serve my disciplines well? Was I a good teacher, and did I give my students anything good that they carried forward in their lives? Did I leave even a single reader with a kernel of something that sparked some positive change in their life? Did I try to take responsibility for my mistakes and make up for them if possible? Will even those who hate me, have enough respect to say I tried?

And what if I were given ten more years? Would I use them to be sure I left a rich legacy to those that follow me?

This is *my* concept of ever lasting life.

Some Buddhists meditate on the image of a corpse decomposing. I once read of Buddhist monks who would go to burial grounds of another religion (Zoroastrians?) who left their dead to decay in the open. There they would meditate on death and their own mortality.

A little creepy maybe, but doesn’t it make you value life just thinking about it? Does it shift your focus? I hope I can learn to better make the most of mine.

– link: my visit to an outdoor crematorium and grave yard in Mumbai (Bombay) India

When My Brother Died

JoeyMy only brother was Joey. He was born in December 1964, which made him fourteen months older than me.

He was a Downs Syndrome baby. He was severely retarded and spent his entire life at a mental age of between two and four years.

He was primarily a happy child. Much of my early childhood experience revolves around doing what was best for Joey. I was raised with the belief that his care would be my primary responsibility when we grew up. The phrase, “…my brother’s keeper…” was one I learned early and thought about often.

As a young adolescent I moved away from my brother emotionally. As I continued to try and pursue my own life as a young adult, the distance became greater.

Toward the end of his life, my brother’s personality changed drastically. He went from being outgoing to withdrawn, happy and complacent to angry and violent.

My mother didn’t know what to do for him. She had taken him to a string of psychiatrists, neurologists and others. Nothing helped him. It was suspected by some at that time that there is an Alzheimer’s-like syndrome that occurs in Down’s patients in some cases. This remains the only physical explanation for his outbursts. Whatever perception he had of himself – perhaps an understanding that he would never grow out of his limitations – was never discussed. There was little anyone could do. He was becoming physically dangerous and decisions had to be made.

My Mother committed him to a very prestigious psychiatric hospital. This was utter desperation on her part since the main propulsion through her own adult life had been “keeping Joey at home…”. Indeed she had participated in many efforts to close the state institutions and integrate the mentally challenged into public life.

After a few weeks she brought him home. She installed a wire barrier and removed the door handles in her car so he could ride in back without incident. She hired various and sundry people to come to the house and help out.

He was sick when he left the hospital. She thought it was a cold. It got worse, and he appeared to be very ill. She took him to the ER.

This was the same day in 1992 that I had decided to try making my move to New York City permanent. I had been living with my mother in-between traveling gigs and trying to build a career. She called me in New York and told me that he had been admitted, tubed, and was on a respirator.

I returned home. My brother had a very severe case of pneumonia. His chest x-rays, to quote one physician, looked as though someone had painted them with White Out. I later went to school at that same hospital and studied to be an x-ray tech. For one of my assignments I checked out his films. The school didn’t work out, but we’ll save that for another story.

His oxygen saturation plummeted lower and lower. The doctors explained that his organs were all still working well, but that they would eventually fail. One nurse pointed to his catheter bag and showed me the urine which meant his kidneys were still functioning.

It was explained to me that the respirator was set as high as it could go. The oxygen concentration being delivered to him was high. The oxygen saturation was below the level necessary to sustain him and going lower. The pulmonologist assured us that he was not going to get better. The medical staff assured us that there was no brain activity and we needed to make a decision.

My mother decided that they should turn off the machine. My dad and his wife came. The doctor and a nurse came in the room and the doctor turned down the dial on the machine. He explained that he was turning down the supplemental oxygen and left the machine on. The machine would continue to fill my brother’s lungs with air from the room.

I sat next to him and held his hand. He was very swollen and a fungus had started attacking his eyes – likely a side-effect from the massive antibiotics they had given him to fight the pneumonia.

The monitor beeped with every beat of his heart, and I watched the line trace across the screen.

The doctor turned down the dial. My brother’s face turned immediately bright purple. The beeps began to slow down and the predictable line began to zig-zag across the monitor unpredictably.

His body arched up from the bed. The doctor explained that the muscles were in spasm from the lack of oxygen.

My father left the room.

Soon the spasm settled. The line went flat. The beeps were silenced and we made plans for his funeral.

My brother was gone.