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Carol Smaldino Headshot

Will Baby Boomers Make it Fashionable to Deal With Death?

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I don't mean "fashionable" as in an insult, but rather as a pattern. The generation that has felt entitled to rights in arenas of freedom, of evolving, and of comfort, may be involved in movements helping to make death not exactly casual but much more "nothing to sneeze at." I write about the subject, not only because it is interesting from human, psychological and social points of view, but also because I am involved rather directly.

Sometimes things hit you not in the realm of thought first off but rather through an action or set of spoken words that come as a surprise. For me it was earlier today, in making a medical appointment for when I stop over in New York, that I found myself joking with a dark-ish kind of humor that for sure had me as one of the butts of it. In giving my zip code for my Colorado town, I found the receptionist telling me it didn't come through as pertaining to the right town. She said, "It comes up that your town is called "Fresh Meadows," to which I replied, "Wow, that sounds like the name of a nursing home." And at the sound of her encouraging hilarity, I added that there could be a cemetery next door to it called "Fresher Meadows." She had a hard time getting her laughter to a halt and she begged to meet me when I come in for my eye appointment.

The event was a brief visit into a realm to which I usually hate to go. I'm not on very good terms with death, I don't agree with it even though I know the deal about evolution and making way for others as others have made way for me. I don't have the religious backing of a certitude of an afterlife and I've always hated the idea of missing parties, people and things in general -- at least the opportunity to be around. Last week when we were in Puglia, a friend of Lino's who had worked in the local hospital as a medical technician came by each morning with an unintended but predictable account of the day's or week's recent deaths. He would start out by saying something like, "Do you know the gynecologist 'so and so'? Well he died." Again I was the one to make a joke of it which became a steady dose for our week, especially funny or so it seemed to me and the others as well, because it was said in dialect, barese, which made it sound abbreviated, less serious.

The more recent disturbance is in the area of death as a fact of life, not as part of a drought or massacre or even fatal illness, but as something which some of us need to discuss much more than is done usually. And I'm not talking about a rush to the positivity of mood, as happy ways to die, either. I'm talking about humanizing something so it isn't that strange, or too strange to speak and philosophize and cry about and even, yes, to evolve about. And since I'm very much into shifting sands on emotional levels being a part of our journeys as human beings when we are not in actual clear and present dangers on physical or psychiatric levels, the arena of which I am speaking seems to be making its way into more of a daily consciousness than before.

A good friend was speaking to me about putting her mother into a nursing home, actually a pretty nice one not far from the beaches of southern California. Let me call her Elisa, my friend. She didn't want to make this move, because her mother is not physically ill. Though she is well into her nineties, she has all her faculties, except well, her mental ones. And of course, that can make all the difference. Elisa and her sister visit their mother often but funds haven't allowed them to offer her either a place in their homes (okay let's just say it's complicated and leave it at that for now) or to have a steady person in her apartment either. A couple of months ago Elisa's mother slipped and broke her hip, something many of us have come to feel might be the beginning of the end. But actually she is healing and she could, the doctors say, live another eight years or so, who knows?

Eileen, as I'm calling Elisa's Mom, said to her a week ago, "Are you going to leave me to die here? Am I going to die here?" And a week after I stayed with Elisa on a long phone call trying to be as supportive as I could, I realize there was another question, at least to my mind. And that would be, "Am I going to die?"

Elisa felt mortified by her mother's question, and I can sense how it could be bruising and hurtful to hear the questions so blunt, so pleading. And yet now as I sit with the conversation, I realize that the answer is that yes, she is probably going to die there, and that she, like Elisa and like me, are going to die. Let's talk about it, it kind of sucks and we are not prepared for it. Elisa isn't prepared for her mother to die, or for the concept, and she is feeling down about aging herself.

I had later what may seem a weird thought, that maybe baby boomers, at least some of us, will bring the topic to a new accessibility, reality. I need ways to talk about it that don't end in smiley faces or slogans like everyone fears death, something that isn't even true on its own.

I'm not starting a movement, but some movement seems to be starting in me. It's too important a subject for dread to keep it silent and lonely as well.