Article — From the December 2011 issue

American Vespers

The ebbing of the body politic

My descent toward death began in a San Francisco hospital where toilets overflowed and a centenarian man lay dying in the next bed surrounded by his children. “Where is the money?” his sons and daughters said.

“Aarrggh,” the old man replied.

It was autumn in San Francisco, a holiday. While doctors golfed and dined out in San Francisco, winter came to the old man in the bed beside me.

I found a doctor there in California, a stranger who treated me by phone, for there was no attending physician in the hospital.

“Once before,” I said. “Non-­Hodgkin’s. Four.”

“When?” he asked.

“Two thousand and one.”

“Well, you had nine good years,” he said.

We left for New York City the next day—my wife, my pretty green tank of oxygen, my swellings and effusions, my failing kidneys, my fever, and me. With the California hospital behind us, I did not think of death. Soon I would be back in the care of Dr. David Blumenthal. I had been his first patient. He may still have been the chief resident at NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital when we met. We had shared a career: cardiology and pills, books and music, social work. I had written about him once: the subject was ethics. Now I am older, interested in death and the decline of men and nations.

He was angry when he saw me. The diagnosis was in his glance, the twist of his mouth. They had let it go too far in California. I was dying. The effusion leaking from the lymph nodes was filling up my chest, I had pneumonia, the oxygen flowing through my nostrils was not enough. In the emergency room, Dr. Stanton, the resident on duty, asked for a pressure mask. “My name is Sasha,” she said. Through the thick plastic of the oxygen mask I saw people moving, the machine began to breathe for me, I held my wife’s hand. In that moment I thought of my brother-in-law, who had gotten out of his black-and-white early one morning to investigate an abandoned car along the highway when a drunk driver came careering round a bend and crushed him there on the side of the road. According to his partner, his last words were, “Tell my wife that I love her.” That is what I would have liked to have said too, but it is impossible to speak through a pressure mask. Cops are romantics.

What is known in medicine as an “event” happened in the early morning after David Blumenthal had made his rounds. There was no pain, no darkness, no peace. No deathly hour, no minute comes to mind.

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founded the Clemente Course in the Humanities. His book about it, The Art of Freedom: Teaching the Humanities to the Poor, will be published in 2013 by W. W. Norton. He was awarded a National Humanities Medal in 2000.

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April 2019

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