check list for the living

When a good friend checked herself into a posh home for unencumbered elders … I stopped seeing her. This, despite that she now resided 60 miles closer than she had before. This despite my longstanding secret desire that she move those 60 miles closer.

It took me over a year to visit her in the palace of the still-living. Maybe longer. It was one village I knew I’d never blend in with. For one, I don’t speak the language. For two, well, there’s everything else. The resident elders have ‘drinks’ in each others’ apartments and then descend to the wood-paneled dining room below (or was it mirrored, or was it both?). Each apartment has a nominal kitchen, but all meals are provided in the Dining Hall below, and the meals are elegant, refined, healthful, and tasteful (in both senses). Jackets are required for men, at least for dinner.

The apartments have call buttons throughout in case of emergency; they have maid service, and linens are provided. I’m not sure if they do all the laundry for you or just provide the linens and towels. There’s a pool, a gym (with trainers), rides to and from the opera, the Fromm Institute, wherever. There are high level lectures, a library, holiday celebrations, expeditions. And they let in a certain percentage of Jews. I’m not sure if they’ve got an actual policy on this. As I said, while this place would make a fascinating study, I’m not the person to do it.

The one visit I did make completely freaked me out. So much for objectivity. So it’s also possible I’ve gotten a lot wrong. But this is how I remember it. I was, however, given the grand tour. There’s an infirmary. More than one, I think. Short term and long term. And meds are provided. Doctors. Nurses. All your terminal needs are attended to.

It’s a gamble to move in, really. You pay up front for your apartment as well as a monthly — but you won’t be selling your apartment when you’re gone. It gets reabsorbed into the body (as they put it in Invasion of the Body Snatchers). (I, clearly, am ‘not of the body’).

The residents don’t seem to die, they disappear (another reminder of the Body Snatchers).

“Nobody,” my friend told me, “ever speaks of death.”

What they say instead, is that an apartment is available.

Residents disappear into the infirmary, and sometimes return for a while. My friend refers to herself and her fellow residents as ‘inmates.’ and these inmates are all on death row. Although the dates for execution remain indeterminate.

I’m not quite sure why this place scares the shit out of me. It’s not just that it seems out of place, belonging more on the Upper East Side. Although a place on the Upper East Side would feel more authentic than this. It’s not the tall columns, the sculptures, and flower arrangements. Not just that the place makes me feel like a peasant whose taken a wrong turn and still has mud on her boots. It’s not just that ‘drink’ is not my choice of drug, and it’s certainly not that they’re ‘old’ since I do qualify age-wise to be incarcerated in this Death Palace.

It’s not just that I can’t make conversation to save my life, or the goyische formality and upper crust posture. Or the lack of diversity, including economic…

Where’s my anthropological sense of adventure? Where’s my enthusiasm to visit my friend? Where’s my sense of humor? The place is really hilarious.

Remember Dylan’s ‘he not busy being born is busy dying’?

It was an anthem. We loved it, repeated it. Had contempt for all those busy dying. The inmates in the Death Palace have already taken care of their ‘busy dying’ and now are very busy living. Painting, writing, learning, hiking, traveling. With Veblenian vigor. They are, for the most part, pre-terminal. Or at least they start out that way. They’ve uncluttered their lives, as well as their belongings. They’ve made room for, well, the pleasure of pleasure.

So how come I can’t stand the place?

I think I’m still immersed in the clutter of a messy introspective life. And still immersed in the time consuming lot of ‘busy dying’ — of sorting out paperwork, of getting things in order (and not just for me). I’ve spent, I now realize, exactly one year busy living with the dying. One year since my dad’s diagnosis. My mom’s incapacity. Being consumed with advance directives, hospice, hospitals, and residential treatment centers. Falls in the night. Emergency calls, caregivers, fear of the phone ringing. Paying the bills, paying the taxes, paying the lawyers. Documentation. Documents. Grave diggers. Visitors. Stuff. Distribution of stuff. Recovery. Relapse…

For me, death and dying is a bewildering, messy affair.

But for the inmates at the Death Palace, it’s all neat and tidy, squeaky clean and, well, just plain invisible. Just another apartment on the market. Know anyone interested?

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

5 replies on “check list for the living”

oh. the checklist. It started out pretty long — until I discovered that I'd already covered just about everything on it. Now the list is pretty short:

live. die. repeat.
not necessarily in that order.

Thanks for this – what creeps me out about these places is the structure. It's like living in a dorm. I don't see how this supports preparation for death – unless one's idea of preparation for death is so focused on the superficial and material: "getting one's affairs in order."
Also, you don't mention the "shadow" floors in these places — the "next level" or whatever they call it – the gray area the inmates disappear into … "there" but "not there."

Ah, the "shadow floors"! Great name — I didn't know what to call it, but that's exactly right. Yes, one ascends to the next level — the infirmaries.

My guess is they have a special hidden elevator to haul your carcass out. How 'bout a crematorium?? It wouldn't do to have the inmates witness something as real as their neighbor's rigor mortis.

Yikes. Do they serve Soylent Green in there?

Love your phrase "the clutter of a messy introspective life." But I do think you missed a small detail in between live and die in your post-post: y/our own mandatory "laugh." xxoo.

Laugh! Always. And absolutely.

Funny, I've been thinking about Soylent Green. See next post (when it gets posted).

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