Letting go of the living

During the last six years, I have been forced to confront the collapsing health of my family. Not by coincidence, my reflections on these changes and death itself led me to writers like Viktor Frankl and branches of thinking such as Existentialism and the Greek and Roman school of philosophy known as Stoicism.

The Stoic philosophers from ancient Greece and Rome provide a roadmap that remains remarkably relevant today. The most famous ancient stoics—Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius—did not focus on abstractions. Rather, they wrote about the most pressing realities of life and issues of what define us and how we live each day.

At this point in my own life’s journey, I found comfort in old ideas that embraced questions about death. As Seneca wrote, “A man cannot live well if he knows not how to die well.” Stoic ideas helped me think about how all of us can prepare ourselves for misfortune and navigate through the worst possible events, in order to confront what inevitably lies ahead.

My journey, with my family, was now one confronting inevitable loss. This chapter of my life story, with my family, will perhaps soon end in the death of the remaining two members of my nuclear family—my mother and sister.

Losing my Mom

My father died in 1985, when I was 20, and I can scarcely remember him as a person. He was an alcoholic and unimportant in my life. I unfortunately lost my mother more than six years ago, but this loss is ongoing.

In 2013, she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The illness has been especially cruel to her husband, my stepfather, who saw his intimate partner and best friend of 30 years slowly lose her mental abilities and her ability to function as an independent adult. I have observed her slow decay, mostly during short visits and on phone calls that always got worse with each week, month, and then year.

My mother changed from being someone with a razor-sharp mind and who loved crosswords to a woman who could no longer remember the names or even faces of her neighbors and family.

On this last trip to St. Louis in September 2019, we were alone. I asked her, “Who am I?” She gave me a long look with that blank stare, created by the destruction of her neurons and the accumulation of amyloid plaques in her brain. She replied with my stepfather’s name. I said, “No, mom, it’s your son, Rudy.” She didn’t reply. She then asked me a question she had asked half a dozen times earlier in the last 15 minutes.

I have spent these last six years flying back and forth from Seattle and then Portland to her home in the St. Louis area. My trips were motivated by personal concern for her and her husband caregiver and a sense of duty to help as her son.

I have shed tears. I have felt anguish. I have gnashed my teeth. I have cursed scores of times to myself as I walked alone after work, daylight or dark. I have felt powerless. I have felt my desires for my own dreams bend and be extinguished, just so I could be there for her, albeit from afar.

When I read about my friends’ lives, involving travel or a life where the future is filled with promise, I compare it to my stepdad’s world. His involves non-stop and constant care for my mom.

I have, in the end, simply abandoned thoughts of vacation and time alone that don’t involve flying halfway across the continent, so I can spend time with her. On past trips we have held hands and took walks. We could even squeeze in visits to the St. Louis Art Museum and Missouri Botanical Garden. Even those stopped on my last trip.

On this trip, like the ones before, she asked me questions she had asked dozens of times before: Where do you live? Why do you live n Portland? Why won’t you live here? Do you have a girlfriend?

My mom often chastised me, saying, that’s too far away, you should be closer, even when she has no idea who I am or that she even had a son.

Losing my Sister

During these last six years, and for at least a decade earlier, I have also watched my sister slowly spiral out of control.

She has battled addiction, obesity, mental health issues, a long spell of homelessness, and finally the collapse of her body. Her obesity finally made it nearly impossible for her to walk. After living on the mean streets of St. Louis for months, and then in an unsanitary drug house in a very unsafe St. Louis neighborhood, she rebounded with the help of my mom and stepdad. My sister found a low-paying but stable job with Missouri’s welfare office.

Yet each visit, from 2000 on, turned into a portrait in loss. By the last time I saw her in January 2019, just before she had a heart-attack, she was out of her job, living in squalid conditions alone, and having no contact with anyone or any person except a former drug addict neighbor in a poor south St. Louis suburb.

Each time I came, her apartment looked dirtier and more cluttered and chaotic. I am choosing not to share the details. They are too depressing and also private.

Finally, in July 2019, she called for first responders who discovered her collapsed on her apartment floor, unable to walk. She had deep and open pressure ulcers and was immediately taken the emergency room at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. From there the hospital managers and social workers placed her in skilled nursing facility in the city that accepted Medicaid eligible patients. She moved into the facility that month and has been bedbound and no longer able to walk.

Her new home is a facility for indigent patients, all eligible for Medicaid-paid care. The population is a mix of mostly older African Americans and fewer whites. When I visited in September 2019, more than half appeared bedbound. Patients with mental illnesses wandered the halls, without interference from staff. The front door was coded, and no one but staff could get out without the punch key.

To me, it felt like a madhouse from the Victorian era, with staff unconcerned with the patient wards in their care or visitors from the streets who could walk in the facility without even signing in.

No staff member required me to present my ID or sign in. So I could wander the facility without interference, startled that no one cared who I was. In one of the community rooms, I saw silent, elderly, and sick patients gaze blankly at their television. Others sat in the courtyard, silent and hunched over. Still others in their rooms lay silent, with their televisions blaring reality shows and their faces staring blankly at the blue light. I imagined this was like hundreds of others similar facilities nationwide.

My sister looked like she had aged 10 years. She had lost one of her front top teeth. She had a bad rash and dirty, unkempt hair. She remained unable to walk.

The hardest part of my trip was visiting my sister’s cluttered, dirty apartment that had long gone to hell. Amid the clutter that littered each room, I found evidence of her past life. I located her diaries she had kept from the time she was in her 20s, still with dreams of living a good life, even as it was slowly going sideways from her substance-abuse problems. I found her jewelry she made as a hobby for years, as her mobility began to decline and her world closed in on her.

I spent about two hours finding all of her legal documents and her writings. That was my plan from the start. I put those in a pink plastic tub and filled another with her nicest dresses, pants, and shirts, even though I knew she likely would never wear them again.

We had a falling out when I refused to help her rent a storage locker to put her stuff. She cried, feeling betrayed. I knew from all I had seen she would not leave this place or another. She still believed she could walk again and live on her own with her public assistance.

On my last morning in St. Louis, I visited her room again. Her roommate, who is in her 30s and likely had a mental health disorder, was there. I held my sister’s hand and said I was happy I had come to see her. She looked at me, and said, “I love you.” I responded the way I always had in the past, with a smile.

I then left her room and found one of the young, African-American nurses dressed in purple scrubs. She smiled, punched the code, and the door opened. I walked out into the fresh-smelling fall morning and the sunshine on a beautiful St. Louis day. It was time to catch my flight and leave behind this warehouse for the infirmed.

Confronting the void, with a friend

In the more than the three decades since I graduated from college in Portland, I have maintained a good friendship with classmate of mine. He now lives in southern California. I have been visiting him periodically in Utah and there now for nearly 30 years.

Rudy Owens, on the far left, and my friend are among this group of Reed College students shown here in 1987, in front of the Reed College Library.

As we have aged together, we have encountered different and also similar challenges. I stayed single. I moved to more locations. He got married,  got divorced, raised his daughter, became a river guide, succeeded professionally in a grander way than me, and always stayed true to his curious, creative self.

Though we were raised in very different circumstances—him in a Jewish family in the West, and me in a Lutheran family with a single mother in the Midwest—we had more in common than I would have thought possible when we first got to know each other at our college library steps on long evenings.

Last night we caught up on the phone. I was sharing my feelings of loss concerning people I am close too, including my mother. She is still mostly well, but her issues are ones I will not share in detail here. My friend also shared stories of his mother, who has passed away.

Taken in 2014 in southern California during one of the greatest trips of my life.

During that call, we experienced a moment of understanding that transcended our distance of nearly 1,500 miles and the time we have spent not seeing each other in person the past few years. I learned things about him I did not know. I also shared things about myself I seldom share with others.

I am by nature private and stoic, and I have learned how to control my negative emotions and also my public displays of sadness or anger. I also realized during our talk about life and its inevitable end with death that my embrace of existentialism has given me the ability to confront these challenges I face more clearly.

I told my friend that in suffering, we really can find purpose and meaning. And whatever I did as a result of these circumstances, I would be making choices to respond to the challenges before me.  Those actions would be mine alone, and freely chosen. I was mostly telling myself these points, as I considered those actions yet to come with my mum.

That is pure Viktor Frankl. But it is also how I can face up to what is inevitable on the road ahead. I shared these thoughts with my friend, and he listened in the right way. He did not need to do much other than let me know he listened.

Mostly, I felt relieved to know I could unload to a friend and share my fears and also my resolve. Facing the world alone is not easy for anyone. Maybe it will be easier because I will have friends there to listen when the moment of the void arrives in full force.

Reflecting on tragedy and making hard choices in life

Earlier in 2014, one of my high school classmates, Jeremy Nemerov, was murdered at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. Nemerov was reportedly killed almost as soon as he arrived for allegedly being a “snitch,” according to some reports. I have no idea if that is true or not.

The Facebook page photograph of Jeremy Nemerov,  who was murdered in a federal prison while serving a drug sentence (a non-violent crime).

The Facebook page photograph of Jeremy Nemerov, who was murdered in a federal prison while serving a drug sentence (a non-violent crime).

He was clearly a victim of violent crime for serving time on a non-violent drug offense–the type of charges that are filling our nation’s prisons and bankrupting all forms of government. Nemerov was also, by all definitions, a drug addict, according to confessionals that were written about him on his still bizarrely functioning Facebook page. Addiction, in the end, ultimately led him to a trail that ended in a violent death in the worst possible place. (This story paints a bleak picture of his lifelong battles with drugs.)

I really did not know him well, and in the end not at all. I remember him from high school, mostly as a person who had amazing gifts bestowed upon him by luck and birth. First, he was born in the richest country on earth. He was from a racial group that has some of the best health and education outcomes in our country. His father, Howard Nemerov, was a former celebrated poet and Washington University professor. His aunt was famous photographer Diane Arbus.

He lived in a big, comfortable nice house in a nice neighborhood, and he also drove a Porsche given to him as a gift by his family during his teens. And still, he got trapped by drugs and personal choices he made every day of his life, just like the rest of us.

As someone who believes that we all are responsible for our life choices, regardless of our circumstances, I am not one who is feeling great anguish, but mostly because he was not my friend nor a family member. However, I have seen drugs and alcohol destroy all kinds of people, some close to me, and have seen drugs victimize too many innocent and better people who pick up the pieces left by the abusers and addicts or even who die sometimes violently at their hands.

At some point in life, all of us will confront hard choices, even demons. We ultimately will be measured by our actions, even if circumstances are cruelly unfair, particularly for those who were not born with the incredible gifts Nemerov got dealt early in life.

One of Nemerov’s peers, someone I also knew decades ago, wrote a remembrance of him, focussing on Nemerov’s addictions and his own failures to intervene on a road trip with Nemerov when both were 15: “If I could go back in time, I would have spent those four weeks trying to warn Jeremy of his budding demons.
… I will focus on the amazing boy that I knew in the 80’s.”

Viktor Frankl two years after he was released from German captivity, which helped him develop ideas to provide meaning in life, captured in his book Man's Search for Meaning.

Viktor Frankl two years after he was released from German captivity, which helped him develop ideas to provide meaning in life, captured in his book Man’s Search for Meaning.

None of us can go back in time. What we can do is focus on our lives in the moment, daily, and respond the best we can. I am choosing to spend my energies focussing on those who are working to help others and themselves. When it comes to those with addictions, I believe the person who ultimately will make a change is the person who really has the ultimate power–the person making the choices with life’s often unfair hand.

As one of my favorite thinkers, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, noted: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”