Will The Circle Be Unbroken?

Interviews with a paramedic, a social worker, an undertaker, and a mother about their experiences with death and dying
Will the circle be unbroken,
By and by, Lord, by and by.
There's a better home awaiting
Far beyond the starry sky.

            -old hymn, sung by Doc Watson

On December 23, 1999, as I was beginning to interview people for a new book on death and dying, my wife, Ida, died. She had been my companion for sixty years. She was eighty-seven. A few months later a friend of mine, disturbed by my occasional despondency, burst out, "For chrissake, you've had sixty great years with her!" Ida had lived seventeen years beyond her traditionally allotted three score and ten, though on occasion I'd heard her murmur in surprise, "Why do I still feel like a girl?" They were roller-coaster years we shared, after I first spotted her, in a maroon smock, in 1937. She was a social worker during most of those tumultuous years: the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, Joe McCarthy, the sixties, the civil-rights and peace movements. She was, as they say, "involved." Garry Wills remembers her greeting him, years after the Vietnam War had ended, with "Oh, we were arrested together in Washington."

A year or so before Ida's death Laura Watson, a neighbor, "looked out the window and saw this slim young girl in jeans, with a flower in her hair, plucking out weeds in her garden." The girl looked up. "It was Ida, of course." Gwendolyn Brooks's bet was "She could dance on a moonbeam."

Yes, she did live to the ripe old age of eighty-seven, but it doesn't cut the mustard, Charlie. I still see that girl in the maroon smock who liked yellow daisies. Each week there is a fresh bunch of yellow daisies near the windowsill. On the sill is the urn containing her ashes. On occasion, either indignant or somewhat enthusiastic about something, I mumble toward it (her), "Whaddya think of that, kid?"

Naturally, when I pick up a newspaper these days, the first place I turn to isn't sports, or arts, or the business of business, or the op-eds. I immediately turn to the obituaries. The old doggerel with which many mature readers may be acquainted has become my mantra.

I wake up each morning and gather my wits,
I pick up the paper and read the obits.
If my name is not in it, I know I'm not dead,
So I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed.


Ed Reardon

A Chicago paramedic

"I'm a Chicago boy, born and raised on the North Side. I spent about fifteen years on the job as a paramedic in Chicago, working the streets all over the city. Ostensibly, you're the eyes and the ears of a doctor. When a doctor can't be on the scene, they'll send guys like us. I like to call us 'gutter medics,' because we work in the gutter, we work wherever we find a patient. Sometimes it takes you to some pretty strange places, strange situations. The police don't have paramedics. Chicago's paramedics are strictly underneath the fire department's auspices. We work twenty-four hours. We start at eight in the morning, we get off at eight in the morning. You take two days off, and every fourth day you'd get a day off. That gave you essentially five days off in a row, so you had time to decompress. During a twenty-four-hour period, when I first started out, we could do easily twenty-five runs, be a minimum of one run an hour. No sooner would you put a patient down than you'd be picking up another one. You'd be going like that all day for twenty-four hours. So when you got off work in the morning, there really wasn't much left of you. You spent your first day walking around in a daze. The day after that, you'd just be recuperating, and then you'd go back to work.

"There was a set protocol that we would follow. Sometimes life isn't black and white, it's all nothing but shades of gray. By law, we cannot pronounce someone dead. It takes a physician to pronounce someone dead. If you have a skeleton there, you know the guy's dead. Profound postmortem lividity: that's where the blood is all settled in the lower regions of the body and there's no resuscitating this guy. Decapitation: the head's cut off. Profound rigor mortis: where he's as stiff as a board and you're not going to budge him. It doesn't take a medical genius to spot someone who's dead. But by law, we're obliged to at least make an effort. Sometimes you have to make calls that are really going to put you on the line. For instance, we were called into a home and the guy was dying of cancer. He was in his bed, he had his family around him, and you could see that the disease had completely ravaged him. He was unconscious but he was gasping for air; he was breathing his last breaths. I called the hospital and I said, 'Listen, here's what we got. The family doesn't want him resuscitated. There's no point. What should we do here?' They don't know what to tell us. They don't want to stick their necks out. They don't want to say, 'Okay, do not resuscitate.' This was before there was such a thing as living wills. I know that if we don't make some kind of a decision, this guy, his last moments are going to be very undignified. We're going to go through a whole resuscitation. That means doing CPR, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, on him, putting a tube down his throat. In a situation like this it would be debasing him. He's not quite a vegetable, but he's not going to be viable. As we're sitting there, he literally breathes his last breath. He utters out a shout and he stops breathing. I look around and I mean, I see it's a Catholic family, we're a block away from the church that I grew up in, Saint Andrew's Church. From my Catholic upbringing, I went to them and I said I'd already called a priest and he was on his way. I said, 'Why don't we gather around and say a prayer to Saint Joseph?'—the patron saint of a happy death. Saint Joseph is the patron saint of just about everything, actually, but a happy death is the one thrown in there. The family went with that. They thought it was a great idea. We kept them calmed down. We took the guy, we put him in the ambulance, and we took him to the hospital to be pronounced. Now I'm wondering, When I get there, am I going to run into some doctor or some nurse who's going to call me on this? As it turned out, the doctor understood our position, the priest was there. It was fine with the family. He was dead and he was going to stay dead.

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