The proximity of death

Paul C. Rosenblatt
St. Paul, Minnesota, United States

 

A family outing at Lincoln Park in Chicago a few weeks before the author became ill. Pictured are the author, his mother Rose Rosenblatt, and his sister Doris Rosenblatt (now Kopfstein). Photo taken by the author’s father Harry Rosenblatt and published with permission of the author.

In September 1951, I was a very sick twelve-year-old, covered with bruises and red dots where blood vessels were leaking. My nose had been bleeding for days and nothing we did stopped it. My blood was not clotting.

The morning my mother took me to the University Hospital we first saw a hematologist. He did not speak to me and said almost nothing to my mother. He then performed a sternal puncture without saying why he was doing it, how much it would hurt, or that it required leaving a needle in my chest while he changed syringes. With the needle stuck in my chest I felt like a helpless wimp. When he finished the sternal puncture my mother asked him, “Will he get better soon?” The doc replied with oracular ambiguity, “If he converts, he’ll get better. But he has to convert.” I thought he meant that there was no cure. I believe my mother understood him the same way because she looked shocked.

Mom then took me to the inpatient admitting office. From there I was pushed in a wheelchair to a four-bed ward on the fifth floor of the hospital. The other patients in the ward were adults. Nobody ever explained to me why I was the only kid there. People did not explain things to me.

I was assigned to bed #4. Luckily, my mother had brought a decent pair of flannel pajamas; I definitely did not want to wear an open-back hospital gown. I changed into the pajamas, climbed into bed, and Mom kissed me goodbye. She was trying to be brave and sunny, but the situation was ominous.

The other three beds were occupied by men who seemed quite ill. Two of them never moved. But the man in bed #2 greeted me with smiles. After my mother left he introduced himself. Jimmy Dudley was a tall, thin African American in his thirties with high blood pressure and heart problems.

Every day in the hospital knowing I was close to death gave me moments of gut-wrenching fear. One defense against it was to remember movies where people died of illness. In movies in the 1950s, people always faded away mentally or physically before they died, and so far I had not faded away. That led me to the happy belief that I would not die immediately. I also learned that books were a better defense than magazine or newspaper articles, because their length kept me longer from thinking about my mortality. I also found things to worry about that were easier to face, like missing schoolwork or the nurse whose feelings I hurt when I snarled at her for waking me up.

One day the man in bed #1 was taken away to be discharged. I assumed his health had improved. But two days later a nurse told us he was coming back that afternoon, but then he did not. That evening I asked Jimmy if he knew why the man with diabetes had not come back. Jimmy did not respond to my question for what seemed like a very long time. Finally, he said, “He died this afternoon.” The way Jimmy said it I thought he wanted to protect me from being aware of how close to death I was myself.

A second year resident was the doctor I saw the most. Almost every day he came to feel my spleen and ask me questions. My sense of how close I was to dying became more starkly real when I found out he had been lying about my platelet count. I knew that to stop bleeding my platelet count had to get back into the normal range. Every day a lab technician would come and prick one of my fingers, all of which were raw from having been pricked before. She would draw a drop of blood, put it on a glass slide, cover the slide, and take it somewhere to do a platelet count. The resident had been telling me that my platelet count was on its way up. He said it was 25,000, which was still miles away from what it needed to be. But at 25,000 he had me feeling hopeful.

But I discovered he had been lying when he came with six medical students to teach them about my condition and to give them practice at feeling my spleen. He stood next to me, with the medical students in a semicircle around the end of the bed. He told them I had thrombocytopenic purpura and that my platelet count was zero. That shocked me because he had just told me it was 25,000. I corrected him, and said it was 25,000. He paused and looked at me in irritation. Then he said to the students that it was 25,000. But the way he said it made it clear that zero was correct and 25,000 was a lie. It was heart-breaking because I thought I was getting better.

I was in quite a funk after learning I had been lied to and was very glad when my parents came for visiting hours. They came every evening and were always reassuringly themselves. Plus they always brought things to cheer me up—usually a pot of home-cooked food or a magazine. While they visited I felt protected, as though it was impossible for me to die with them present.

Because of hospital rules, my parents’ visits were brief. Most of my daily human contact was with Jimmy Dudley. Every day he had amusing things to say. He was always upbeat despite being very sick, and he could be entertainingly mischievous, though the first time I saw his mischievous side I was shocked. A few hours after I was admitted to the hospital our dinners were brought to us. As soon as the meal-servers left, Jimmy walked to the sink in one corner of our room. He winked at me and pulled a salt shaker out of the drain, brought it to his dinner, salted it liberally, and then put the salt shaker back in the drain. He liked salty food, although he said that with his health problems salt was very dangerous for him. It was a paradox for me that Jimmy was in the hospital to get better but doing something that might kill him.

After a few weeks as a very sick kid I “converted” and was discharged from the hospital. My platelet count was back in the normal range. When my father came to pick me up, I packed my things and said a quick goodbye to Jimmy. He was still cheerfully himself in wishing me the best.

Over the following weeks I became increasingly aware that my illness and hospital stay had made me a different person. In my everyday thinking there was much more reality and potential proximity to personal death than before I was sick. The reality and proximity of personal death stayed with me. As a social scientist with a new PhD in the 1960s I began researching and teaching about death and bereavement, topics which at that time were mostly ignored in the social sciences. But death and bereavement had my attention and I knew they were much too important to be neglected by academics. I do not mean that I learned in the hospital to stare fearlessly into the blinding light of death. But I learned a bit about how to defend against the terror of death, and that has helped me in my research and teaching about death and bereavement.

 

 


 

PAUL C. ROSENBLATT, PhD, has published 14 books and more than 200 journal articles and chapters in edited books, much of it dealing with death and grief. His books include African American Grief (with Beverly R. Wallace); Parent Grief: Narratives of Loss and Relationship; Bitter Bitter Tears: Nineteenth Century Diaries and Twentieth Century Grief Theories; and Grief and Mourning in Cross Cultural Perspective (with R. Patricia Walsh and Douglas A. Jackson). His recent writings for literary magazines include short stories in Shark Reef (about a child whose brother died) and in The Writing Disorder (about a widower searching for life meaning).

 

Winter 2021   |   Sections  |  End of Life