Living and Dying: More than a Matter of Life and Death

For my friend, Scott
Remembering my mentor, Don

Most of my writing has focused primarily on applying the insights on social learning developed by my long-time mentor, Don Michael, to contemporary political challenges, especially the challenge of getting Obama elected. Meanwhile, my even longer-time friend, Scott, who almost 40 years ago—and perhaps not coincidentally—introduced me to Don’s thinking, was dealing with what he termed a “long death watch” over his Father. Meanwhile, Scott updated me on his Father’s condition, his twists and turns, and his falls—and how he and his immediate family had dealt with them in the external world of nursing homes, levels of care (and paying for them) and such, and in how he had coped with them in his own internal world. Meanwhile, as I continued to write about politics, I forgot that there are times when a phone call isn’t anywhere close to being there.

I was reminded of this heartless affront to the world constructed by phone companies’ ad jingles during my current visit with Scott, when I accompanied him on his visit with his Father. I rediscovered that in such situations there is no “next best thing to being there”. There is no substitute for REALLY reaching out and REALLY touching someone, even when that someone is the object of what my friend referred to as “a long death watch”. The fleeting expressions that might or might not have been his Father’s attempts at appreciation for who knows which small human dignity or affection Scott or I had somehow conveyed to him—there is and can be no substitute for being there.

And yet, the whole situation is entirely inhumane. People reduced to moaning and groaning, drooling and choking and messing their pants—mere wisps of their former selves, struggling with endless indignities, infirmities, and complications of the two. They “live”, to stretch the meaning of the term beyond the active living the term seems intended to convey, mostly alone, sometimes with the aid of an aide, and all too infrequently with the kind of hands-on involvement that Scott and his family are willing, able, and geographically-situated to give to their Father. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Scott’s Father and people like him “exist”.

To do so helps to open up the discussion of life and death and dying. Exist, what counts as existing? Exist, how? Exist, why? Exist, to whose benefit? Exist, at what opportunity cost? Exist, can we afford to? It seems to me that these questions differ in fundamental ways from similar questions posed in terms of “live”.

Two experiences brought these questions home to me. One came when Scott and I were driving back from visiting his Father. Scott told me, “I intend not to allow myself to get into that situation.” The other came several years ago, in a discussion with Don Michael about my own situation: no children, no savings. Ever a mentor oriented toward learning, Don advised me that by the time my generation reached retirement we will have had to develop new institutions to support ourselves in our old age.

I took his message to mean that we as a society would have to learn how to begin to discuss developing new social mores capable of facilitating Scott’s intention not to get into the situation that the institutions created by and/or acquiesced in by the generation of Don and his and my Fathers. When I think in that direction, I find myself cynically observing that companies that run “half-way (into the grave) houses”; and companies that develop, design, manufacture, distribute, and repair medical technologies; and pharmaceutical companies that do much the same for medicines can no longer profit from people after they’ve died.

They can still profit as long as they can keep people existing, no matter how miserably far from living such existing gets. Indeed, the further from living, the more profitable keeping a person “existing” can become. As long as they are able to retain control over laws that define and govern life and existence and death—how they are defined and how changes from one category to another are to be treated—they’ll be able to make it difficult for my friend, Scott, to adopt his preferred “long-term care plan”.

I don’t see how this can be accomplished by expanding the scope of profit-making further into the public realm, as W’s proposal for reforming social security would have had us do. Instead, we must learn to develop a new social solidarity to get this us beyond the present Gilded Age, much as previous “we’s” learned to develop a new social security to help get that us beyond an earlier one.

Conflicting interests aren’t the only obstacle, either. Ambiguities run through and through the whole matter. I myself benefit from technological breakthroughs that have elevated me from only a bit better than existing into really living. I tell people that I know how Lou Gehrig felt.

And still I continue to follow Don Michael’s admonition that this generation should build new institutions for caring for people on the downward slope of living.

Robert A. Letcher, PhD

Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D describes himself as “an academic with a disability instead of a portfolio, a writer, and a Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn”.


  1. Robert A. Letcher says

    I urge readers to check out Keith Olbermann’s account of his own Father’s time in hospice @

    URL =

    It hardly seems possible for Keith to be even more emotionally expressive, yet critical than he normally is. But, as he might write, this is his only Father. I cried over his reminder of my only Father’s last moments.

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