Laughing to death — on social media.
Dying out loud was a gift my dad felt called to share.
I had to explain how it worked before he’d sign up.
“It’s a private social media site, Dad, where people can stay connected to you before you die.”
He’d resisted social media since its inception. I never understood why. I mean, he loved writing, community, and connection, but he was righteous. He believed that this new fad was taking people away from actual connection, (a valid point). We had argued the pros and cons of social media over many Thanksgiving dinners, along with his good buddy, Jud. They grieved the death of newspapers and considered social media its murderer. Dad never warmed to the idea, but with the urgency, he was feeling about dying in a few weeks, his perspective perhaps could be changed.
I searched for an example; I reminded him of how he felt in a room of college students after he’d taught one of his educational games he’d invented, the part when everyone shared their experience was always his favorite. He used to say, “Students really opened up after class today, Tia. They comprehended the game better once others had shared so honestly.”
“That’s what social media is like, Dad, friends from different chapters of your life all communicating from around the globe.” He wasn’t convinced.
I opened my Facebook feed for the day and watched him light up when he saw his name on our friend Nancy’s page.
“I just had what’s likely to be one of my last precious visits with the inimitable Richard B. Powers wherein he gave me two pieces of advice to improve my writing. The first piece was to work on writing the heart of the conflict. For the second piece, game master that Richard is, he suggested you all guess. So what else did he tell me to work on in my writing? If you’re the first to guess correctly, I’ll send you a copy of Moorings, because games should have a prize, and dear Richard, your wisdom and friendship has been my prize for a long, long time”.
He grinned devilishly, partially because the answer to Nancy’s game was sex, and partially because he felt he was about to sell out. Hesitantly, he conceited,
“Ok, Damn it! Sign me up.”
We had a surprising response to the email we’d sent out inviting people to join the site, most of my dad’s friends had never heard of Caring Bridge….plus the majority of his friends didn’t know that I’d changed my name some 20 years back. I’d forgot to explain that she-who-used-to-be-Sanya-Powers is now called Tia Ma, but still is very much Richard Powers’ daughter — and no, this isn’t spam or some sick joke.
Mother made a fresh cup of tea for him, then left for her morning walk. I sat at the desk overlooking the ocean, next to his big chair. Even under his pile — four blankets deep, he shivered as his life-force battery dimmed. With his Alaskan wool hat pulled down to his old-man caterpillar eyebrows, and holding his teacup with both hands, he began to dictate his first post.
March 10, 2014
“Welcome to our Caring Bridge site. We’ve created it to keep friends and family updated. We appreciate your support and words of hope and encouragement during this time when it matters most.
About a year ago, I started losing weight, and as months passed, I developed other symptoms such as muscle weakness, fatigue, and shortness of breath after minimal exertion. Local doctors were unable to diagnose the problem, so two weeks ago we went to the Mayo Clinic and they diagnosed me with ALS aka Lou Gehrig’s disease. Life expectancy is 3 to 5 years. But I am not going to wait for the disease to run its course. I’ve chosen to use Oregon’s assisted suicide program administered by the Compassion and Choices organization.
I started the procedure by requesting my doctor assist me, and he agreed. This starts a process that must be rigorously followed to be legal and acceptable. My next oral request can be made in 15 days but no sooner. Elki and I are so grateful to have this option. I feel so relieved after starting the process that I can concentrate on saying goodbye to the people that matter to me. So I’m inviting you to check the site regularly and say whatever you’d like — a bit of wisdom or a good joke. Now’s not the time to hold back.”
So, for his last three weeks of life, we sat in his Oregon coast cliffside castle, (Vultures Knoll, as the Electric company, called it,) and I read out loud to the man who used to read to me.
“How many mimes does it take to screw in a light bulb………..oh, wait…. he’s not screwing in a light bulb, he’s picking an apple…I think…wait, nope, he’s….huh? What did he say?!?!?”
(Friend from Vermont)
“Last night I played a blank tape at full blast. The mime next door went nuts!”
(Friend from Poland)
His fellow game-inventors checked in. I sensed the electricity from their in-depth letters and felt much respect. I read about convention conversations that I’d never been interested in before. Dad used to mention NASAGA (North American Simulation and Gaming Association) gatherings, and my ears would glaze shut, but wow! how impending death had shifted my curiosity. I typed responses from his whispers, the punctuated intimacy left me feeling honored to be his scribe. My father would lean back, his eyes closed, as I’d read messages to him through my tears. He’d drink in every word from his friends around the globe.
In some responses, I could sense people stumble. Awkward starts and platitudes felt confused by the casual way my dad talked about dying. Most rulebooks don’t teach how to respond to the dying. Some folks stepped to the plate though, they answered with naked truth-telling and returned the gratitude. I could feel their own tears as they typed details of how he touched them and changed their lives. They said, “I love you too, Richard — Rich — Dick — Professor Powers.”
Only a few brave friends actually typed, “Goodbye.”
“We have been watching as the days pass. We have not been disappointed with what we have observed. The most beautiful thing about our humanity is how we are wired to love each other and the memories we share. We hold the blessing of your friendship, dear. We had such fun growing up as young parents with you. We remember the garage sales and the wine feasts that followed. We want to resurrect the red and green chili parties, but they wouldn’t be the same! We might be too old for that! Remember when you borrowed camping gear for your first and last camp out? Our kids sure kept us active during their teenage years. Though you have lived far away for these many years, we have always cherished the memories and friendship we share.
Tia, you have been a star and a bright one! We so appreciate your updates. Your sense of humor and positive attitude have made this adventure for all of us another happy if bittersweet memory.
Our love to you all, Peace be with you.”
(Friends from Utah)
“What an enviable foursome you Powers are! Whenever I share with someone how Richard and his family are facing and managing his last days, they gasp. Saying, “Wow, that sounds so positive and loving and caring and beautiful…” for the one leaving as well as those saying good-bye.”
(Friends from Wisconsin)
The jokes Dad requested also poured in, he was pleased they took his request seriously. I comic delivered — best I could, while as he laughed, trying not to choke — silent as a mime.
“I was walking down the street and saw a mime pretending to be trapped in a box. He did such a great job, that when he finished, I pantomimed putting a dollar in his jar.”
~(Friend from Switzerland)
“Son, you’re just not cut out to be a mime.”
“Is it something I said?”
~(Friend from Oregon)
From the more serious responses, it became apparent how rare it is that folks ever verbalize, ‘How we first met,’ ‘How you affected me,’ ‘What I think of you,’ with the people we know on a professional and friendship level. Dad was touched. Tears rolled into his big, gray beard, his eyes soft from smiling, as the stories filled his message page. He’d look like he was savoring the last bite of an excellent dessert as he listened. (He never came outright and said — but I think he finally understood the game of social media.)
With a nod to my Pa, I posted my own facebook challenge,
“They say we die similar to how we live. This means — my politically active, performing mime/clown, funny man of a Dad, with a dramatic flair for timing and bringing the community together via games, play, fun, and honesty is gonna go out with a bang! So in his honor, let’s play a game: I will share with you the magic of his last 3 weeks on this planet if YOU abstain from using the word “sorry” in any response about his death!”
He clapped when I read him my Facebook challenge. As my friends responded, I shared their words with him as well. More than one person commented,
“You’re so strong, Tia. You and your father are so strong.”
What they didn’t realize was — it was in their reading our words was where we found our strength. Having our vulnerability received is what gave us the strength to laugh, to be real.
It was so important to him that his death wasn’t a secret. The more we shared on social media, the more we sensed something magical was happening. My Dad’s adventure in dying had people looking at death differently. While he was busy striking eighty-two years of life, my inbox filled with private death stories; death of a parent, death of a child, confessions of terror about dying.
“Dad, my friend dreamt about you last night. They walked with us on the beach as we talked about death.” He smiled, sipping a bit of air.
The intimacy was supremely comforting. I needed to read about death, type about death. It wasn’t some hidden little secret anymore — it was sitting right across from me, having a cup ‘o tea.
People kept to the rules of my game. When they commented without saying, “I’m so sorry,” his chin tilted up in his professor way, the gleam in his eye told me he took credit that I’d conjured a game in response to his death.
Photos of his life from Utah, from Los Angeles, from Arizona, kept rolling in. He’d shuffle over to the computer, his walker clicking out its odd rhythm of plastic and metal crinkle. Viewing them, he’d point to the screen and smile, or cry. Then he’d read the words out loud, so quietly, I could just barely hear.
“Warms my heart to know you’re still clowning around. Humor can’t elude you.”
(Friend from Oregon)
“Richard, here you go again showing us how it’s done! We have always been impressed with your willingness to take a challenge head-on. In the process, you have demonstrated how to make life fun and fulfilling. Magic shows, games, books are just a few of your accomplishments. You are an inspiration and we are watching. Much love!”
(Friend from Utah)
“Dear Richard, I have been procrastinating about writing to you, but, man, you are forcing the issue! We are not quite home from AZ doing a couple of family days in SLC. I get vicariously proud when I see how your grown children are rallying to you at this time. I am also in awe of your strength and resolution. Epicurus would be proud. See you soon with game face on and bearing tales of old… Love you man.”
(Friend from Utah)
We’re on your team, even if we’re having trouble getting out our pom-poms and waving our flags. This is one game we wish you didn’t have to play, but it looks like you’re gonna get on the field and Win Just One for The Gipper! You’re an amazing player Richard. Hear the roar of the crowd as we cheer you on.
Next time I’m gonna post a joke. I promise. LOVE LOVE LOVE!”
(Friend from Oregon)
“Thanks, Tia for your earlier message, telling us who you are! I admit I was among those who didn’t know about the name change and wondered who Tia was. It’s good of you to be keeping all of us who are not in the immediate area informed of Richard’s spirit and health. And many thanks Richard for your long message to me… I will cherish your kind words, and will write more when I get back, in a few days, from this month-long trip to Australia and Indonesia.”
(Friend from Oregon)
“We’ll be there on the 12th with “bells on”, wearing bright cheerful colors, to celebrate the life of a dear man. We have enjoyed your friendship and humor, Richard. Those memories will always be cherished in our household. Peaceful travels, Richard. You’ll go surrounded by love and joy.”
(Friend from Oregon)
The blue glow from the computer highlighted his far-away looks. He wasn’t sad or angry that he was dying. He was surrendered, comfortable, remembering. Although he’d been happy almost the whole time I grew up with him, his current joy had an extra air of innocence. I recognized the same dopamine high that I get from playing Facebook.
He loved the idea of people witnessing him as he prepared to die,
“Fuck the rules — death should be art!”
Having an empowered death was a gift he just had to share.
So with my Dad on the very rim of death — I watched the crackling doorway of the ‘other side’ open up for weeks, while we planned how he would take his lethal medicine, who he wanted to present and when the in-person jokes would be presented, (plus…. of course, his would be the very last joke!)
During those last weeks, I’d tease him, “I’m going to tell you my joke now.”
He’d skritch his face up like I was harming him, “Nooooooooo! Don’t tell me yet, you have to wait till the final hour.”
Which I did. I told my joke 10 minutes before he died, to an audience of eight:
“So… there are these two old men, Abe and Sol, sittin’ on a park bench, feeding pigeons and talking baseball. Abe turns to Sol and asks,
‘Do you think there’s baseball in heaven?’
Sol thinks about it for a minute and replies,
‘I dunno. But let’s make a deal — if I die first, I’ll come back and tell you if there’s baseball in heaven, and if you die first, you do the same.’
They shake on it. Sadly, a few months later, poor Abe passes on. Soon afterward, Sol’s sitting in the park feeding the pigeons by himself hears a voice whisper,
’Sol… Sol… .’
Sol responds, ‘Abe! Is that you?’
’Yeah it is, Sol,’ whispers Abe’s ghost.
Sol, still amazed, asks, ‘So…. is there baseball in heaven?’
’Well,’ says Abe, ‘I’ve got good news and bad news.’
’Gimme the good news first,’ says Sol.
Abe says, ‘Well, yes! There’s baseball in heaven.’
Sol says, ‘That’s great! What news could be bad enough to ruin that?’
Abe sighs and says, ‘Well, you’re pitching on Friday.’”
My dad actually laughed, everyone did — a little bit. It was hard to be funny when the temperature in the room was grief. But it was my dad’s wish. He wanted his last minutes to be playful.
Then it was time, for the grand finale — Dad told his joke. He pulled out the folded paper that he’d tucked into his blanket, and sounding rather official, he read as if he were presenting a formal news report:
“When Apollo Mission Astronaut Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon, he not only gave his famous, ‘One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind’ statement, but followed it by several remarks, including the usual COM traffic between him, the other astronauts, and Mission Control. Before he re-entered the lander, he made the enigmatic remark ‘Good luck, Mr. Gorsky.’
Many people at NASA thought it was a casual remark concerning some rival Soviet cosmonaut. However, upon checking, they found there was no Gorsky in either of the Russian or American space programs.
Over the years, many people have questioned him as to what the ‘Good luck, Mr. Gorsky’ statement meant. On July 5, in Tampa Bay, FL, while answering questions following a speech, a reporter brought up the 26- year-old question to Armstrong. He finally responded. It seems that Mr. Gorsky had died and so Armstrong felt he could answer the question. When he was a kid, Neil was playing baseball with his brother in the backyard. His brother hit a fly ball which landed in front of his neighbors’ bedroom window. The neighbors were Mr. and Mrs. Gorsky. As he leaned down to pick up the ball, he heard Mrs. Gorsky shouting at Mr. Gorsky, ‘Sex? You want sex? You’ll get sex when the kid next door walks on the moon!’”
The whole room burst out laughing. Even my brother, who was in his professional firefighter-paramedic-neutral mode, lost all containment and laughed surprisingly hard.
It was one of those group laughs, where just when you think everyone was finishing up giggling, someone dove deep-in again, and the whole crew laughed hard for another round. The look on Dad’s face was pure satisfaction. He had worked the room, one last time.
It felt weird typing ‘My dad is dead’.
In our culture, it’s seen as rude, crass. It’s impolite to actually say it; we are supposed to just hint at it. But this was the kind of polite bullshit my dad hated. He didn’t like normal manners and Western codes of ethics. That whole upper-echelon thing of eating with the right fork or skipping subjects of conversation to choose an appropriate response bored him. He could always find the button that would irritate someone taking themselves too seriously. He’d break rules, push against the grain, cackling with glee the whole while.
He was dead. And I was breaking social taboos, but also….I was tingling. I was in awe. I could feel a flood of joy for my father. I felt his freedom and his energy exploding all around me. I’ve experienced a few people’s deaths in my life, and noticed there is a consistent theme; if I love someone who dies, part of them explodes inside me when they cross over, like soul fireworks. Their love expands and changes the shape of my heart. I felt this as my father died, and I also felt a torch pass.
I typed the time he died, and the joke he told minutes before death, and in the name of my father, I clicked Post one last time.