About 20 years ago, Ed, my therapist, who was also a Tibetan Buddhist lama, assured me that the next big thing in my life would be my death. I have outlived him by more than two decades. Now, at the age of 81, I feel closer to dying and death than ever before and more anxious, too, about what the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, called “the dying of the light.” Though my death is as certain as my birth, I don’t know when, where, why, or how I will die. I do know the "who" part.
The memorial for the lama/ therapist, who combined spirituality and psychology, took place in an amphitheater on the campus of the Santa Rosa Junior College. Members of the ashram spoke as did the therapist’s patients. Some of us, including me, were both.
One man explained that he had been terrified by the thought that the world was ending. The therapist/Buddhist told him, “It is ending,” and laughed. Ed often wore a smile or a smirk on his face. He never gave me advice or suggested what I might do when it came to my third marriage, which took place in Texas in 2000 to a 50 year-old woman who had never left Texas. I took the silence in his office as a sign of disapproval. I should have listened to his unspoken words.
Twenty-two months after I married the Texan, I filed for divorce; the legal process took longer than the time we actually lived together. I remember that my friend, Timothy, told me at a party for a newly married couple, “Divorce is worse than death.” Well, not really, but it can feel like a close encounter with death.
Now, I’m slowly divorcing myself from my life, or maybe it’s divorcing me, all the while that I am engaging with life in San Francisco, which became my new home about 30 months ago. It seems as good a place to die as any other. I’m still adjusting to the rhythms of city life, making new friends, exploring neighborhoods on foot, exercising on the campus of the University of San Francisco (USF), and checking out places for elders to live and die with some grace and dignity, and money, too.
Some are called assisted living communities; they include Coterie, the Carlisle, the Ivy at Golden Gate and Buena Vista Manor House. Some seem like nursing homes for the aged who have lost most of their memories and are waiting to die. Others, which are way more expensive, seem like elite country clubs. The food can be as tasty as any at an upscale restaurant.
I don’t want to move into one of them now, but sooner or later I will have to accept the inevitable; give up my one-bedroom apartment at Ocean Beach and enter the last phase of my life in a world where I won’t have to shop, cook, wash dishes and clean floors and tables. I will also be able to take part in group activities—watch movies, play cards, discuss current events and more. I probably won’t be lonely, though I have been lonely in some crowds.
George Orwell, the author of Animal Farm and 1984, once said “hospitals are ante-chambers to the grave.” Go into a hospital for a serious condition and the chances are you won’t walk out on your own two feet. The assisted living spaces, also known as “senior living experiences,” strike me as comfortable ante-chambers to the grave.
If I were to move to Coterie, I would probably have the illusion that mine was a wonderful life and that I would go on living happily ever after. Thinking about Coterie and its sister spaces means thinking about money; how much I have and how much I can spend. One fear is that I’ll run out of money, have to leave Coterie, and die in the streets of the Tenderloin where drug addicts die regularly.
Directors of sales and marketing pressure me to make up my mind. “Don’t tough it out,” one said. I told him “I’m not ready.” I’ll go on living in my one-bedroom apartment, attend Spanish class at San Francisco Village, plunge into the pool at USF for the water aerobics and watch the Niners on a big screen in a local bar.
My advice to those who are on the way down and out: Don't go into a senior living space until you’re ready. Your body will tell you when. Trust yourself. And as the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, exclaimed, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” He added “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”