Haven’t had one of these in a long time.
Life’s end is a conversation-starter at Betsy Trapasso’s Topanga Canyon home, where there is no point of view beyond the broad notion that death deserves discourse.
BY NITA LELYVELD
If you’re going to talk about a subject most people don’t want to talk about, why not do so over tea and cake and cookies?
Why not gather in a sunny living room looking out on a lush tangle of green, where you can watch the breeze ruffle the leaves on the trees as you eat forkfuls of blueberry tart?
This is what Betsy Trapasso thinks. This is why she’s asked friends to come — why on a Sunday afternoon, they’ve braved Topanga Canyon’s twists and turns and climbed the dozens of wooden steps to her end-of-a-rural-road front door.
Together, they will make history at Los Angeles’ first Death Cafe.
Ever since a fellow named Jon Underwood held his first Death Cafe a year and a half ago in the basement of his London home, they’ve been popping up all over the globe.
His website lists numerous U.S. outcroppings — in Gig Harbor, Wash., and Searsport, Me.; in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Cleveland.
There’s no agenda. No profit motive. No point of view beyond broad notions: that death deserves discourse, and that facing it without angst can help people live their lives more fully.
“It’s not a support group. It’s not a grief group,” Trapasso says. “My whole thing is to get people talking about it so they’re not afraid when the time comes.”
To her house come an eclectic bunch, including a graphic artist, a psychologist, a film director, an LAPD sergeant and an actor/producer who wishes to remain anonymous and carries his white Maltese, Blossom, in his shoulder bag.
They gather in a loose circle — on a couch, in chairs, on the floor.
Trapasso is lithe, with flowing brown hair, a moon face and large, intense blue eyes. When she was a baby, those eyes won her the nickname “Spooky,” which stuck.
With those eyes, her friends say, the end-of-life guide is able to ease people’s last moments on Earth.
Because this is Topanga, Trapasso bangs a drum to begin the discussion. Then she passes around a vial of lavender oil and asks people to breathe it in deeply and relax.
Death makes people nervous. Trapasso understands this.
But death has been her life.
The first U.S. hospice, she tells her friends, came to her hometown of Branford, Conn., in 1974. Her grandfather, as mayor, pushed for it and took Trapasso to meetings.
She came west to USC to get her master’s in social work. After graduating, with a Thomas Guide in her lap, she learned Los Angeles — “every neighborhood and every culture and every race, the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor”— by bringing comfort to the dying as a hospice social worker.
“The first person I ever saw dead was my grandmother,” says Dori Fisher. “She never wore makeup, but she was all made up and she was wearing something she would never wear. I said: ‘That’s not my grandmother.'” (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times) More photos
Now, she says, she wants to retrace that journey, carrying with her to venues all over L.A. a profound, floating conversation.
Trapasso says she also plans to make a documentary on how other cultures integrate death into life.
One of her partners, Leszek Burzynski, a British-born director, says America needs to learn to do this better.
“In a funny way, in our culture death is seen as a postscript, whereas in other cultures death is seen as a chapter in a continuation.”
That’s a problem, says Trapasso’s roommate, Jane Plotkin — a former marriage and family therapist who says she became a clairaudient, hearing voices from beyond, after a “major visionary experience.”
“There are so many people who live in fear of death, and that’s one of the reasons we have such a youth-obsessed culture and a culture that turns away from aging.”
The way we die is about to change, Burzynski says. He’s convinced of it.
Aging baby boomers will demand better options, and they know how to get things done.
His mother, he says, grew up in a village. As a girl, she helped wash and lay out the bodies of the dead.
Most deaths used to be at home, he says. Now that’s rare.
“We all want to make a good death. If you ask anybody, ‘How do you want to die?’ they’ll say, ‘In the bosom of my family, with my friends around.’ They don’t say, ‘In a hospital bed with tubes coming out of my nose and my ears, in a semi-coma — that’s my perfect death.'”
Plotkin describes her mother’s “grueling, grueling” end, on a respirator.
If one day she finds out she is dying, she says, she wants to choose when and “have some help to let go.”
Jane Plotkin says that if one day she finds out she is dying, she wants to choose when and “have some help to let go.”
“I’d like to have a few of my friends and be able to say all the things I’m grateful for in my life and thank everyone and end on a good note.”
Why are the odds stacked against getting to determine our own goodbyes?
Dori Fisher, the graphic artist, says seeing her first body terrified her.
Grandma never wore makeup or lipstick. That person in the satin-lined box looked like an over-decorated cake.
“I think that dying is as individual as living. And that’s what we don’t take into consideration,” she says. “Everybody should be able to die in the way that they want to, maybe as they lived.”
The volatility of grief, the way the young feel invincible, the heartbreaking loss of pets who loved unconditionally.
Life and death, death and life. The conversation slides easily back and forth between the two.
Live fully, says Trapasso. Why have regrets? She’s known many a dying person who felt smothered by them.
They gave her advice.
If you don’t like your job, quit. If you don’t like the person you’re with, leave that person.
Travel now. Don’t wait for later.
And don’t let anyone stop you from living the life you want.
For more than an hour, Fisher’s husband, Ron, stays silent — until someone addresses him directly.
As an LAPD sergeant, he must see death all the time. How was he trained to deal with it?
He wasn’t, he replies, unless you count learning “to fill out information in boxes” on a death report.
And then he starts talking — about death that comes violently, about wishing he knew how to help the ones left behind, how to console without internalizing the pain so much “that I start turning into a glob of goo.”
One day in East L.A., a big rig was waiting at a light. The light turned green. The truck moved forward.
The driver was too high up to see the lady crossing against the signal, pushing her grandson in a cart.
She tried to shove the boy out of the way. The cart fell under the truck’s front wheel.
She was unhurt. Her grandson was crushed.
Fisher and other officers held up sheets to shield the view from the public as the coroner removed what remained of the child.
“So there’s that image ingrained in your head forever,” he says. “How do you deal with that?”
“Well, I think you’re doing it right now,” says Richard Riemer, a psychologist, as other call out, “Yes,” “Yes, you are.”
Death can come suddenly. Dwelling on it can seem dark.
But it’s still bright out when L.A.’s first Death Cafe winds down after more than two hours.
There’s still cake, and people congregate near the kitchen counter — smiling, laughing.
Enough talk of endings.
They start to leave, making their way down the stairs.
The leaves rustle, the air feels fresh and there is life to be lived.
Complete Article HERE!
“I see friends’ spouses die,” a husband writes, “and it scares me. Losing my wife is my biggest fear.”
By CONOR FRIEDERSDORF
My article “Is My Marriage That Different from My Grandparents Marriage?” solicited email from older, married readers willing to describe the institution as they see it. What follows is one of several responses I’d like to share. Another is here. I’d love to read more responses, especially from women, who’ve yet to send any. They can be emailed to the address at the bottom of the item.
The reader writes:
My wife and I were born the same year during the Great Depression. We married at 19. We are still married and very much loving partners. Even though intercourse has gradually gone away, intimacy hasn’t.
Would we have married later had attitudes toward sex been different? Perhaps. I am sure that mattered. I remember being refused condoms when I tried to buy them at the small town drug store where my college was located.
We have five children.
Like many in her generation, my wife stayed home with the kids till the last one was in school. She then completed her BA and MA degrees and had a very successful career. As an academic who came on the market during a time of educator shortage, I had the opportunity to move easily. I changed high school jobs three times before moving to complete my Ph.D. After that, we moved five times for professional reasons. The last, from abroad back to the U.S., was to follow a professional opportunity for my wife. We had moved abroad partly because she was unhappy at her job. In her late fifties, a foreign adventure also seemed attractive, and the salary was high.
We have an old fashioned division of labor. She does most of the cooking and house work. I manage the family finances and budgets. We do have a twice weekly cleaning person who does the heavy stuff. We also eat out four or five times a week. We travel three months each year, and I do all the planning and arranging for that.
What 4 Decades of Marriage Taught a Grateful Husband
How is our generation’s notion of marriage different? First, we expected to stay married. We would have never thought about it not working out. Second, we didn’t think about individual payoffs, but about being part of a unit, a family. We planned together and talked over any decision about what we did and where we went. I remember teaching a public speaking class and hearing, for the first time, a young woman speak about Betty Friedan and the need for woman to find fulfillment. I went home and asked my wife and her friend, also a young mother, if they were fulfilled. They laughed and said they were too busy to think about it. I don’t think a young woman now would say that.
I wasn’t thinking about fulfillment either. I had a career to build and a family to support. I never asked whether I was getting more personally out of our marriage than I was putting in. That too is a more contemporary thought. We were a unit, a family. Our fulfillment was joint. That continued after the kids were gone.
Prior to the pill, kids came when they did. Planning children wasn’t the way it is now. The diaphragm wasn’t a very good method of birth control. Our kids came within a dozen years. I often wonder how my wife managed to do what she did during those days. I always came home, but I was also focused on getting ahead professionally. We ate dinner as a family and did lots of things as a family. We played games. We sang as we drove places. A lot of the “Father Knows Best” things.
As an aside: as part of my academic work, I read of a focus group of inner city kids in Miami. They expected to die very young. They also used Saran Wrap as protection during intercourse. The researcher showed them old “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It To Beaver” shows. They liked what they saw because they said it would be so safe.
I can’t imagine how awful it would be, as I experience the inevitable physical changes of aging, to be doing it alone. In a short play I recently wrote, one old man says to another, “Morning stiffness doesn’t mean what it used to.” The other replies “Neither does get up and go.” We share so much history. We do little things for one another. I rub her feet; she trims my toe nails. We also share so many little jokes. It is impossible to tell anyone how often, just eating breakfast or driving to the store, we find ourselves laughing at something together. I see friends’ spouses die, and it scares me. Losing my wife is my biggest fear. I’m not sure how I would go on with out her. I don’t understand what it would be like to live alone without someone to talk to and chuckle with.
Warm good wishes,
[name withheld on request]
p.s. If I didn’t say in the original that I love her deeply, you might add that. Young folks need to know that love can continue and grow. I’ve written a couple of plays where the lovers are no longer kids. It’s amusing when young people, despite the evidence of their own existence, don’t think their parents know about love and sex.
Complete Article HERE!