Could consciousness all come down to the way things vibrate?

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Why is my awareness here, while yours is over there? Why is the universe split in two for each of us, into a subject and an infinity of objects? How is each of us our own center of experience, receiving information about the rest of the world out there? Why are some things conscious and others apparently not? Is a rat conscious? A gnat? A bacterium?

These questions are all aspects of the ancient “mind-body problem,” which asks, essentially: What is the relationship between mind and matter? It’s resisted a generally satisfying conclusion for thousands of years.

The mind-body problem enjoyed a major rebranding over the last two decades. Now it’s generally known as the “hard problem” of consciousness, after philosopher David Chalmers coined this term in a now classic paper and further explored it in his 1996 book, “The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory.”

Chalmers thought the mind-body problem should be called “hard” in comparison to what, with tongue in cheek, he called the “easy” problems of neuroscience: How do neurons and the brain work at the physical level? Of course they’re not actually easy at all. But his point was that they’re relatively easy compared to the truly difficult problem of explaining how consciousness relates to matter.

Over the last decade, my colleague, University of California, Santa Barbara psychology professor Jonathan Schooler and I have developed what we call a “resonance theory of consciousness.” We suggest that resonance – another word for synchronized vibrations – is at the heart of not only human consciousness but also animal consciousness and of physical reality more generally. It sounds like something the hippies might have dreamed up – it’s all vibrations, man! – but stick with me.

How do things in nature – like flashing fireflies – spontaneously synchronize?

All about the vibrations

All things in our universe are constantly in motion, vibrating. Even objects that appear to be stationary are in fact vibrating, oscillating, resonating, at various frequencies. Resonance is a type of motion, characterized by oscillation between two states. And ultimately all matter is just vibrations of various underlying fields. As such, at every scale, all of nature vibrates.

Something interesting happens when different vibrating things come together: They will often start, after a little while, to vibrate together at the same frequency. They “sync up,” sometimes in ways that can seem mysterious. This is described as the phenomenon of spontaneous self-organization.

Mathematician Steven Strogatz provides various examples from physics, biology, chemistry and neuroscience to illustrate “sync” – his term for resonance – in his 2003 book “Sync: How Order Emerges from Chaos in the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life,” including:

  • When fireflies of certain species come together in large gatherings, they start flashing in sync, in ways that can still seem a little mystifying.
  • Lasers are produced when photons of the same power and frequency sync up.
  • The moon’s rotation is exactly synced with its orbit around the Earth such that we always see the same face.

Examining resonance leads to potentially deep insights about the nature of consciousness and about the universe more generally.

External electrodes can record a brain’s activity.

Sync inside your skull

Neuroscientists have identified sync in their research, too. Large-scale neuron firing occurs in human brains at measurable frequencies, with mammalian consciousness thought to be commonly associated with various kinds of neuronal sync.

For example, German neurophysiologist Pascal Fries has explored the ways in which various electrical patterns sync in the brain to produce different types of human consciousness.

Fries focuses on gamma, beta and theta waves. These labels refer to the speed of electrical oscillations in the brain, measured by electrodes placed on the outside of the skull. Groups of neurons produce these oscillations as they use electrochemical impulses to communicate with each other. It’s the speed and voltage of these signals that, when averaged, produce EEG waves that can be measured at signature cycles per second.

Each type of synchronized activity is associated with certain types of brain function.

Gamma waves are associated with large-scale coordinated activities like perception, meditation or focused consciousness; beta with maximum brain activity or arousal; and theta with relaxation or daydreaming. These three wave types work together to produce, or at least facilitate, various types of human consciousness, according to Fries. But the exact relationship between electrical brain waves and consciousness is still very much up for debate.

Fries calls his concept “communication through coherence.” For him, it’s all about neuronal synchronization. Synchronization, in terms of shared electrical oscillation rates, allows for smooth communication between neurons and groups of neurons. Without this kind of synchronized coherence, inputs arrive at random phases of the neuron excitability cycle and are ineffective, or at least much less effective, in communication.

A resonance theory of consciousness

Our resonance theory builds upon the work of Fries and many others, with a broader approach that can help to explain not only human and mammalian consciousness, but also consciousness more broadly.

Based on the observed behavior of the entities that surround us, from electrons to atoms to molecules, to bacteria to mice, bats, rats, and on, we suggest that all things may be viewed as at least a little conscious. This sounds strange at first blush, but “panpsychism” – the view that all matter has some associated consciousness – is an increasingly accepted position with respect to the nature of consciousness.

The panpsychist argues that consciousness did not emerge at some point during evolution. Rather, it’s always associated with matter and vice versa – they’re two sides of the same coin. But the large majority of the mind associated with the various types of matter in our universe is extremely rudimentary. An electron or an atom, for example, enjoys just a tiny amount of consciousness. But as matter becomes more interconnected and rich, so does the mind, and vice versa, according to this way of thinking.

Biological organisms can quickly exchange information through various biophysical pathways, both electrical and electrochemical. Non-biological structures can only exchange information internally using heat/thermal pathways – much slower and far less rich in information in comparison. Living things leverage their speedier information flows into larger-scale consciousness than what would occur in similar-size things like boulders or piles of sand, for example. There’s much greater internal connection and thus far more “going on” in biological structures than in a boulder or a pile of sand.

Under our approach, boulders and piles of sand are “mere aggregates,” just collections of highly rudimentary conscious entities at the atomic or molecular level only. That’s in contrast to what happens in biological life forms where the combinations of these micro-conscious entities together create a higher level macro-conscious entity. For us, this combination process is the hallmark of biological life.

The central thesis of our approach is this: the particular linkages that allow for large-scale consciousness – like those humans and other mammals enjoy – result from a shared resonance among many smaller constituents. The speed of the resonant waves that are present is the limiting factor that determines the size of each conscious entity in each moment.

As a particular shared resonance expands to more and more constituents, the new conscious entity that results from this resonance and combination grows larger and more complex. So the shared resonance in a human brain that achieves gamma synchrony, for example, includes a far larger number of neurons and neuronal connections than is the case for beta or theta rhythms alone.

What about larger inter-organism resonance like the cloud of fireflies with their little lights flashing in sync? Researchers think their bioluminescent resonance arises due to internal biological oscillators that automatically result in each firefly syncing up with its neighbors.

Is this group of fireflies enjoying a higher level of group consciousness? Probably not, since we can explain the phenomenon without recourse to any intelligence or consciousness. But in biological structures with the right kind of information pathways and processing power, these tendencies toward self-organization can and often do produce larger-scale conscious entities.

Our resonance theory of consciousness attempts to provide a unified framework that includes neuroscience, as well as more fundamental questions of neurobiology and biophysics, and also the philosophy of mind. It gets to the heart of the differences that matter when it comes to consciousness and the evolution of physical systems.

It is all about vibrations, but it’s also about the type of vibrations and, most importantly, about shared vibrations.

Complete Article HERE!

Why we shouldn’t fear dying alone, or monothanatophobia


The sunrise burns off the morning mist over the remains of trenches in the Newfoundland Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel on November 09, 2018 in Albert, France.

by Deirdre Pike

Despite growing up in a death-denying culture, place and time in Canada, pretty long past the days where dead bodies were openly displayed and waked at a family home instead of a funeral home, I have come as far as my 57th year (starting this week) with an openness to conversations about death and dying not normally heard among my peers.

There are many experiences that may have contributed to this. Perhaps being born in November, the Month of the Dead, just two days after Remembrance Day, had an impact. Being named after Ireland’s Deirdre of the Sorrows (not intentionally, my mom assures me) who is said to have died by suicide, perhaps by having her head smashed on a rock by the passing royal chariot (nice touch), may have played a part in my ability to banter about death more freely than others.

Becoming a Catholic, when I was 15, introduced me to ways of ritualizing death and praying for the dead just in time to help me cope with the deaths of seven of my high school peers in three separate car accidents and my stepbrother’s death by suicide a year later.

I also credit my love of excellent rock music for giving me a healthy outlook on death. Take Pink Floyd, for instance.

“And I am not frightened of dying, any time will do, I don’t mind. Why should I be frightened of dying? There’s no reason for it, you’ve gotta go sometime.”

Lying in bed (just like Brian Wilson did) as a teenager, falling asleep, high, with giant headphones blasting these lyrics into my brain, coupled with Trooper’s, “We’re here for a good time, not a long time,” has pretty much described my approach to death, and therefore life, or my approach to life, and therefore death.

It’s that approach, 14 years of parish ministry and more that I have been bringing to what’s called a “Social Innovation Lab.” In this case, the laboratory includes 25 or so palliative care clinicians, social activists, consumers, policy and system leaders, health care leaders and change agents from across Canada to concentrate for six solid days on one question: “How can we change the culture of our health system so the palliative approach, which creates a truly person-centred system, becomes the norm across the whole system?”

This “Palliative Care and Complexity Science Laboratory” is what brought me to be sitting in a circle of a dozen or so residents from a local seniors’ apartment building with three palliative care doctors, discussing monothanatophobia — the fear of dying alone. Although the word itself was brand new to me and all of the people who accepted our invitation to come and discuss it, the concept wasn’t.

We chose our topic after reading about the man who died alone in Hamilton’s social housing recently and went undiscovered for a couple of days before a woman below found some of his remains leaking into her apartment. Nobody wants that to be the story of their last days alive — or dead — on Earth.

There is strong evidence to show why we need to be more intentional about building community now and in the days ahead. Data about living situations from the 2016 Canadian census show for the first time that the number of one-person households has surpassed all other types of living situations. More than a quarter of all households were people living alone.

Applying the principles of palliative care means having conversations about living, not dying. It’s more than making sure community exists to support people in their final days of life. It’s also making sure people are connected while they’re living in a way that respects privacy yet decreases social isolation so no one dies alone.

One great read I recommend on the topic of death and dying is “Talking About Death Won’t Kill You,” by Dr. Kathy Kortes-Miller.

With an essential chapter for anyone on social media called, “Posting, Tweeting and Texting: Dying in a Digital World,” I urge you to make this a holiday gift to your family so you can “out” the conversation of death and dying to make it, as Kortes-Miller says, a logical extension of our living.”

Complete Article HERE!

Death’s a party

At monthly mortuary gatherings, Grass Valley duo the Posy-Filled Pockets encourage mortals to look forward to their last breath

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I’m uncomfortable with death. A staunch atheist who grew up Christian, I used to believe heaven or hell awaited me on the other side. It took years of anxiety attacks and therapy to come to terms with mortality, with there being nothing afterward, and I find peace by not thinking about it.

But tonight, the whole point is to think about it. The mortician warns us that at any moment, someone’s dead body could interrupt the show. Even mine.

Tim Lilyquist coolly gives the omen to the 25 or so seated at the Chapel of Angels Mortuary in Grass Valley. His death-positivity group Posy-Filled Pockets is just beginning its October presentation. The projector screen reads: “Death. Everyone’s doing it.”

It’s not like we’ll see a literal dead body (though if we hear commotion in the back, Lilyquist says it could be because of that). A fresh corpse would remind us that, even though we’re all here to laugh, learn and contemplate our unexistence, death strikes at any time. Tonight’s topic of discussion: the afterlife.

Lilyquist and founder Rachel James open the night by defining death positivity, which boils down to allowing death to be a part of everyday conversation, even if it’s scary.

“Death is something our culture is extremely weird about,” James told SN&R. “We don’t talk about it, we don’t plan for it, and anyone interested in it is considered morbid or weird when it is the only personal experience besides birth really that we all have.”

Four speakers gave talks that were funny, morbid and informative. One made a case that seances, mummies and telephones were ways humans tried to call up the dead. Another theorized that water is a parasite that infects and animates our otherwise lifeless bodies. She used The Stuff as a metaphor. In the ‘80s B-horror movie, railroad workers discover a tasty, yogurt-like substance growing out of the ground, which they package and sell like hotcakes. It turns out, it’s alive and mass-consumes its consumers. To add to the strangeness, she offered everyone water before she started. Sneaky!

In the modest church space, it felt somewhere between awkward youth group night, lo-fi Ted Talk and a giggling gathering of goths. But it’s more than that. At the front of the show, James told the crowd that the talks are meant to lure you into the workshops—the less peculiar part of the project—where they help people with more pragmatic issues related to death, including how to create a living will, who to call first when a loved one passes, and eco-alternatives to embalming. You know, stuff we should be planning for, but our culture’s aversion to death gets in the way.

Posy-Filled Pockets cofounder Tim Lilyquist found his calling as a mortician.

Several recent studies confirm this. One in 2017 by caring.com showed that only four out of 10 Americans have a trust or living will. A 2013 survey by the Institute of Medicine showed that 90 percent of Americans thought it was important to have end-of-life discussions with their loved ones, but only 30 percent did. And a 2013 Pew Research Center report showed that 47 percent of Americans have experienced a death in their lives.

If listening to macabre presentations softens people enough to start planning for death in a responsible way, then James says she feels like she’s succeeded.

Though Posy-Filled Pockets started in 2016, it went on hiatus that year when James found out that her father was diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer. His death, and her similar diagnosis a year earlier, made much of what she advocates become crystal clear.

DEADx Talks

Death positivity is now a national movement. One of its most prominent figures is Caitlin Doughty, a mortician who wrote a morbidly funny memoir titled Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and founded the death acceptance organization called Order of the Good Death, which shares death-positive content online and hosts similar gatherings to Posy-Filled Pockets.

James was one of the first people to join the Order. At the time, she was the editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, an offbeat travel site with her own personal focus often being on death-related destinations, like an abandoned brothel in Lassen County that is rumored to be haunted.

“I’ve always been drawn to [death], and I think for most of us who are in the death industry, it’s because we experienced death in early age or had an experience that left us with a lot of questions,” James says.

In 2015, James’ surprise breast cancer diagnosis led her to move back to

Cofounder Rachel James, one of the first to join the Order of the Good Death, was a travel writer and editor for an obscure travel magazine called Atlas Obscura.

Grass Valley, her hometown. She put writing on hold and got a double mastectomy while in her second trimester with her now 3-year-old son.

She’s in remission now. The experience was shocking, but James says it showed her death wasn’t an abstract concept.

“I had never thought about a [living will], or anything like that,” James says. “How can I be so involved in this topic and still not have thought about the practicalities of it for myself? It kind of got me more serious about the topic.”

Later that year, she met Lilyquist. As a kid, he imagined himself as a homicide detective, but with no real interest in law enforcement and a dead-pan sense of humor, it transmuted into death industry work, which he’s happy doing. He says he enjoys the questions folks have regarding his career choice, like what happens in the cremation process.

“Once I started working at the mortuary, I saw how widespread it was that people considered death a taboo subject,” Lilyquist explains. “Especially the topic of grief. It definitely helped expose me to a greater variety of how it’s affecting people.”

James insisted that he co-host a death-themed monthly event that was distinctly Grass Valley. The initial Posy-Filled Pockets was a success, something James wasn’t sure about at first, since the Nevada County small town is no Los Angeles or San Francisco, where similar Death Salons are sometimes held at convention centers.

Lo-fi elements are part of its charm. Many of the speakers aren’t professionals, including Courtney Williams, who’s spoken twice at Posy-Filled Pockets. Once about how “fashion kills” (about people wearing dresses dyed with arsenic, for instance) and a second time about her ex-husband’s suicide.

“People are normally uncomfortable in mortuaries,” Williams says. “You think it’s probably an awkward conversation so maybe people won’t be raising their hands and laughing about stuff. People were really engaging with the information, which was surprising to me.”

In 2019, Posy-Filled Pockets have several themed events and workshops lined up, a new website, new speakers and a podcast in the works. Lilyquist and James are resurrecting their efforts to get people talking about death.

But after watching Posy-Filled Pocket’s presentation, I realized that death-positivity isn’t just about thinking about the end; It’s about cracking jokes, finding weird stories to spin and studying all the oddball edges of this scary seemingly straight-forward topic, and having fun with something we are told is in no ways fun.

It is pretty strange that we all eventually cease to exist one day, and why not celebrate that? My dog, who’s blissfully unaware of death, will never know the joy of laughing at her mortality.

Complete Article HERE!

How death disappeared from Halloween

Americans tend to avoid opportunities to engage with their own mortality

“Trick-or-treating was a way of buying kids off,” says author Lisa Morton.

By Vittoria Elliott and Kevin McDonald

Halloween in America is awfully cute these days — both in the sense that children’s costumes have reached unimaginable heights of adorability and that the holiday has lost its darkness — and that’s rather awful.

Sexy avocado costumes obscure the holiday’s historical roots and the role it once played in allowing people to engage with mortality. What was once a spiritual practice, like so much else, has become largely commercial. While there is nothing better than a baby dressed as a Gryffindor, Halloween is supposed to be about death, a subject Americans aren’t particularly good at addressing. And nowhere is that more evident than in the way we celebrate (or don’t celebrate) Halloween.

Halloween has its origins in the first millennium A.D. in the Celtic Irish holiday Samhain. According to Lisa Morton, author of “Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween,” Samhain was a New Year’s celebration held in the fall, a sort of seasonal acknowledgment of the annual change from a season of life to one of death. The Celts used Samhain celebrations to settle debts, thin their herds of livestock and appease the spirits: the kinds of preparations one might make if they are genuinely unsure whether they will survive the winter.

But in America today, that kind of acknowledgment of imminent mortality rarely occurs, according to Anita Hannig, an anthropologist and professor at Brandeis University. “When we recognize our mortality, we make preparations for it,” she says, mentioning a Romanian acquaintance who had bought their grandmother a coffin for her birthday. “But in the U.S., that kind of engagement is seen as almost frivolous.”

But what could be less frivolous than talking about a wholly universal experience?

“Every other culture has a time set aside during the year where the dead visit,” said Sarah Chavez, executive director of the Order of the Good Death, a group of funeral industry professionals, academics and artists devoted to preparing a “death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” Part of the power of these rituals is to make death into a known quantity, something to be accepted, even embraced, rather than feared.

When Roman Christian missionaries began to convert the Celtic peoples, local holidays were not banished, but rather co-opted. All Saints’ Day, formerly celebrated in mid-May, was moved to Nov. 1 as a way to tame the wild Celtic tradition of Samhain. All Saints’ Day is a celebration of all the dead who have attained heaven in the Catholic tradition, a death-centric celebration if there ever was one.

But the rowdiness of Samhain proved difficult to dislodge, according to Morton, so the Catholic Church tacked on All Souls’ day on Nov. 2, to offer prayers for those who were stuck in purgatory. This three-day celebration began on the evening of Oct. 31, eventually becoming All Hallows’ Evening in reference to the holy days to follow.

When the Spanish colonized what is now Mexico, they used the same strategy, taking indigenous rituals and co-opting them into the church, creating what we know today as Día de los Muertos. In both instances, the holidays retained their focus on the ritualistic recognition of mortality and honoring the dead, with the church as arbiter of the afterlife.

Halloween arrived in the United States in the 1840s, brought by Irish and Scottish immigrants fleeing famine. Popular activities included fortunetelling, speaking with the dead and other forms of divination. (To get a sense of how uncomfortable many Americans are with the dead, try this at your next Halloween party and see what kinds of looks you get.)

Catholic-infused Halloween and Samhain shared several similarities with Día de los Muertos. They were both feast days, filled with candles and a reverence for the dead. The traditional sugar skulls, or calaveras, are similar to Halloween’s “soul cakes,” sweet treats people would offer in exchange for prayers for dead relatives languishing in purgatory.

The calavera tradition remains in the modern form of Día de los Muertos, but in the United States, soul cakes have all but vanished. We now have trick-or-treating, a tradition borne purely out of concerns for the living. In the early part of the 20th century, destructive young pranksters would take full advantage of Halloween, vandalizing and destroying property.

“It was costing cities a lot of money,” says Morton. Instead of banning the holiday altogether, neighborhoods banded together to host parties and give out snacks. “Trick-or-treating was a way of buying kids off.”

Similar to how Halloween has drifted from death ritual to doorbell ringing, modern American engagements with death have changed from up close to a culture of avoidance.

In a lot of ways, Halloween in the United States “mirrors our experience with death directly,” says Chavez.

“We used to take care of our dead in our homes — people used to die at home. We took care of our loved ones, dug their graves. We were there through the entire process. We have no idea what death looks like anymore,” she says. And that ignorance breeds fear, uncertainty and avoidance.

Today, about 80 percent of people die in a hospital or a nursing home. Hannig calls these “institutional deaths,” and they’re just one part of how modern death has been sanitized and sequestered away from the world of the living.

“The responsibilities of death have been outsourced,” she says, adding that hospitals and the mortuary industry allow ordinary people to avoid engagement with the messiness and gruesomeness of death.

“When someone dies in a hospital, oftentimes the body will be whisked away almost immediately and family and friends won’t see it again until after it’s been embalmed.”

And it’s not just dying that modern America is losing touch with; it’s death rituals as well. As the United States becomes increasingly secular, religion’s role in making meaning out of death has shrunk. According to Hannig’s research, memorial services are becoming less and less common, and a collective honoring of the dead — something like All Souls’ Day — is practically nonexistent.

Hannig pointed out that in many other cultures, death is a community affair and something people prepare for together. In certain Buddhist communities in Nepal, for instance, when someone dies they will be surrounded by their loved ones and valued possessions to make sure they don’t have any longed-for attachment tying them to life. It’s a way for both parties — the dying and the living — to accept and let go.

Instead, modern Halloween focuses on the creepy and the capitalistic. “We consume death in a commercialized, entertainment way,” says Chavez. By making death fantastical, we make it feel almost impossible, and therefore less threatening. “We know that a zombie movie isn’t realistic. It’s all a way that we can reassure ourselves that we are safe and it won’t happen to us.”

But haunted attractions, horror films and safety from zombies haven’t made us less afraid of death. If anything, by continuing to keep death at a distance, we transform it into an unknown: possibly the scariest thing of all.

Dia de los Muertos (Day Of The Dead) 2018

More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death.

It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate.

A ritual known today as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

The ritual is celebrated in Mexico and certain parts of the United States. Although the ritual has since been merged with Catholic theology, it still maintains the basic principles of the Aztec ritual, such as the use of skulls.

Today, people don wooden skull masks called calacas and dance in honor of their deceased relatives. The wooden skulls are also placed on altars that are dedicated to the dead. Sugar skulls, made with the names of the dead person on the forehead, are eaten by a relative or friend, according to Mary J. Adrade, who has written three books on the ritual.

The Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations kept skulls as trophies and displayed them during the ritual. The skulls were used to symbolize death and rebirth.

The skulls were used to honor the dead, whom the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed came back to visit during the monthlong ritual.

Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.

“The pre-Hispanic people honored duality as being dynamic,” said Christina Gonzalez, senior lecturer on Hispanic issues at Arizona State University. “They didn’t separate death from pain, wealth from poverty like they did in Western cultures.”

However, the Spaniards considered the ritual to be sacrilegious. They perceived the indigenous people to be barbaric and pagan.

In their attempts to convert them to Catholicism, the Spaniards tried to kill the ritual.

But like the old Aztec spirits, the ritual refused to die.

To make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved it so it coincided with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 1 and 2), which is when it is celebrated today.

Previously it fell on the ninth month of the Aztec Solar Calendar, approximately the beginning of August, and was celebrated for the entire month. Festivities were presided over by the goddess Mictecacihuatl. The goddess, known as “Lady of the Dead,” was believed to have died at birth, Andrade said.

Today, Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico and in certain parts of the United States and Central America.

“It’s celebrated different depending on where you go,” Gonzalez said.

In rural Mexico, people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried. They decorate gravesites with marigold flowers and candles. They bring toys for dead children and bottles of tequila to adults. They sit on picnic blankets next to gravesites and eat the favorite food of their loved ones.

In Guadalupe, the ritual is celebrated much like it is in rural Mexico.

“Here the people spend the day in the cemetery,” said Esther Cota, the parish secretary at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. “The graves are decorated real pretty by the people.”

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A Working Class Death

By CARRIE LA SEUR

Your dad is dying. You’ve known it for months but the nurse is serious tonight when she calls and asks you to come sit with him in his narrow room at the veterans’ home. He’s in the later stages of congestive heart failure, complicated by diabetes, obesity, gout, prostate problems, and whatever other trouble years of poor diet, little exercise, long work hours, and minimal health care will get you. That he held out until age seventy is a little medical miracle and not much credit to the VA, which can’t keep track of his records.

You keep track of his records.

He’s propped up in pajamas on rough white sheets, working for each breath. You swab his mouth as it hangs open, showing discolored and misplaced teeth he never could afford to fix. His skin is mottled both from age and the cystic acne that’s plagued him all his life. An oxygen tube would help but he’s asked for no interventions, no heroics. That’s the Dad you remember, the long-suffering Marine who was proud to serve when his number came up. He finished basic at the head of his platoon. Now he takes chronic pain as another heavy pack to carry, mile after mile.

Your brother would like to be here but he’s at work on the West Coast and can’t afford time off. It’s a theme in your family, not having money for things that are important. Your parents divorced fifteen years ago when Dad lost his job as a grocery buyer and took one in another state with worse hours, conditions, and pay—managing a convenience store, a humiliation he carried in his posture, soldier straight until then. Enough, your mother said. She’d followed him on a trail of nowhere cities and inadequate employment that would end with her solitary stand in a cold, dusty Northern Plains town you couldn’t get out of fast enough.

Your dad barely opens his eyes but reaches to grasp your hand. Although you’re a grown woman and a lawyer with an urgent case file to read at midnight by his bedside, you’re still his little girl, the proof that he did something right. He didn’t drink like his dad. He didn’t hit you more than the occasional spanking. He didn’t leave. His greatest parenting accomplishments are acts of omission, but there are also affirmative acts of love. He stopped smoking when you were born. He taught you to ride your bike, drive, fish, salute, hit hard from an unexpected angle, and fight back against anyone who looked down on you.

He taught you that people will look down on you, but he didn’t mean to. He knows no other way to see the world. You’re ashamed to remember the times you’ve been ashamed of him—for his thin short sleeve dress shirts, his fast food gut, the way he picks his teeth with his pocket knife and quotes country music lyrics—because he’s always been so proud of you. He achieved what no one in his family ever had: he got a college degree. Sure, he almost flunked out, pool sharking to make ends meet where the GI Bill didn’t quite cover the needs of a family, but he graduated when neither of his parents finished eighth grade. You suspect that you have no idea how hard that really was.

“How’d you get a woman like her to marry someone like you?” a colleague asked him at a work dinner once when your mom wore her one string of fake pearls and a little black dress that made her look like Jackie O. The story hung on in the family for years, a pretty compliment to her, embedded with the kind of put-down he absorbed all his life. With his bottle-bottom glasses, bad skin, bad teeth, cheap suit, and shaggy haircut, he makes a terrible first impression, a walking sitcom punch line, and he knows it. He’s also funny and a good singer and can be kind if he isn’t provoked, but most people wouldn’t take the time to know him that well.

It took adulthood to make you wonder how he stumbled so badly when it came to solidifying his place in the middle class. For a while you thought it was his unique failings, an inability to assimilate, and surely appearance and social skills are part of the story. Then you began to look around you in towns like those you grew up in and saw that his appearance was nothing unusual. It’s the look of people who have zero disposable income to spend on themselves, especially the men, who wash their hair with a bar of soap, brush their teeth, and rush to work in whatever’s clean. It’s the outward appearance of poverty.

You know the careful visual distinctions we make in this country. “Dress like the job you want” also means “if you can’t dress and groom that way, good luck getting that job.” You’re your father’s daughter, so you grok the penalty of dressing the wrong way, but you’re also uneasy with passing as upper class no matter what your education and salary. The working class made you and at some fundamental level you’re loyal to it. The reflexive mockery of the people you come from by the people around you bites every time. And when Hannibal Lecter says to Clarice Starling, “You’re just one generation removed from poor white trash”—oh, you feel that. You know the gaze the monster turns on her. You’ve spent years avoiding it.

But in your father’s prime working years, the seventies through the nineties, larger forces were massing against Americans who grew up poor, believing in the bootstrap dream. Wages stagnated then shuffled into a decided downward trend. He got minimal raises and tiny bonuses, never grossing over $30,000 a year. There was no pension. He cashed out his IRA to put a down payment on a house after the divorce. Like tens of millions of Americans, you had no dental coverage growing up and learned to brush and floss compulsively while your dad paid for his root canal out of his own pocket.

You have dental insurance now.

He never did.

In many ways you’re exceptional among not just your family but your generation. You’ve risen above your origins while others, including family members, have fallen back even from their own highest social standing. The single-wide trailer house you moved your dad out of when his health failed was an anchor and an oracle. It said, “Don’t get too high and mighty. You could wind up here too.” Yet even as he experienced the setbacks that have turned many white men bitter and angry—and there was bitterness and anger enough—your dad hasn’t turned against his class. He’s a yellow dog Democrat who’s voted and argued all his life for the honor and rights of the working man, the laborer, the veteran against forces that would crush them.

And now he’s dying. You should have done better for him, found other doctors, spent more time, but you were working long hours at the firm. You have a child of your own. You had so little to give after all he gave you, and that’s the way of your family, too—never enough to go around. Never enough self-esteem or social capital, never enough sanity or sobriety, never enough love, because even though you were loved, the greeting card trope is true: to love someone else, you have to love yourself first. Your dad loved you as best he could, but his real gift was the sense of inadequacy that drives you.

He won’t let go of your hand. He’s waited for this night, you realize, when you’d be here and he could die holding his little girl’s hand, accompanied into the unknown. He doesn’t want to die alone, so you stay as hours pass, testimony blurs before your eyes, and the hard chair hurts your back and legs. His breaths rasp. If you look up you can follow each one, the inflation of blue-veined, hollowed cheeks, the rise of gown and blanket, parched lips you moisten with a sponge on a lollipop stick.

There’s a little gasp, and then silence. He’s not hooked up to machines so you have to stand over him to be sure that no breath or heartbeat stirs him. His eyes opened at the end, facing death with a brave heart, you imagine. You put your hand on his eyelids like they do in police dramas and shut them. You kiss his cheek and say, “Goodbye, Daddy.”

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More to dying than meets the eye

Those who work with dying people are familiar with patients seeing long deceased loved ones, angelic beings, even hearing music and comforting voices as the patient nears death. Deathbed phenomena have been documented in the days, weeks, and months before death since the 1500s. Often confused with hallucinations, deathbed phenomena can bring comfort to patients and caregivers if those involved know what they are experiencing. This talk will explain deathbed phenomena and present on-going research about the topic. Accounts from the dying and bedside witnesses will be shared.