©Elisa Salasin, 2014

©Elisa Salasin, 2014


Speaking of heaven—we were, weren’t we?—everybody in this room believes there is one and that they will go there when they die. They also believe that beloved family members who have passed will be there waiting for them. “Did you see that movie?” asks Barbara. The movie is Heaven Is For Real and purports to be the true story of a boy who, while under anesthesia for a surgical procedure, goes to heaven and sees Jesus. When he wakes, he tells people of his experience; the rest of the movie is people coming to believe him. “It’s a true story,” says Barbara. From the other side of the table, Lorraine agrees. “I liked it,” she says.

I have not seen the movie nor do I intend to. Neither do I believe in heaven. I may be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I may not be old enough for a death café.

According to the web, Death Café is provided by Impermanance, “a not-for-profit social enterprise that undertakes innovative work around death and dying.”   It lists the following objectives:

At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death.

Our objective is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’.

A Death Cafe is a group directed discussion of death with no agenda, objectives or themes. It is a discussion group rather than a grief support or counselling session.

Our Death Cafes are always offered:

– On a not for profit basis

– In an accessible, respectful and confidential space

– With no intention of leading people to any conclusion, product or course of action

– Alongside refreshing drinks and nourishing food – and cake!

A recent calculation estimates that death cafes number 760 in 18 countries.

This café takes place in the Vista Awareness Center on Walnut Street in the town of Red Bluff (pop. 14,076), 130 miles north of Sacramento. Red Bluff, according to Wikipedia, “… during the early mining excitements in the northern mines … did an immense amount of transshipping….”   At the present time Red Bluff seems not to do an immense amount of anything: Although it is the county seat of Tehama County, its Main Street is lined with empty store fronts; its side streets are pitted with holes large and small; so are many of its houses. It is a dusty town, situated on a river the drought has turned into a creek, in places with no water at all. It is bisected by I-5, the south-to-north highway that begins at the southern border of California and ends far north in the state of Washington. Old Town Red Bluff is on the west side of I-5; a newer Red Bluff is on the east side: Macdonald’s and Taco Bell are there. The Vista Awareness Center is located on the west side, the old side, across the railroad tracks three blocks from the county jail.

At one time a Studio and Camera shop, the Center is now a gathering place for people disenchanted with their churches but not with the spiritual parts of life within and without themselves. So they gather here. The room is decorated with Buddhist posters and Chinese tinkling bells, a pulpit-looking lectern, some candles and plastic flowers. In the middle is the table we sit around. There are ten of us.

Why am I here? Because I am old, because dying remains a taboo subject in my immediate circle, because I am curious about other old people, tired of small talk and bored with myself as a conversationalist. I need to get out more. That’s what all recipes for positive aging—an oxymoron—advise: meet new people; get some exercise, get a hobby: knit, embroider, garden; get a pet, do yoga, learn a new language, get comfortable with the new technology; volunteer. I do almost none of the above; often, I sit and wonder why it is that old people—who are tired—have to do what young people tell them to do. We need a new recipe constructed by an old person; while we’re waiting, we might as well try to figure out the reasons for the old recipe constructed by the young.

No one—neither young nor old—wants to see people grow old. We don’t want even those we don’t like to grow old; more precisely we don’t want to see them grow old. Growing old isn’t pretty. It’s not pleasant watching an old person trying her best to get out of a chair. It’s something of a shock when suddenly a cane appears, overnight it seems, and remains a constant companion of your particular old person. You and your young family talk about the way your old person seems to drift off occasionally; she certainly isn’t as interested in things around her as she once was; her naps are getting longer, and she seems quite content to eat oatmeal and peanut butter sandwiches for every meal which no longer number 3, perhaps 2 on a good day. None of this is a way for an old person to get younger. Or stay old instead of dead.

And so you—a friend, son, daughter-in-law, neighbor, grandchild—do what you can to make the old person stay alive longer and be well. To do that you must re-instill those aspects of your own life into hers so that her oldness is at least recognizable to you, not so alien as upcoming death makes it. In her best interest—but really for yours—you tell her what to do. (See above: gardening, etc.) And under no circumstances do you encourage talk about death or dying, unless it’s about the will and who gets what and be careful there. Nowhere does the recipe for positive aging include talking about death; in fact, implied by the activities recommended (see above) is the belief that old people ought to be able to go on forever—if they do as they’re told. What if they don’t? Well, then, dying is the old person’s fault, not yours; you certainly did your best.

I am appreciative of the help and advice available at all times day or night from my sister (younger), my son and his family. However, resistant as I am to all recipes, I am likely a source of frustration for them. Old people can be stubborn. So, in the interest of fairness, I will admit this: Being old can be lonely, especially if you don’t do what you’re told. It’s no fun to watch yourself fail right there in front of your children. Better to stay by yourself or find another old person who is as crotchety as you are, not an easy task, most of them dead by now. And that is why I am here at this death café—for company. Will I return to next month’s meeting? Red Bluff, after all, is a two-hour drive down the mountain where I live. The meeting time is 6:00-7:30 p.m. I do not like to drive after dark, nor should I do so. I will have to sleep over in a motel which will cost money I could use for better things: hand weights, for example. Well, let’s see.

After the brief discussion about Heaven is For Real, Pastor Tresha Wing, who looks like a happy angel, asks us to write a question and put it in the basket. Mine is What if You Don’t Believe in Heaven? Wanda, Pastor Tresha’s co-facilitator, draws from the basket and reads the question aloud. The answer to my question comes quickly: “I guess you die anyway.” No discussion there so——

Next question: How Do You Console a Bereaved Person? Easy: Petra, eighty-something and very large, says, “I just go right up and hug ‘em. And then I tell them that the person who passed is in a better place with all his other favorite persons who have passed and that he is not in pain any more.” I cannot contain myself: “But what if the person doesn’t believe what you’re telling him?” “I don’t know,” Petra says, “nobody ever said.”

Next question: Are You Afraid of Dying?” Nobody is. “I just don’t want it to hurt,” I say. “You know, it doesn’t,” says Marilyn. “When my brother got killed in that motorcycle accident, the police told me that he didn’t feel a thing. Took his head right off.” Others nod and Marilyn says, “I’m just glad my organs are going to somebody.” Most of us carry notices on our driver’s license indicating that we wish to donate our organs. Wanda speaks: “When I was working on my medical assistant thing, I did dissections, six of them.” Next to me, Ramona asks, “What’s a dissection?” Wanda continues: “I thought it was absolutely fascinating and I was surprised and pleased at the care they took with those dead bodies. They covered everything—face and all—with sheets and left uncovered just the part where they were going to go to get the organ. It was all very respectful. I didn’t want to do men, though, I just did women.”   Muriel says, “Oh, I don’t want to think of my old body parts going into somebody else; they’re not worth anything where they are now.”

Next question: Can You Choose When You Die? A unanimous (save one) yes.   So startled am I at this answer that I reach up inadvertently to the necklace I am wearing and touch instead—what is it here on my sweater? Something that doesn’t belong feels like.   Oh lord, it is the old person’s second greatest humiliation, (the first, wetting yourself ). It is dried food. It is the signal to friends and family, all younger by decades than I, that She Has Soiled Herself. And if she can’t keep food off her clothes, how long before she Soils Herself at the other end. Total wreckage. I scratch at whatever this dried gunk used to be, careful to cover it with my hand, but it will not be dislodged. It has been there a long time, so long that its crust has managed to tentacle itself to my sweater. I peek down: It is white. The last time I ate anything white was yesterday at breakfast: milk on Kashi Crunch. My sweater is black. Very quietly, I reach for my rain jacket which rests on the back of my chair and slip it on, pulling together the front panels of the jacket so as to hide the source of my mortification.

Now, it is simply not possible that my dried food, or at least my clumsy attempt to hide it, has gone unnoticed. But apparently it has, for no one says a word or stares at my upper body swathed in rain jacket. Or maybe not. Maybe, because we are all old—several in their nineties—and here at the Center spiritually aware, we see but do not choose to point out what, probably, is nothing new or unusual. Probably, they too walk around on occasion with remnants of recent or not so recent meals decorating their bosoms. Next to me, on the other side from Ramona, Barbara picks daintily through the seeds and raisins she has brought with her; I kind of doubt that Barbara is a victim of DFS (Dried Food Syndrome). Or maybe she is just nice. She smiles at me. She is nice.

Before Wanda can draw the next question from the basket, Lorraine says, “I’m glad my husband didn’t die at home. He died in the hospital and I’m glad; I couldn’t have stood it. I told them no more treatments, none of this radiation, chemotherapy.” I ask, “Did you and your husband share in this decision?” “Nope,” says Lorraine, “he would’ve just said keep me going, but no way, past time, so –” Here she draws her index finger across her neck—“Pffft.”

Nice Barbara says, “He was impaired in many ways for a long time, wasn’t he? Even before the cancer. He had trouble with his speech, didn’t he?” Barbara doesn’t want Lorraine to put herself in a bad light.

“Oh yes, for a long time.” And she tells the story of losing their house in Sacramento in the eighties and moving to Red Bluff. “He built me a house here with his own two hands. Every nail, every board was his doing. And then he got laid off work and one day he borrowed a gun from the neighbor and shot himself in the head.” She pokes a gun-like finger at her temple. “He was a wonderful man.”

“Is that when he died in the hospital?” I ask.

“Nope, not that time. He missed everything but his eyes. He lived a good 12 years after that. I took care of him.”

I do not say what I am thinking: This is a nightmare. This woman must be unhinged. 12 years!

“He was a wonderful man,” she says again. “We had good times even after that. We’d watch tv—he couldn’t see of course but I’d tell him—and we’d laugh. Only thing, he was a big man, 6’4”, and he liked his bath. Wanted his bath every single day and it got so it was just about impossible for me to lift him out. So one day I just called the fire department. I heard they get kitties out of trees, so I thought, maybe they wouldn’t mind a real person. And they came. And they got him out. After that, whenever I got stuck, they’d come out and help. God bless the fire department.” She looks around at us and smiles.

This time it is unanimous, me too, that God should bless the fire department.

Lorraine concludes: “I know all that sounds pretty awful, but I didn’t mind. I enjoyed taking care of him. He was a wonderful man.”

Wanda announces coffee and cake and we make our way into the kitchenette. The coffee comes in china cups—not a mug in sight—and saucers. The cake is light and delicious, lemon frosting. We bid each other good night. Wanda says, “We meet last Wednesday of every month. So May 28. Hope to see you then.”

Thank you. I’ll be there. In a clean sweater.


©Jane Juska, 2014

Born in 1933, Jane Juska is an old person but a new writer.  Her first book, A Round-Heeled Woman, was published in 2003, followed in 2006 by Unaccompanied Women.  Before that, she taught English for forty years in high school, college, and prison.  Her work has appeared in magazines and anthologies.  Her novel, Mrs. Bennet Has Her Say, will appear in July 2015.   She is working on a sort of memoir titled Old.  The Summer Institute of 1982 is responsible for all this.

4 Responses to “Death Café by Jane Juska”

  1. Ruby Bernstein Says:

    Oh, my, now I see why you don’t live in Redding! Looking forward to OLD.
    Your older pal, RB!

  2. Darrell g.h. Schramm Says:

    Great story. But I must say that if I believed in heaven, I wouldn’t Want to go there if it were guaranteed those women would be there too. Himmel!

  3. jane juska Says:

    Well, Darrell, you can never be sure about heaven. I plan to show up at least.

  4. Darrell g.h. Schramm Says:

    Nonetheless, I’m glad you and I are still both on this side of it.

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