Switching Gears

I listened to a RadioLab podcast today called “The Queen of Death”, and I think I know what I want to do with my life. This wasn’t really a sudden revelation, it was just one of several strands of thoughts and experiences over the last year or so that have finally come together.

The RadioLab podcast was about Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross, the famous doctor and author who described the 5 stages of death and grief. You know the ones: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. But that wasn’t the interesting part. The part of it that intrigued me was the discussion about her talking to terminal patients about their feelings. The reporter, Rachael Cusick, lost her mother at a young age, and has been searching for ways to cope with her grief ever since. One of the people she talked with for this program was a father with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and it was their relationship that got me thinking.

For a long time now, I’ve felt that my particular branch of anthropology is useless. It’s infinitely interesting to many people (except those people for whom it is supposed to be a benefit but is really just an invasion of privacy), but in my opinion ultimately doesn’t improve humanity in any concrete terms. I’ve long wanted to do something that benefits humans in the present, rather than tell them about their past and curate artifacts and sites that don’t belong to me or my culture. I’ve consoled myself with the thought that preservation and conservation are worthy goals, and maybe to some people they are. But if I’m being totally transparent right now: that’s not what I do. 97% of the time I push paper and make sure the federal government doesn’t break any cultural resource laws. I cover the ass of the Army, so to speak.

The other thing that got me thinking is that about 6 months ago my former neighbor died. His name was Martin, and he was a retired anthropology professor. He was also an alcoholic who had Parkinson’s, and he was ultimately unable to care for himself in his home any longer and was relocated, first to several rehab centers each time he was hospitalized, and finally, during the pandemic, to an assisted care facility. I adored him. He was a kind, generous and colorful character who loved to talk. I visited him each time he was in the rehab facilities and we would talk about all kinds of things.

Martin was alone in the world. His parents were long gone, he had no children (“that I know of”*wink wink*), and no other family ever came to visit him, or maybe he didn’t have any. When the pandemic hit, I was no longer allowed to visit him. I wrote him a couple of letters, and I wish I had written more, because he died in the facility while the pandemic was still going on. I never got to see him again. He died alone.

I wonder what, if anything, Martin might have liked to share with the world at large about his life, or possibly about his impending death. Had he been able to still write, would he have liked to put down some thoughts for posterity? Would he have liked for me to do something like that for him? The thought never occurred to me at the time, and now I wish I could ask him.

The man with pancreatic cancer who was being interviewed by Rachael Cusick for the RadioLab podcast was doing exactly that. He was creating a series of interviews with all of his friends and family, so that they would have these things when he was gone. It’s the kind of thing that not only benefits loved ones, but could also be archived for the good of humanity, especially if no loved ones exist.

All things considered, Martin’s fate is likely to also be mine. I have no children, my parents will (probably) be long gone by the time I kick off, and I have no spouse or significant other. Even if I do have someone in my life into my golden years, I may outlive them. These things I’m writing now are the only things likely to outlive me. Mostly it’s stupid drivel, but I do hope that somewhere in here there’s a kernel of something, hope maybe, or a lesson I’ve learned, that could reach another human being and help them through a difficult time.

As an anthropologist and an adoptee, I’m keenly aware of the importance of story to the continuity of cultural threads within a population. I’m aware of the need of descendants to feel ties to their ancestors, and the value of deep history to social groups. As a single person in the world without direct contact with blood relatives, I am no one’s daughter, sister, cousin. I am connected to other humans only at the Homo sapiens species level. I am also aware of the lack of legacy I will leave. When I die, no one will know my name or wonder who I was or want to hear what I learned, and this makes me feel a little sad. I wonder if other people who are alone feel similarly.

So I’m now wondering how an anthropologist could be a record keeper for people who might want to impart their thoughts on life and death and everything in between. They wouldn’t have to be near the end of their lives, but that seems like a time when a listener might be of greatest service. Maybe they’d even like their likeness captured by an artist or photographer, a portrait of themselves to accompany their thoughts, to be added to the annals of human experience, a broad database in which anyone, but particularly those of us who don’t look or sound like anyone else, could find a familiar face and voice.

Just toying with ideas, here. I don’t actually know how to go about undertaking any of this, and I would rather not do this kind of work for money. That is to say, I need to earn a living, but I wonder if this could be done as a service through something people are already paying for, like palliative or hospice care. This all requires more research. If any of my nonexistent readers have ideas about how to make this happen, please reach out to me, you know, when you finally materialize.

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