- The End of the Game
Over the three years that I’ve been writing this column, my 92-year-old mom Jeanne and I have developed a familiar ritual. Every two weeks or so, I’d drive out to her retirement community for a visit, sometimes with my wife and son, sometimes by myself. Her cozy fourth-floor studio apartment looks out on the lovely vista of trees and lawns in the landscaped grounds, and beyond, the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains range stretching east off into the distance, framed by billowing banks of cumulus clouds scudding across a bright blue sky.
We’d go out to lunch, or eat in the dining room, where she would always proudly introduce us to her friends. “I want you to meet my family,” she’d announce—often, to the same indulgent friends to whom we’d already been introduced many times on previous visits. The talk inevitably would turn to politics—she is an avid New Dealer, and one of those Chicago Democrats for whom The Machine never needed to bother stuffing a ballot box. As a first-generation child of Russian immigrants who came through Ellis Island, she’d rather die than vote for a Republican.
As she got older and her hearing worsened, her filters gradually disappeared and she unapologetically became more vocal and vociferous in her opinions. “I’m old!” she’d proclaim, granting herself permission. Once, we were having a quiet conversation in the middle of a crowded restaurant, and Trump’s name came up. Suddenly, to my mortification, she loudly declared, “I wish somebody would just shoot him!”
Afterward, we’d return to the apartment and sit on her couch to talk for awhile, about news she’d heard, movies she’d seen, books she was reading. But always, the first thing she asked was, “What do you have for me?” By which she meant, where were the print-outs of my latest Messenger column, and anything else I might have published somewhere since the previous visit. And after she’d read it, she’d carefully file it away along with all my other work, just as my late father had always done before he passed away nearly 10 years ago.
This column, however, is one I won’t be sharing with her. Not that I wouldn’t have liked to, but a little over a week ago, just a few days after our last visit, we were out of town when I got word that my mother had suffered a massive stroke in her sleep and was taken to the hospital unconscious. Although she had reportedly been “responsive to commands” that first morning, in meeting with her doctor, the following day the news was devastating. Her MRI revealed severe brain damage that had paralyzed her right side and left her unable to speak or eat. The prognosis was “guarded,” the doctor offered, as tactfully as he could. “Given her age, and her other medical conditions,” he said gently, “this may be the thing that finally takes her.”
- The Ghost in the Machine
During that initial visit, she seemed to be trying to sit up a little, opening her eyes, looking straight at me, and awkwardly extending her good left hand. “I’m here, Mom,” I said softly. She grasped my hand tightly and held on for many seconds. Her grip gradually relaxed and she sank back onto the bed, eyes closed. For the next several minutes, she occasionally opened them and seemed to look at me, then eventually lapsed into unconsciousness. Asleep? In a coma? It was impossible to know.
We visited again the next day, but by then she was completely unresponsive, and has remained so ever since. After much soul-searching, determined to honor her wishes, and contrasting the life she had led with the life she would be leading, my brother and I made the difficult decision to place her in hospice care.
In such situations, the questions we ask of our loved ones—“Are they conscious?” or, “Is their mind still functioning?”—are simple. The answer, however, is not. Consciousness is not a light switch to either be flipped on or off. A “mind” is not a distinct organ like a lung or a heart.
To decide what to do for my mom, I had to better understand what it means to be cognitive.
In “The Concept of Mind” (1949), Gilbert Ryle mocked Descartes’ belief that the mind and body exist distinct from one another by dismissing it as the theory of “the ghost in the machine”—the notion that a mysterious force invisibly operates the levers controlling the biological mechanism of our bodies. But Arthur Koestler’s “The Ghost in the Machine” (1967) posits a rebuttal to Ryle by conceding that while classical Cartesian mind-body dualism may be overly simplistic, there exists a hierarchical relationship between the body’s mechanical processes and the conscious mental agency directing them. Koestler suggested, in other words, a variable interplay between the lowest purely auto-reflexive behavior on one end and the most highly complex volitional behavior on the other end.
It’s as if my mother had been floating just below the dim surface of cognition, but has been slowly sinking down through her deepening unconsciousness into utter darkness. The ghost is fading away; the machine is running down.
With love and courage, this Chicago girl brought me into the world; with love and courage, as her Chicago boy, it’s my filial duty to see her safely out of it.
And she will never have voted for a Republican.
Jeanne Bellman gently passed away on Sunday afternoon, February 17, 2019, with those she loved at her bedside. She was interred at Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles on Friday, February 22. Bellman was 92.