Sunday, April 26, 2009

Choices at twilight time - Judge Jim Gray

A few years before my wonderful mother died, she first told me a story, and then followed it up with a strong request.

The story concerned my nephew, who had lived most of his life until the age of about 16 in the frequent company of his grandmother. But as time went along, his grandmother began to show the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and that awful disease eventually took her away from us about five years later.

Some time after that, my nephew happened to mention to my mother that he only really remembered his grandmother during the time when she was afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and he did not really recall the good times before that. This affected my mother so much that she made me vow to her that when it appeared that she would be at the end of her life, I was not to allow any of her grandchildren to see her. She deeply wanted them only to remember her as she was, during the good times.

So when that time eventually came, we respected her wishes, and didn’t allow her grandchildren to see her.

This caused me to reflect upon my own experience. When I was about 12 years old my father took me to see one of his aunts who was in bed and dying of cancer. I had previously seen his aunt on several prior occasions, but the only visual memory I have of her to this day was that last visit, when she was weak, pale, and wasting away.

Obviously these are deeply personal matters. But personally, I think my mother was right. I want the lasting memories of me by my grandchildren to be of the good times. Think about it, because you might want the same thing, and want to make the same request my mother did.

Even treading further into private issues, I have personally decided that at the end of my life I wish to have the body I leave behind to be cremated. Therefore, I have pre-arranged and paid for this to be done with the Trident Society, and I carry a card in my wallet setting forth my chosen plan. It even includes an added provision that if I die more than 75 miles from my residence, the program will cause my body to be cremated wherever I left it, and the ashes returned to my family for disposal according to my wishes, which I have already made known to them.

Among other things, this course of action complies with my mother’s belief that “the land is for the living,” so the dead shouldn’t take up space. It also would have the additional benefit of relieving my surviving family and friends from the guilt of not going “often enough” to my gravesite to pay their respects. And it would also take away the situation of having withering and dead flowers on my grave, which I have always seen as sad and depressing. So for all of these reasons, I believe that cremation is the way to go.

And then there is the time that life is drawing to a close. My mother, based upon what she had seen and thought about, also made me promise her that no extraordinary measures would be taken to keep her heart beating, if by doing so she would lose her dignity and quality of life.

This evolved into her view that she didn’t want me to allow any tubes to be used to prolong her life under those conditions. And — bless her heart forever — at the end she was true to her convictions.

Without pressing the case too strongly, because these are some of the most personal things a person can discuss, it is important for all of us to think about and plan for all of these inevitabilities.

Not only is it not morbid to make these plans, it is actually being thoughtful and considerate of your surviving friends and family. Why? Because when the time comes, your loved ones will almost uniformly want to carry out your wishes.

So don’t increase their pain and grief by making them guess what your wishes are. Tell them — but not in your will, because by the time your will is read the decisions will have been made and the actions already taken. Instead, write them out in a “living will” (you can get the forms at stores like Staples), discuss them at the appropriate time with the right people, and even make some of the arrangements yourself. This really is an act of thoughtfulness and kindness.

Finally, I was talking with my wife and children recently about one of my wishes after I have left this earth. That wish is that the first time a good production of “Rigoletto,” “Carmen,” or “Les Miserables” comes to Southern California after my death, I want my estate to purchase good seats for anyone in my family who wants to attend, and also, either before or after the show, I want to host a nice meal at a good restaurant with some nice wine. Then maybe my family might have a good time, and drink a toast in memory of my life.

In response, my wife and others suggested that I should not wait. Instead I should purchase the tickets myself, and I should participate in the happy occasion right along with them. Why? Because life is for the living. They are right, and that is what I am going to do.

So that is my final thought to you in today’s column. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Be sure to make special plans to spend some of your remaining time on this earth enjoying nice occasions with your family and friends.

Because not only is the land for the living, so is life.


JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of “Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts.” He can be contacted at or via his website at

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