Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 3 Art, Pages 224-225

Dr. Dugdale tells us that this image depicts Mrs. Ito and evokes the Japanese danchi where she lived and where she feared “being discovered dead and alone” (page 51). In the top frame, her paper screen window is wide open, revealing the living Mrs. Ito seated on a chair and engaged with an open laptop computer. In the bottom frame, the paper screen is mostly shut. It appears to me that the space with vertical lines might be blinds that are almost completely raised in the top frame and mostly lowered in the bottom frame. Those lines might also depict the darkness of the room in the bottom frame. The darker part of what is seen of Mrs. Ito’s room in the bottom frame looks to be Mrs. Ito reclined in the same chair in which she sits erect in the top frame. The text between the two frames, Dr. Dugdale explains, “is the Japanese for ‘lonely death'” (page 224).

It seems to me that the status of Mrs. Ito in the bottom frame of this image is ambiguous. In the text of Chapter Three, Dr. Dugdale states, “Mrs. Ito is so afraid being discovered dead and alone that she has asked a neighbor who lives in the building opposite hers to check her window daily. If Fr. Ito fails to open her paper screen one morning, it means that she has died” (page 51). In the bottom frame of this image, the paper screen is partially open. The viewpoint of both frames in this image is presumably that of Mrs. Ito’s neighbor. How is that neighbor supposed to interpret the scene depicted in the bottom frame? Did Mrs. Ito, who is seen alive in the top frame, fall asleep in her chair after partially closing her paper screen? Did she then die in her sleep, which would explain the paper screen remaining partially closed? Or did she wake up and partially open the paper screen before reclining in her chair?

I am probably among a small number of people who frequently experience this kind of ambiguity. I regularly receive messages from hospitals asking me to come to a patient’s death bed. Those messages usually include some information about the status of the patient: the patient might be in the process of dying; his or her death might be expected sooner or later; or he or she might have died already. When I arrive on the scene, I usually have some expectation of what the situation is. Usually the situation is what I expect it to be. Sometimes it is not. Sometimes I’m not sure. The patient may have died between the time I was called and when I arrived on the scene. The information I receive may have been wrong. It is fairly frequent that I come expecting to see a living patient who appears to have died. It is less frequent, but has sometimes happened, that I have come expecting to see a dead body that turns out to be alive. Sometimes it is hard to tell. I don’t want to ask the patient’s family whether he or she is dead or alive. Still less do I want to proceed as though the patient is alive only to discover that he or she is dead or vice versa. So I try to look for indications. Are there tubes or monitors attached to the patient that might give signs of life? Is the body warm? Are there any signs of breathing? Sometimes it is hard to determine. More than once, I have begun the Prayers for the Dead rite before seeing a sign that the patient is still alive. In those cases, I think I was able to transition to the rites for the dying without anyone else having noticed. I don’t remember making any egregious or embarrassing mistakes of this kind but It’s possible that my mistakes have been noticed and people have been too polite to point them out.

What can we make of that kind of ambiguity? We think of death as happening in a distinct moment in time. And I think that it does. But it can be hard to identify that moment, even to determine whether it has happened or not. This difficulty raises ethical questions about the diagnosis of death, especially as that pertains to organ donation. (Here is an article I wrote about that if you are interested.) How else might this ambiguity about death affect the living? In the case of Mrs. Ito depicted here, it seems like an irony. She intended the opening and closing of her paper screen to be a clear message about her death. But the paper screen is partially open and so the message is not clear. The multiple resuscitations of Mr. Turner that Dr. Dugdale describes in Chapter One of this book are similarly confusing. Did he really die three times? Is death not a once and for all event (excepting extraordinary resurrection miracles)?

What else can we glean from this duplex image? What might it have to say about community, which is after all the subject of Chapter Three?

I look forward to reading some of your thoughts about this.

Here’s an image that Blanch sent me that is interestingly similar to and different from the above image that is associated with Chapter 3:

10 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 3 Art, Pages 224-225”

  1. This discussion has caused me to ponder the whole experience of dying. As Father Jonah points out, death is not necessarily one point in time, but rather can be a slow letting go of this life and transition to the next. In the case of Mrs. Ito, she appears to be anticipating her ultimate end, fearing it, but only marginally preparing for it by asking a neighbor to watch for signs from her window. It makes me wonder if she has attempted to engage with more neighbors to re-form a community knowing that her end “is coming up fast.” Twenty five years of loneliness is a very long time; perhaps it is not too late for her to reverse those decades of deep loneliness by finding some way of of forming new, caring relationships. My husband and I have a 91 year old neighbor on our floor in our NY apartment building who lost her husband about 15 years ago to dementia. As neighbors, we can never replace her husband, but we can chat with her, have dinner with her and generally help her get through her fear of her own end of life by being part of her present. Our relationship with her may not be the full loving relationship she has lost and still craves, but as we try to reach out to her in our limited ways, she may find present solace and a diminution of fear of the inevitable future. Like Mrs. Ito, our neighbor needs to live until she dies, even if in a way that is significantly different from her earlier life.

  2. The “danchi” or stacked apt complex in the image reminds me very much of New York City. I live across the street from a large building in whose windows I can spot various lives, or evidence of such lives being lived. The idea of lonely people (especially women) in these windows or absent from them is very much on my mind during this pandemic, when the older we are, the more likely we are to stay in our apts to avoid the virus. How many Mrs. Ito’s are there right across the street from me? How many will die alone, even in hospitals? While NYC is often seen by outsiders as a city of strangers, all living on their own, it is actually much more like a village in which people do keep track of one another. But there are still many lonely people like Mrs. Ito, made even lonelier by this pandemic. There is a sadness to the image much like our general sadness during this pandemic. How might we remedy the loneliness of the Mrs. Ito’s in the city? If we all had a community of other people who keep track of each other, we wouldn’t need to raise or lower our blinds when we feel death’s approach. The time to prevent a lonely death is long BEFORE we die.

  3. The woman in the picture looks neither elderly nor Asian; not so much Mrs. Ito as “Everyman”, so to speak, especially in our society today. Her hands seem to be around the table, drawing it – and the computer – closer to herself. Her community, her world, is in that screen. The position of her hands give a sense that she is, or at least trying to be, in control of her world, her life. However, the wall next to her is white and bare – no pictures hanging, no plants, no sign of life in that space.

    The bottom frame is ambiguous – is Mrs. Ito sleeping or dead? This frame speaks to me of the truth that we cannot control death, as we try to control life. Mrs. Ito made plans and arrangements so she would not die and be left alone in her apartment.

    However, if her neighbor checked her window this morning and saw the partially opened shade, she probably would presume Mrs. Ito was alive. Ironically, it wouldn’t be until the evening or night – if the neighbor checked the window again – and saw the shade still partially open at night and the light off, that she might become suspicious and wonder if Mrs. Ito was alright. By the time the neighbor would intervene, Mrs. Ito could be dead for quite a while – not how she arranged it!

    Mrs. Ito’s planning, as well as Sara and Harvey’s planning and “rehearsing” do not assure anything because God is in control of our lives, not us. He knows the day, the hour, the place, and the manner he will take us to himself.

    Mr. Turner died once, not three times. Although the author states, “we had forced life into his lifeless body” after Mr. Turner’s first “resuscitation”, this was not true. Only God gives life. Mr. Turner’s heart may have stopped beating, but his life was still there. His death came when God took it to himself, at the time of the third code. God is in control.

    This picture may more aptly be titled, “Lonely Life” rather than “Lonely death”. Perhaps more focus should be given to how we are living rather than how we will die.

  4. This picture touches me so much. Besides thinking of Mrs. Ito in her danchi sitting by her window where her neighbors can see and think of her. It reminds me of a Moth NPR story of a women telling how she was inadvertently witness to her neighbors life. Her window faced her neighbors across the street, and she saw a young couple move in and set up their household. She wasn’t spying, but it was hard not to see them. It gave her joy to see them appear to be so happy. As time went on, she noticed that the young women began wearing hats and then noted that she was bald and appeared to be sick. After a time the young man moved his wife’s bed to the window so she could look out. The young husband would bring her food and sit with her. Then one day the bed was empty and a memorial service was being celebrated. Their neighbor felt so close to this young couple who’s life she witnessed as a tabloid through their window. She really mourned the loss of this women whom she really didn’t know. I myself have often wondered what is the edict for “window neighbors”. My living room window faces a Cul-de-sac and I never close my blinds nor do many of the people across from me. I have witnessed many company dinners, Christmas tress being decorated and seders being celebrated. And I’ve wondered what to do if I should meet these people in the street, as I feel we know each other. Recently I would bring Communion to an elderly women who was a “shut in”. Every Sunday part of our visit would be spent sitting at her window. The girl across the street, who would sit on her firescape,, would bring Mary such joy to watch. And every week we would talk about the shoemaker across the street whose shop was closed and Mary would worry about how he was doing. Since her death, I often think I should let these people know how they expanded her life as it became smaller and smaller. My point is that Mrs. Ito’s story, as well as these stories, just reiterate for me how much we all need each other in this life. And we should reach out to our neighbors as no one deserves to live a lonely life, which I believe is much worse than dying a lonely death.

  5. In the top frame Mrs. Ito is alive and we see a part of her life. In the bottom frame, Mrs. Ito is alone and is passing away. The view of her life is going.

    Years ago, my neighbor lied to his son about being alone and lonely. He used to sit in his apartment with the door open waiting for the Meals on Wheels lady. He spoke to everyone who passed his open door. The Meals on Wheels lady became his only friend. They would talk for an hour. When he passed away, it was she who got his apartment door opened and called for ambulance. We had not seen his door open for two weeks. This strikes me as the dichotomy as the frames above with Mrs. Ito.

  6. To me, the duplex image shows the compartmentalized” or “decompartmentalized” life led by Mrs. Ito. The absence of community…certainly not the intent of having community at all…just opening the blinds to indicate still alive (although I knew someone who actually did that!! in two apt. houses across from one another…….I also saw in the picture an overlap of Life/Death somewhat akin to a ven diagram…Life Death and “in between” …space…..which stirs up the concepts you mentioned…is he dead, alive, or something in between….beginning the prayers for the dead…realizing still alive, not yet pronounced. ….I think the photo is a realistic image of the world in which many, if not most people, inhabit currently. Vera

  7. I really appreciate the thoughts on ambiguity, because I think that (for all the ambiguity we are surrounded with) we humans are notoriously ill-equiped to deal with the continuous string of ambiguities that make up our day to day lives. As you point out, death is no exception, and the nuances of ethical organ donation speak to that. I am also struck by how this idea, and the story of Diana from the chapter, also touch on the limitations in our understanding of death in a more chronic sense: not only do we not know at what second or minute it has happened, we certainly don’t know at what month or year it is coming, even with a terminal diagnosis. You’d think the least we can do is make a plan that accounts for some of that uncertainty, whether it is Diana gathering her friends or Mrs. Ito creating the signal of the open screen.

    In the art, I’m particularly struck by the laptop computer. It’s unclear what she’s doing, but if we assume she’s not playing a video game, it’s likely she is somehow communicating with someone: whether online, or writing a document, or some other way: and who is that person? I’d assume it’s not the person who’s supposed to check the screens, though it could be. It seems to suggest that, even though her fear is of being unknown at the moment of death (a scenario her plan has failed to avoid; with the ambiguously half-open screen) she is still somehow in community, and I think that is hopeful. We recognize that technology is no substitute for a real interaction, but it is far better than nothing. I think back to the push to get tablets into hospitals in March and April to allow more patients to video call with family, and how enlivening that was for many people. For many people, as Dr Dugdale did with her dementia patient in the end of the chapter, avoiding a lonely death is much about securing community, as long as we have the technology to do so.

  8. At the top of the illustration, Mrs. Ito looks like most of us. She is well enough to use her computer. If we didn’t know her story, we might assume she is attending a virtual get-together with her senior group. The bottom of the illustration, however, raises questions for us. Presumably, Mrs. Ito’s neighbor would know her patterns. Does she regularly close her screen part-way for an afternoon nap? Does she define the mostly-closed screen to be considered closed, leaving her neighbor the nightly opportunity to glimpse inside to check her status? Are the vertical stripes in the back of the room actually the shades that Mrs. Ito manipulates? What would happen if she died out of view of the window after she opened the shade for the day? It seems probable that the artist would use creative license to depict the partially-closed screen as a representation of her lonely death. If the artist closed the screen fully, we would have little to see. Giving us just a peek behind the screen illustrates the human tendency toward privacy during difficult times. The dimness in the room conveys an ending–possibly of the light of day or possibly of the light of life. Rest in peace, Mrs. Ito.

  9. Thanks, Linda. Your interpretation — the screen being open in the bottom frame to show Mrs. Ito alone in death as she was alone in life in the top frame — seems just as valid as mine. That invites a whole other set of reflections on the depiction of solitary death in this image.

  10. I thought the screen was open in the bottom frame just to show her alone….The ambiguity aspect never occurred to me. As I said last week, I’ve only witnessed 2 deaths but both were totally clear at the time….

    I’ve read in discussions of the Lazarus story that Jews in the first century believed that the soul “hung around” for a few days after a death, but not for 4 days, which is why that time is given to assure us that Lazarus is really dead.

    I can imagine it might be embarrassing to begin prayers for the dead when a person is alive….

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