It has taken me several days to try to figure out why Los Angeles Times reporter Erika Hayasaki’s Column One feature story, “He died in vast isolation,” has been haunting me.
For starters, it’s an awesome story — full of stunning images and quotes. This starts with the very first words and never lets up:
The blind man died alone in front of his television in a lounge chair, near a table covered with medicine bottles wrapped in rubber bands and a cereal box stuffed with mail. Each rubber band marked a prescription he recognized by touch. Each envelope contained information he could not read. He never received letters, only bills.
A neighbor called police after she noticed a pipe had burst at his house. His double-door garage was cloaked in a frozen waterfall. Police discovered the man inside, still as the icy water. His television still buzzing, his living room blanketed with dead flies. His electric bills had gone unpaid, but the company for some inexplicable reason had not shut off power. Warm air had preserved his face almost perfectly, like a dried rose.
They found him 13 months after his final breath.
Headlines called him the “Mummified Man.”
The sad, lonely death of the 70-year-old Vincenzo “Ricardo” drew coverage all over the world. As it turns out, many journalists couldn’t even get his name right. His last name was Riccardi, not Ricardo.
The more I thought about this case, the more I kept coming back to a phrase that religious believers used to use to describe a more fitting way of departing this life — “The Good Death.” Back in the early 1990s, I even taught a seminar at Denver Theological Seminary on this concept and how the elements of The Good Death clash with many modern American values, yet also echo many of the deepest fears of modern Americans. The bottom line: If you ask many people what they fear most about dying, they will say that they fear dying alone, especially alone in a hospital, or alone because their families have disintegrated.
They fear, in other words, “The Bad Death.”
Thinking about this reminded me of an interview I did a decade ago with Johann Christoph Arnold, the leader of the Bruderhof Communities, about the death of his mother. That led to a Scripps Howard News Service column that included these images:
The matriarch of the Bruderhof community learned she had cancer of the lymph nodes late in 1979 and her condition rapidly deteriorated, accompanied by tremendous pain. After decades of serving others, she also found it hard to be an invalid who needed constant care. Still, there were transcendent moments. Throughout her five-month ordeal, children gathered to sing hymns and pray at her bedroom window. …
The inspiration flowed both ways. As the children learned about her suffering, many wrestled with questions of life, death and eternity. Annemarie Arnold knew this and, on her deathbed, prayed for those making life-changing decisions on the other side of the windowpane. No one found it strange that children found inspiration in the dying days of an elderly woman. No one found it strange that she took comfort in the fact that her life and death inspired others.
Some of her final words were, “The children. The children.”
The words and images in Hayasaki’s story are completely different, offering an almost mythic depiction of loneliness, despair and shattered relationships. You ask, “Where was his family?” That mystery is partially answered. “Didn’t he have friends?” Yes, he had an amazingly selfless caregiver — Adriana Molina — who helped him as long as he was willing to be helped.
But it’s hard not to ask, “Didn’t he have a church?” There is even a haunting hint in this story that answering this question would only lead to another schism in this man’s heart and soul.
Thus, there is this near the end:
In October 2005, Molina showed up at Riccardi’s house, and no one was home. She returned a few days later. Still no answer. The mail had piled up, so she thought something must be wrong. She left a business card on his door, first writing on the back: “If somebody knows something about Vincent please let me know.” She notified police. Two days later, an officer called to tell her Riccardi was in a psychiatric hospital.
Molina went to pick him up. Riccardi told her he was trying to open a can when he accidentally sliced his neck. He called 911, but when officers arrived they thought he had tried to kill himself. Molina never found out whether it was an accident.
She remembered that Riccardi asked hospital staff to return the rosary beads he kept in his left pocket and a gold Virgin Mary medallion that he wore around his neck. She asked why the necklace was so important to him.
“My mom gave it to me,” she recalled Riccardi saying, “and I want to have it with me when I die.”
And that’s just about all we know, outside the haunting mystery of how a man ends up alone, turning into a mummy in his chair while the television set buzzes in the background.
The story ends with a poem at that someone posted about “The Mummified Man” online:
Vincenzo Ricardo lived all alone
Diabetic, and blind — left all on his own.
For a year, no one saw him
For a year no one cared
So a man sat dead, while his TV blared …
Out of sight, out of mind,
As the days moved forward
Just a crabby old man
Whom the neighbors ignored …
He was just an old man
Who needed a friend,
No one deserves
This lonely an end.
So this was a news story about The Bad Death.
Would it be news if someone tried to write about The Good Death?