Memories and regrets

Paul Tirmenstein and John Marthaler
in 1984, two years to the month
before Pauls' death

A lot of high-rise apartments (if you can call five stories a high-rise) are going up downtown, and as I walked past some of them today, I looked to see if the barber shop that Oscar went to was still there. It was, the whole thing containing no more than 200 square feet and looking out of place among all those apartments, but still standing and still in business. Oscar was in his eighties when we met but was still attractive in a benevolent, dignified, and intelligent-looking sort of way, especially when he wore a three-piece suit, which he usually did (I never saw Oscar but what he was dressed-up).

The day I took him to the barbershop, he said that his doctor had told him that he had a heart problem which would kill him without surgery, but that he was too old to survive the surgery. Oscar said this with a look of horror that made it clear that he wasn’t taking the news at all well. I had seen a lot of death by then—I was nearly 50 and had often worked around the dying as well as the dead—but I didn’t get it like I do now that the actuarial tables are predicting my own demise in a mere 16 years—which is about how long ago Oscar died, yet it seems like Oscar died just a little while ago. At the time I knew Oscar, I realized that anyone except for myself could die at any time, and I rather assumed that if a person was old when the time came, he wouldn’t mind it so much. Oscar clearly minded it, and I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. He died about a month later, and I still feel badly that I didn’t at least have enough brains to encourage him to talk about his feelings. I also wonder how a Christian could have been so afraid of death unless he didn’t really believe.

Thinking of Oscar made me think of Paul, maybe because he was Oscar’s age when he died, and because I had also talked with him about his death without being as supportive as I would have liked. Paul wasn’t much like Oscar except that he often wore a suit, although the only suit he owned had been crap when he bought it and hadn’t improved over the decades, plus Paul was the kind of old man who, every time he eats, ends up with crumbs on his face. It didn’t help his appearance any that he also had piercings in more places than I cared to look, this in rural Mississippi during the early 80s when the only piercings were in women’s ears, and then no more than one per ear. On the plus side, Paul was smart, thoughtful, and well-spoken. He collected Japanese fans, painted beautifully, made jewelry, had been a refrigeration engineer, and singlehandedly built the house in which he, his wife, and his daughter had lived (his wife being dead and his daughter living in another town when I knew him).

Other than myself, I only knew two atheists in the entire state of Mississippi, and they were a long way from my house, but I still saw them a few times a year. Paul was one, and John was the other, and since part of my name is Thomas, I called us the three apostles, much to their delight. Each of the other two was as eccentric as a village atheist is supposed to be and then some. For instance, they both had ten or more (far more in John’s case) atheistic bumper stickers on their cars. Also, John must have weighed 400 pounds (I know he doesn't look it in the picture), and this made his old Corolla lean heavily toward the drivers side. He wrote one or more letters to newspapers everyday, and carried them around to show people. Along with his piercings, Paul had a poster on an inside wall that was four feet from, and facing, his front door. It depicted Michelangelo’s god raping Uncle Sam under the caption, “One Nation Under God.”  Since no one could meet Paul (or John either for that matter) without being struck by how polite and soft-spoken he was, I finally asked him why he had that obnoxious poster and all those bumper stickers, and he just told me that some things needed to be said.

Because he knew I smoked pot, Paul phoned one day and said that he wanted to commit suicide because he couldn’t take care of himself much longer, and could I get him some drugs to do it with. Getting busted for drugs in Mississippi back then was no joke because even a couple of joints could land a person in Parchman Penitentiary for years. Still, I would have tried to have gotten them if he hadn’t called me on the phone, but I was just paranoid enough to think that the DEA might be listening in, so I said no. What I did do was to invite him to come live with Peggy and me. I meant it, and I had no doubt but what Peggy would have welcomed him, because that’s just how Peggy is. He turned me down because he didn’t consider a dependent life to be a life worth living, and because he wanted his money to go to American Atheists rather than to “be wasted keeping an old man alive.” A few months later, Paul was busy running a hose from his car exhaust into his car when a neighbor saw him, and called the cops. The cops took him to jail and called his daughter. His daughter, who was a born-again Christian, got him released and stayed with him for awhile. The day she left, he got in his car and killed himself. I admired him for that and for donating his body to the Ole Miss Medical School. If nothing else kills me first, I too will die a suicide. I’m afraid of death, and I hope to live for years yet, but, like Paul, I’m not willing to live at any cost and in any amount of misery.

I guess it must have been 20 or 30 years ago that I read in the newspaper about an elderly couple who lived in Florida. The wife being hopelessly sick, they got their affairs in order—including making their bed and washing their dishes—after which they wrote suicide notes, and then drove to a rural area where the man shot her and then himself. I think it’s a poor excuse for a country in which people who are old and sick and ready to die have to do that kind of thing, and I admire the hell out that couple, the man especially, for having the guts to do it. I’ve pondered that news article scores of times over the years, always with sadness that they had to die without support, and with regret that I refused to support Paul in his wish to die. Every time I remember that Florida couple, I ask myself all over again if I could do as the man did if I had no better option, and the answer is always yes. I might try to make things a little easier by taking a few pills or having a few drinks first, but if Peggy and I were to ever agree that it was our time to die, I could make it happen. I’ve always been that way, and I live with unending grief over something I once did because of it, yet I acted out of the best that was within me. I can look back on many failures in my life, but when it comes to matters of life and death, I’ve always been able to do what needed to be done with the exception of helping Paul, and his death has only increased my resolve to never fail again.