August 8, 2000

The Black Knight

On November 18th, 1999, my great-uncle, Al Rubin, died of a heart attack while attempting to lift his wife, Dot, from their living room floor. Al was 92; Dot was 90.

Al and Dot were found lying foot-to-foot, their heads at opposite ends of the living room. Al was naked. Evidently he had been in the bathroom when Dot fell and called for help. A wooden coffee table was turned on its side, most likely toppled by Al during his fall. Dot was alive but badly disoriented.

In the hospital my mother and her sister Dee (Dot’s closest living relatives) agreed to spare Dot the news of Al’s death until she recovered. That is, assuming she recovered, for she was in critical condition, suffering from severe dehydration.

Two days later Dot was alert enough to ask for Al. Where was he? Why wasn’t he visiting her? In answer to these questions Dot was told that Al was in another part of the hospital or in another hospital altogether (I’ve heard different versions) and that he would visit when he could.

Most people wouldn’t object to the lie, but I do. I ask myself if I would want to be lied to like that, if I would want my family to conceal the death of my spouse for fear that the news would kill me. The answer is no. It’s not so much the lie that bothers me but the underlying presumption – born of love and concern – that when sufficiently old or infirm we can be stripped of the right to the truth. We treat children that way. We tell them stories to protect them. To lie to Dot was to treat her like a child.

Kant believed that no lie is ever justified and that we are obliged to tell the truth even if it means leading a murderer to his victim. I fall somewhere between Kant and my family: I would lie to the murderer but not to my great-aunt, as I believe that Dot deserves respect, and a murderer does not.

When Dot was deemed well enough to know the truth, my mother and Dee told her what had happened.

“Do you remember falling?” asked my mother. “Do you remember that Al tried to lift you?”

Dot remembered nothing. Moreover she had no idea what she was doing in the hospital. When told that Al was dead, that he had died trying to lift her, Dot showed no emotion. Dee, remembering this moment, believes that Dot never understood. I would go further and say that the thought of Al dying was not something Dot was capable of thinking. She knew what mortality was and she knew Al was mortal, but she could not complete the syllogism.

A few days later I visited Dot in the hospital. She was the same as always, though noticeably diminished. We made small talk. No mention was made of Al until Dot asked how I was doing, and I said that my heart was heavy because I missed Al.

“So what’s the weather like in Cambridge?” asked Dot.

Dot’s deflection didn’t surprise me. Over the years she and Al had refused to accept or even acknowledge their deteriorating ability to care for themselves. Despite failing health, they rejected all offers of assistance. Since neither could cook anything more involved than canned soup, they would eat dinner in restaurants, and Al would drive, to the collective horror of my family.

As painful as this was to witness, I admired it. It took great strength for Dot and Al to be so persistently stupid. I’m convinced that they survived as long as they did because they refused to face the truth. Their final years together – sad, pitiful years, but years together – were testament to the power of denial.

I’m reminded of the battle between King Arthur and the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Arthur chops off the Black Knight’s arm, but the Knight refuses to give up and claims that the wound is “but a scratch.”

King Arthur and the Black Knight

“Well, what’s that, then?” asks Arthur, pointing to the severed arm on the ground.

“I’ve had worse,” grunts the Knight.

Arthur slices off the Knight’s remaining arm, and then a leg, and still the Knight is loathe to concede.

Arthur is incredulous. “What are you going to do, bleed on me?”

“I’m invincible!”

“You’re a loony.”

My great-aunt is a loony. Living in a nursing home now, she remains unable, or unwilling, to admit that her husband is dead. To hear her tell it, Al is forever indisposed, puttering in another part of the building. Recently Dee, exasperated by such remarks, reminded Dot that she had attended Al’s funeral and had watched his casket being lowered into the ground. Dee expected Dot to claim that no such funeral had taken place, but Dot had her outflanked. “That wasn’t him,” she said.

In the end King Arthur chops off the Black Knight’s remaining leg, and yet the Knight, now a legless, armless torso-plus-head, cannot admit defeat. As the King gallops off into the forest, the Knight shouts, “Running away, eh? You yellow bastard! Come back here and take what’s coming to you. I’ll bite your legs off!”