raccoon illustration




Living and working in rural, southern Appalachia, I have certainly seen a lot of deaths. Some are dramatic. Summer is the time for many of these, as the rural love of water, motorized vehicles and power tools seems to be inflamed by the heat. As the proud holder of a zoology degree, I always thought that summer deaths were like the bites of vipers, quick. Winter deaths like constrictors that smothered the dying by taking their breath.

Anyway, some deaths are quite serene. I saw one of these recently. The patient, in his 90s, had gone to church, been with family, started feeling bad after lunch and by the time he arrived in my hospital simply breathed his last. He didn’t want anything done and there it was. No frantic CPR, no IVs, no drugs. Well played sir. Well played.

This can be wonderful. Of course, it can also be easily forgotten. This is how some deaths are remembered at the yearly family reunion. I’ve been to no small number of family gatherings.

“What was it that took Aunt Trixie?”

“Oh, gosh, was it the COVID? Wait, I think her toenail got infected and she got the blood poisoning. Or was it an aneurysm. Goodness I don’t recall. Pass the mac and cheese, will ya?”

On the other hand, a few years ago I read a story about a very old woman living in the mountains out west. A bear had broken into her cabin and killed her. Now, I know, I know, that’s horrible. But that story will live on. Every hiker for 200 years will say, “see that cabin? That’s where that lady got killed by a bear!” God love her, I’m sure it was terrifying but she will be remembered.

I’ve thought about my own demise, hopefully in old age. I think mostly about how to construct my life, thoughts and habits so that I’m not a huge, miserable pain if I get “the dementia.” I was talking to my daughter and said I hope I’m not a problem for her and her siblings someday.

She said, “papa, you won’t be. You’ll just be the guy that wanders off into the woods a lot.”

I thought about that. Maybe that holds the key to an interesting demise. So here’s the future reunion:

“Mama, will you tell us the story of what happened to Great

Grandpa Edwin?”

“Do you really want to hear it again?”

“Yes! Yes,” the assorted children cried, and gathered up their dozens of cousins, dripping barbecue sauce and covered in chocolate cake, under the lake shelter in the heat of July. “Tell us about the Racoon King!”

“Well, after he retired from being a doctor, he found himself a little bored at times. He and Great Grandma Jan traveled and took care of your parents. He was used to being busy, so he tinkered, and of course you all know he wrote that amazing novel that changed the face of modern literature.” (The children looked away bored, and the more intelligent with some skepticism about the claim.)

“That was, of course, before the dementia. That was when he started wandering off into the woods a lot more. You know how your mamas and daddys would play the game, right?”

“Find Grandpa! Find Grandpa!” The chanted in unison.

(It had become, of course, another name for hide and seek, but generally without anyone calling EMS.)

“Well he had paths he liked to follow on their property and eventually Grandma Jan put a little tracker on him and she always knew where he was. She’s pack him a lunch and off he’d go, muttering about Commies or insurance companies or some such.”

“Well this went on for a while until one day he came home and said ‘honey, I’m feeding the critters!’”

“Great grandma thought it was sweet and started giving him old bread and crackers and leftovers. And that his medications needed to be adjusted.”

“He would go for a little longer every time. Sometimes she walked with him but other than the occasional squirrel, there wasn’t anything in the woods that she could see, despite his claims of seeing beasts of all type.”

“One cool, fall day, poor grandpa took a few jars of peanut butter, and some oreos, beef jerky and fresh fruit. That was the last day he came back.”

“Of course, grandma was so worried. She went looking but he wasn’t anywhere on his normal paths. She called the police and they brought a dog. And eventually, the found him.”

“The racoon king! The racoon king!’ the children shouted, sweltering but enthralled.

“That’s right. When they finally found grandpa he was sitting very comfortably on a stump, against a tree. It appeared that he had followed a band of racoons at dusk; or they had led him quite a ways, hoping for more snacks. All around the ground were empty jars of peanut butter, bits of partially chewed fruit and empty cookie bags. And the evidence of a scuffle between the racoons, of course. It seemed that he wasn’t feeling well and that they had seated him on a kind of throne, and put a garland of flowers around his head. Apparently that was when he passed. He was only a little bit chewed; turns out one of the critters was rabid.”

“It seemed as if they had installed him as a kind of potentate. One of them had used its nimble fingers to paint a little racoon mask across his face. The DNR officer said it was haunting and that it took at least an hour to run off all of the racoons. And that’s why we put the statue in the forest. And of course, killed all the racoons in a one mile radius for fear of rabies. They were his loyal subjects in life and death.”

The children yelled “hooray,” and ran off for more ice cream as their parents dreamed of air conditioning, and pondered the power of genetics.

Great Grandma Jan, in the back, wiped away a tear, hugged a great-grand-baby, and said “I really wasn’t surprised. Frankly it could have been worse.”

And that’s how you’re remembered when you die…








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