A Good Death

Remembering Arvilla Manning (a.k.a. “mom), March 26, 1928- August 17, 2013. With an afterward by my daughter Dylan, who actually gets stuff published.

On August 17, 2013, Father Burns began my mother’s memorial service with the words, “Arvilla died a good death.” While I remain a passionate proponent of the adage that the best death is one that hasn’t actually happened, the truth of his words was piercing.

Mom was socially fearless and surrounded herself with a rich pool of friends from eras of her life that stretched to her days in grade school. But despite her gregarious nature, she kept all but the most superficial emotions under lock and key, a practice exacerbated after our father died in 1986. Increase the potential emotional intensity of a subject, and her inclination to discuss it would decrease proportionally. She could be sitting at the dining room table with several arrows in her back, her hair on fire, and one leg shorn off at the knee, and if you ventured to ask how she was, her response would be, “I’m fine.” Given the choice of an outpouring of an emotion or bottling one up, mom would opt for the bottle, preferably Vodka depending on the intensity of the subject.  

She loved us, no doubt, but found heart-to-hearts the emotional equivalent of slowly stepping into a running woodchipper. And on the rare occasion a backlog of feelings boiled over, she unleashed them in a brief passionate torrent of tears and mostly unintelligible utterances that came and went before you knew what hit you. By the time you regained your bearings, the storm would have passed, leaving you stammering in the wake of a hastily delivered closing argument of, “I’m fine.”

Her call to me at my New York office early one Monday, both typified and shattered the norm of our conversations. I answered my mobile noticing how early it was in California, and she started talking before I got to “good morning, mom.”

“Edward,” she said, in a very calm and matter-of-fact tone, “You should fly home as soon as possible. And don’t panic if I die before you get here.”

And then she hung up.


My brother Mark drove up from Santa Barbara and picked me up at the San Francisco airport. On the drive to the Stanford Hospital, he let me know that mom had a ruptured bowel and a fatal case of sepsis. The afternoon’s operation had been unsuccessful. As we stood by her bed that night, it struck me that “don’t panic,” might be the last words I ever heard from her, which brought me to the very brink of panic.

“We doubt she’ll regain consciousness.”  To emphasize his point, the doctor sketched a diagram of a bowel with a tear and a flurry of lines and circles representing bacteria. It looked like a first grader’s depiction of a severed banana slug with smoke pouring out it. I hoped his medical skills outpaced his gifts as a graphic artist.  One glance at her in bed left no doubt they were right. She looked more like the victim of a gang beating than a patient recovering from a failed surgery. IV’s dripped fluids into each of her bruised arms, a breathing tube covered her mouth, and her neck and face had swelled and discolored to the point of making her unrecognizable.

The following morning, one set of doctors reported a miraculous overnight turnaround while another warned that death was imminent. It was at the point we were advised to abandon all hope, naturally, that mom woke up. She made no effort to hide how overjoyed she was to see us. She did not say she would be fine.

A gaggle of doctors circled the bed and laid out her options. A second surgery might buy her a few weeks; another process could extend that by several months; if the perforation was caused by cancer, chemo added even more time – maybe 6 months. As other options were being offered, mom held up both hands to quiet them, and said, “I’m done.” After a few ticks, she added, “no more.”

Then for three days, she talked a blue streak. No topic was out of bounds, no restrictions, no caveats. Reggie and the kids flew out to say their good-byes. Mom and I covered everything from my drinking Clorox as a 2-year-old, to her love for dad, her anger at losing several match points at Wimbledon, and the pain of missing us and her grandchildren when we had moved back east several years earlier.

A lover of being organized, mom dictated her wishes for a memorial service and worked with Mark on the notes we were to read on her behalf. At one point regarding some detail she wanted taken care of, she began a sentence to me by saying, “and next Tuesday…” and then stopped. She looked at me and then added, “There is no next Tuesday, is there,” a comment I stoically addressed by crying hysterically. She spent the next several minutes comforting me, pointing out how blessed her life had been and not to worry about the absence of Tuesdays.

She slipped into a coma Saturday. At least one of us was by her side throughout the day. Then, true to her propensity for privacy, she passed away the one moment we all stepped out.

Mom died a good death, a paradoxical mix of unbearable beauty and crushing sadness. We were blessed for it. But for the record, especially in a world in which verifiable sightings of “fine” are fewer and further between, openness and vulnerability (heart-to-hearts, empathy, actually listening) should be embraced as lifeblood for how we live, and not just core tenets reserved for a good death.

Afterward: My daughter published a few of her reflections on her grandmother which were published in the Kenyon Collegian Magazine.

Arvilla and the kids at Buck’s in Woodside, CA. Summer 2009

12 thoughts on “A Good Death

  1. Beautiful, thoughtful and honest piece that comes at a good time for me having just lost a lifelong friend way too soon. I appreciated all the sentiments as well as the humor. My friend would have loved it.

    And if I don’t get to your gig next Thursday there is really something wrong with me!!!!

    Be well! Alan


  2. Very touching. Felt like I was there with you. Thank you for sharing and for sharing Dylan’s writing too. She is very talented.

  3. I hope she forgave me for the oyster smell I left in her garage after the Summer I rented her apartment. You had a great Mom, Ed. Best, Tim

  4. Ed- as most friends on either side of the ponds, I didn’t get the email, but I truley send my support to you and your family, and the sharing of the spiritual nature of the human condition. Ed, your mother’s passing was captured in your words as a loss of a good friend. And, as usual your dry humor is a means of coping. I had to check my calender to put your email in perspective. My latest readings includes the Book of Joy, with dialogs between the Dala Lama, and the Archbishop, and they practice dying to guarantee a place in the spirt. I recently have lost two close friends and some survivors as well. And I have seen one high school friend beating the cancer. Hence, your mother’s humor about a good death, seems like a good plan to avoid the details and arrive in heaven. Deb and I send our love and strength to your families loss. Jim

  5. Indeed it was a good death! And Dylan’s writing! Such depictions of moments brought to life as if I am watching a full color movie. Thank you Dylan and of course Ed.

  6. Thanks for pointing my attention to your piece… and that photo at the end. The ties that bind… Our parents were extraordinary in their most individual ways. Roy always enjoyed your writing as well. Thanks for staying in touch.

  7. I do so enjoy reading your “blogs”. They are so beautifully written, thoughtful and relatable. And, most importantly, short enough to hold my short attention span. And Kudos to Dylan for her well written and “published” story. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree!

  8. Thanks for sharing, Ed. I hold warm memories of time spent with Arv, you, and Mark. We had a lot of fun.
    Dylan clearly inherited your writing talent.

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About Ed Manning

Father. Husband. Writer. Songwriter. Pianist (careful how you say that). Market research, Technology Biz Dev and Sales. Aspiring (aspirating) Triathlete.