My love letter to Richard and our Comrades; The Personal and Political, about Death and Living

Zillah Eisenstein

Ithaca New York

Personal stories matter but especially when they expose a particular site that is bigger than the specific — when they elucidate a huge versality, even if in partial fragments. The fragments follow.

But as I write this morning, I listen to news of Congo and the deaths and starvation there; and the war in Yemen; and the Tulsa massacre of 1921; and France admitting its complicity in the genocide in Rwanda. And I think about the privilege to just think about one death. And because suffering is so immense, I hesitate that I might cause someone else pain as I share this telling with you.

Maybe this is not the right time. But as you read you will see why I have written this anyhow. Because choice and choosing is always about living a life without ever fully knowing anything for sure. Richard’s death is so big/profound, and also so intimate. It is about everything, and also little somethings. I wrote and sent this letter to friends just after Richard’s death day:

to my/our dear friends — some of you knew him completely, others knew me more, many of you knew and loved both of us

I am sending this message to ease the aching of losing Richard, yesterday, April 13

Richard has ended his glorious life and his hard struggle with his “mental chaos” — he says if you need to package the multiple processes of knowing, remembering, thinking, connecting, finding — call it Alzheimer’s or what you wish.

But he knew that he wanted to end his life while he still was able to love and care for the those he loved. And, so he did. He told Sarah and me shortly before he took his life: “I am a scientist at heart, and this experiment is done”.

He should be remembered for his extraordinary commitment to every kind of justice. He did not have a hierarchical bone in his body. He fought early on to get an elevator installed in the Ithaca Court House and make it accessible; fought one of the earliest fights against sex discrimination for women coaches at Cornell and won; was one of the lead attorneys to bring sex equality in marriage for gays in NY state, and lost, (to later be corrected) and fought for fairness in neighborhood housing. Just ask any of his pro-bono clients how much they adore him. There are so very many of them.

And, he taught Sarah and me to always look at the sky and find the moon…

And read the trees for what they were saying….

Most of all he was the kindest, sweetest, most generous soulmate on the planet.

When we are able to, we will organize a shared communal time together and also write a more coherent testament of all he is/was.

Meanwhile, being with Richard each day for the last year, and especially the last four months we absolutely know the urgency of now, or as Martin Luther King said: “tomorrow is today”. Fear nothing, not even death.

He felt so very loved by so many of you in the last weeks. Sarah, Lunan and I are so grateful.

with excruciating loss

and immense love,

zillah, sarah and lunan (and richard too)

— Richard was declining and we were preparing alongside, within, underneath and on top of living during the Covid pandemic. Death, and I will say criminal death, was a part of life with a despot running our country — in denial of the pandemic while articulating the racist misogyny that allowed it to flourish.

— There is nowhere to begin this story of Richard’s decline because we never really know, until we do. Exactly what happens when we let ourselves see, I mean really see? What was I doing when I was not letting myself know that Richard was losing himself? What was Richard doing? After not seeing/knowing, how do you now know if and what you see and what it means?

What is this process? To see someone changing, slightly, unclearly, and yet not really wonder? Why is it important to wonder, and to know more? And to wonder in the present and not fear about the future. I think it is all about forcing ourselves to find courage in the mess of the present. And, I do not have the language I want or need. Dementia, Alzheimer’s, memory loss, cognitive decline — none of them help. They are words that evade and pretend to have more knowledge than they do. And they become hurdles.

— Maybe this started six years ago. Probably it did. He seemed more quiet than usual. Maybe distracted. Sarah asked me if something might be wrong — was dad depressed, worried about a case, or? But, then about 2 years ago, just before the pandemic lock down came, he seemed to have memory lapses, but not all that worrying. And, then Richard became more confused, absent, repetitive, forgetting, but only sometimes. He also was his extraordinary loving, caring self. He was working so hard at helping me, knowing that I was working hard to complete what he could not do. Nothing was obvious.

I remember one day thinking that Richard was losing a sense of time. And then I realized that you have to remember time passing to know that it has. So an hour could feel like 10 minutes to him. And he would have to navigate amidst this loss. And so would I.

I asked constantly what is it feeling like? What does it feel like to lose a memory? He says he keeps looking for it. When he is quiet he is looking to see if he can find a fragment and then connect it. He says his mind is often in chaos. He looks to calm his thoughts or organize them, and he cannot.

Did I say that Sarah is a social medicine doctor? That she works out of a mobile health unit to offer medical care to undocumented and uninsured patients in Miami, Florida? That on weekends she provides abortions at Planned Parenthood because she believes deeply in a woman’s right to choose about her body and her health care. That she believes deeply in narrative medicine — that the stories people tell her allow her to treat their illness more fully than any medical test can?

Richard tells his law partners and para-legals that he is having trouble remembering so that they don’t have to wonder; and to tell them that he needs them to be watchful for him. (Of course, they already knew in some vague way). That he is sorry about his memory; about losing things and his disorganization. But he also wonders: and what is memory anyhow? It is not a thing. It feels like a process of seeing and connecting that he is losing. His honesty opens the door for amazing collaboration. Colleagues came close to assist.

But nothing was clear. Everything was not clear. We scheduled a brain scan and it showed shrinkage of the brain and in memory areas. We waited for an appointment with the neurologist for 8 months and by time it came we did not really need to go. But Rich wanted to, he ached for some clarity, so we did. He still retains so much of his brilliance that the neurologist made sense of nothing. But we knew.

Richard continues to work, but much less…and all the while he remains my loving supportive companion. But more and more is being lost. I do not have the words I want to describe the simultaneous normalcy and sense of agony I feel. I remind myself that I am very committed to honesty and deep conversation to find whatever of Richard there is to find in this journey. And then, we will figure out what comes next.

The next hurdle emerged. Richard needed to really see himself, not as having small memory lapses but as losing himself, as having his personhood slip away. He needed to accept what was happening and I needed to make sure that he did not feel alone. The loneliness was real for me, as I began losing Richard more. But I had to show him that he was not alone. That we were together. Sarah was not sure this was possible given his brain loss, but I was determined.

I pushed every day for Richard to absorb what was happening so we could share it rather than be isolated by it. I was the only one who could do this. Richard was amazing in that he let go of his fear and shared it with me. Always telling me how the connection let him love the life he had lived. I fought to have us share our two different worlds — his with little ability to remember, but with amazing ability to still love, and me with my memory and a renewed energy from his struggle.

I spent a lot of time terrified — how long would it take him to die after he took the pills? Research, but mainly many phone calls to doctor friends helped me figure out most things. And, but my/our greatest fear: what if he does not die? What then?

He asks me how I think he will know when it is time to die? I say that if he is asking this, that the time is probably anytime. About a week later he says that he thinks he is getting ready, and that he wants Sarah to come one more time, around her birthday, and then after she leaves he will end his life. Her birthday is April 5 so she came and stayed the week, and said goodbye, and left on Sunday and cried. She and Lunan had a lonely plane trip home. Richard ended his life on the following Tuesday. And I am not free to share anything more about this day.

— There are so many kinds of death that are criminal. The Covid deaths due to political neglect; the deaths due to brutality in chattel slavery; the deaths of freedom fighters in Myanmar and Columbia and Chile and Argentina; the deaths from police killings of Black and Brown people. They are wrongful deaths, and yet normalized and ignored. But Richard’s choice to end his life and allow others to help him? This should not be criminal. A death chosen by someone who is ready to die is freedom.

Richard said to me: do not call my death a suicide. It is not an act of desperation, but an act of love, for himself, his friends, and the planet. He walked through the door to death courageously and with intention. And wanted to make sure that at the end he could feel this peace. I will never ever forget that he was able to do this.

— Death should not be thought about in a contained, careful way. It is and should be tied to and a part of living and one’s life.

Until life is understood as intimately connected to death neither can fully express themselves.

— There is so much happening always at the same time. Until fear does not rule us, racist patriarchy can never be abolished. Politics — specifically imperial and colonial politics mystifies its violence and murder and installs it as democracy. I think of James Baldwin. Especially as Covid inequities and the Black Lives Matter activism against white supremacy became intertwined I thought more about how white people had the privilege — if they chose to — to protect themselves and live inwardly and selfishly. But if I think racism is as treacherous as Covid, which clearly it is for Black and Brown people, then choice is different.

I have been an anti-racist since childhood — by no choice of my own, but rather my parents. When I met Richard he joined me in this struggle. Eddie Glaude asks us to begin again today with James Baldwin. We were ready. Bryan Stevenson asks us to learn and see and feel the lynching and incarceration and murderous deeds as part of one horrific slog through history. We must.

Baldwin says: “We must tell the truth till we can no longer bear it”.

“Bear Witness to the truth” when the biggest lie that is covered and hidden is that whites matter more, than Black lives matter.

The lie that keeps being covered over: “the innocence of white privilege”. It is like Germans saying that they did not know. If they did not know they did not want to know. So, think more about the comparison of the atrocity of Nazism and the concentration camps and the similarities to chattel slavery. All of this helps me grieve.

I was raised with a critical consciousness about Nazism and anti-Semitism and WWII, and none of this was ever referred to as the holocaust. My father said that there has been more than one holocaust. Richard grew up a coal miner’s son in Pennsylvania. He was raised Catholic and was an alter boy but left the Church at 13. He hated the hypocrisy of the priests with all their wealth and fancy rings, while the nuns who had little did all of the work. But, and, then the teachings about masturbation pushed him over the edge. We built our anti-racist feminist life together with and through our histories.

We are implicated in white supremacy by simply living as white.

It is not about what we have done in any origin sense, but rather what we have not done enough to change it. It is important to see the past, and not as an ending, but as how it remains present, and it is in this presence that we are culpable. Baldwin demands accountability by whites for “willful blindness”. Shatter our innocence and what do we see.

Baldwin says that if we are scared to death, to walk towards it. So, Richard and I walked towards it. Baldwin says whiteness is a choice — choose differently and make it matter. Face death. So we did.

Death is always present even if totally silenced. Youth in some sense, if you do not live in Palestine or Syria or fear getting shot by police — is supposedly free of the fear of death and dying. It is probably why youth is so romanticized in our culture; even though suicide is the leading cause of death among people aged 14–24.

My own encounter with death is part of Richard’s story to understand because I am the woman he met and crafted life with. Before I met Richard, when I was 21 I was in a car crash. My skull was fractured, my brain swelled, and traumatized my pituitary gland. I have diabetes insipidus as a result. The recovery was almost unbearable, and the pituitary never reversed. In that time, I wondered if I wanted to continue to live — breathing was too encumbered, and the pain extreme.

The randomness of the car crash and my daily limits made everything too tenuous. Some way, I kept pushing and writing (my dissertation) and I stopped worrying about when my life might be smashed again. My mother assured me that this was all there was: living with a knowledge of death. All this was before I knew Richard, but he lived daily, every day, with my diabetes insipidus.

My beloved sister Sarah was diagnosed with breast cancer at 24. She died when she was 30, and I was 28. Giah was diagnosed during this same time. She then died of ovarian cancer when she was 42. Sarah died before I met Richard. He knew and loved Giah.

I too have had breast cancer. Sixteen years later I had an undiagnosable cancer tumor that the doctors at Sloane Kettering named “ovarian-like”. I have the BRCA-1 mutation. Everything prophylactic had been done to avoid this, but I was now facing probable death. I readied myself but Sarah and Richard begged for me to do one more surgery, and one more, last round of chemo. I couldn’t not do what they asked; even though I was ready to stop.

My story was Richard’s story. He was by my side through every cancer cutting, every vomiting, every healing, every everything. We both knew how to fight to live. And all along we expected that it might be me who would need to choose a death.

I also have spent most of my life as part of anti-racist and feminist social struggle, that Richard entered when we met. All my friends and comrades always loved the way he was so present, but quietly, not taking room from other women.

My parents were communists and my sisters and me were too — what else are children of communists to do. We picketed Woolworth’s and found much of our youth defined by the civil rights struggles of the day. It helped to be brave — against the police on horseback or the bullies at school. Being brave means simply that you do not let your fear dominate you.

So life and death and the civil rights struggles for and by and with Black people have always been messily mixed up and with each other for me, and with Rich. My mother Fannie Price Eisenstein was a communist starting in her youth. Actually the well known film, The Way We Were with Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford was based on my mother when she was at Cornell University and founded the first chapter of the Young Communist League while there. Richard loved Fannie. She and he shared close bonds. She was brilliant and poor and attended Cornell on total scholarship, just like Richard did.

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in my 1st year of college — 1964 — we all thought she would die. Back then cancer meant death more than it does today. We lived in Atlanta Georgia then, my dad taught at the Black graduate center, Atlanta University. Mom asked Dr. Yancey, a Black surgeon and her friend and comrade in the civil rights movement there to do her surgery. He said he could not operate in the White hospital. So mom had her surgery done in the Black hospital. I think it was called Grady hospital then.

White supremacy and death are always connected — through brutal racism and white people’s fear. Baldwin, in “A Letter From a Region in my Mind” in The Fire Next Time says: “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” And, “White people were and are astounded by the holocaust in Germany. They did not know that they could act that way. But I very much doubt whether Black people were astounded — at least, in the same way.” How could they be given their own history of massacre and death.

Baldwin continues: “It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death — ought to decide indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life”. For the sake of those coming after we need to embrace death so life can be lived honestly. “But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them”. “To liberate white people you must liberate blacks, “so dare everything”.

— The police called today to say that the investigation into Richard’s “unaccompanied death” has been closed. When they came to take Richard’s body after I called 911, they wanted to know if I had known Richard was thinking about taking his life. And I said, that I absolutely knew. I am his partner; how could I not know? And, then there was the letter Richard had written to all of us: that clarified that he had taken his own life, that he was ending his life while he still could, and that he was at peace.

Now that their investigation was completed, whatever this means to them, they said I should come get his letter. I said I would not come to the station because we didn’t think an investigation was needed, when a choice by Richard had been clearly made. The officer said I needed to come and sign papers saying I received the letter, and then the case could be closed. He said he would call me back in a week and maybe by then I would agree to do so.

— Near the end, Richard struggled to be himself, to find himself daily, hourly, all the time. Yet, as I have repeatedly said, he was still loving and caring and present and smart. So, he was still himself, and also not. Both. All of it. I knew we had to find a way to speak and embrace this heartache together.

I tried to ease the anxiety and sadness. I helped keeping him calm when his mind failed him and made him anxious. I assisted when he became repetitive. He could see the repetition but sometimes not. He still wanted to be my soulmate so he tried to do everything he used to do easily. And when he couldn’t, he still tried. He became a master of all things small: the dishwasher, recycle, simple errands, washing the car. And now each time I do these chores I feel him. A bit of me breaks.

— Richard was a gardener. He loved the dirt. He would pick out the rocks and fertilize the soil. He would check all the trees and cut down the vines that were strangling them. He planted every season and loved to watch the growth. Old trees were cared for by him, rather than abandoned. He loved seeing the splints on trees in the Japanese gardens in Tokyo; helping them survive.

Our friends and neighbors connected to and loved Richard as a gardener more than as an attorney, even though he was always helping with everyday legal issues. His quiet and kindness and nurture were ablaze in his spring flowers. Everyone stopped and chatted with him when he was in the garden. Friends now say they see him in the garden, still. Chandra’s peonies which he planted for her, will bloom soon this spring, and she will have his presence. Uma says that when she looks out of her window towards the mailbox garden she sees him there. His garden nourished the ground and the people on it.

— He loved to feed Sarah when she was an infant. He loved the softness and warmth of her skin and her body. He would make her bottles daily to supplement my breast milk. His favorite time was when she rested in his shoulder and sucked away at her bottle. Just him and her. Her needing him. Richard was actually the first person to feed Sarah. I felt that she already knew me having been inside my body for nine months. I thought it key that he feed her first and have that early unconscious bond. The nurses said it should not be done. That I would ruin my chances for sufficient breast milk. But Richard fed her first, and it was all fine.

Toni knew that although Richard missed me when I was off lecturing or doing political work he loved having Sarah all to himself. He was always so generous in knowing that Sarah’s first choice would be me; but never giving up the struggle to be totally and completely there for her. It would have been so easy for him to retreat. But he never did.

I have written about Richard as a gardener, and also how much he loved feeding Sarah her bottle — to show how deeply connected he was to giving life to living things, and this is the person who also chose death while loving life. And, Richard was the one to decide that our baby’s name was to be Sarah as she was being birthed. I couldn’t decide whether choosing my sister Sarah’s name would be a burden for a young child to have; but as Richard saw her pushing out of me he just said: “Sarah is here”.

— Only if you made yesterday count can you say goodbye or give up tomorrow. So, life is to be lived urgently, today is everything. Richard was content. It gave him the courage to act before he had to, when he still could. There is never a perfect moment. The time is never right. You can never know anything for sure. But do it anyhow. Whatever it is. Life and death merge with each other here — decide and do in order to know.

— On grieving. I think Richard and I often grieved together while he was still alive. Sometimes we just held each other. Many times we went for long walks and looked at the trees, and listened to the birds, and wondered about the sky. Now, I find myself walking and feeling his presence. When I look at some of the oldest trees I hear his breathing. Some days I feel his presence and am comforted. Other days I am frightened that I do not really believe he is gone. My grieving is not all sadness.

I think of PK and Tilu and Aai with Covid ravaging Mumbai where loved ones are in total crisis; where whole families are dying in the rural areas. I take a long walk with Raza who came to the US as a refugee fleeing his own death in Pakistan. I spend lots of time just wanting to think and be quiet so I can feel Richard. He took his life one month ago.

— Richard and I together have often had to be ready before we were, for life’s challenges. Each historical period has its new challenges and today maybe the real challenge is not to live forever but to know when life should end; medicine does not help us here, it is always ready to extend life. Maybe the real challenge of our time: is not to live longer, but to live with the limits of the planet — the planet that Richard loved.

Helping Richard die has been the hardest thing I have ever done, but it has also made me truly fearless, even if a bit broken. It was a gorgeous day today so I walked with a friend in the late morning and then I walked with Richard just now. I am surrounded with such love and admiration for Richard that I try to share it.

— The decision to take one’s life while fully loving one’s life stands in stark horrible contrast to all the lives that are brutalized by poverty, sexual violence, hunger, disease, war, and racism. I take the love and camaraderie that Richard’s life has created in order to work against racist misogyny and its death making.

It is never a good thing to stand against the right to choose or the right to decide a chosen death. Instead, stand against the murderous tendencies of a selfish capitalist racist patriarchy that pollutes the globe and kills innocents. Use our energy to overthrow the likes of Trump and Duterte, and Bolsonaro.

When death is an act of freedom, death opens up the meaning of a liberatory life. There is no universal answer for everyone. There are many configurations of choice and freedom. But if we are going to save ourselves and the planet we can fear nothing. Reckoning with death opens us up to freedom, if we can let it.

Until the right to choose death and the right to live full lives without racist misogyny and ableism and capitalist constraints are both embraced, we will never be free.

If this telling seems jagged, fragmentary, partial, too much, not enough, out of order, confusing and heartfelt, it is. Maybe I was not ready to write this; but I promised Richard I would even if I was not.

This was my first holiday weekend without Richard. I chose to not fill the void he leaves but rather to find myself in this new absence I feel. When I am by myself I am able to imagine his peacefulness amidst the trees and flowers. This is my new solitude.

I love that Sarah and I released Richard’s ashes over a favorite stream and the surrounding earth and he spread all over my shoes and flew into the sky. And I can find him anywhere when I need to, because he was still alive when he died.

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