The 100 things
How my brother Marty wound up in a documentary about dying
In the fall of 2008, I was sitting around the breakfast table with my brother, a local doctor who was dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease. By that time, Marty, 53, was confined to a wheelchair, could no longer use his legs or arms, plus it was getting difficult for him to speak. I’d stayed overnight at his home to help out; we sat facing each other the next morning over bowls of oatmeal.
I’d been a reporter when it came to Marty’s journey, but that morning I had no tape recorder, no notepad. So of course it was then my brother chose to reveal what I consider his most important idea.
In response to me asking a question about his request to not allow a feeding tube to prolong his life, Marty revealed his theory of the “100 things.” By the next summer, his idea was printed up as an Op-ed in the Los Angeles Times (the daily newspaper in the city where we’d grown up) and subsequently reprinted in dozens of newspapers across the country. In part, he wrote:
I have … started to think about how I will know when I am ready for [death]. To that end, I often think about what I call the 100 Things.
Here’s how it works. Imagine a list of 100 things you do most days. Some are routine, some are “chores,” some are pleasurable. Get out of bed and walk to the bathroom. Kiss your wife. Answer the phone. Drive your car to work. Go play golf with your friends. … Hug your child.
Of course we do many more than 100 things each day, but for now, just imagine 100 that are essential to the life you live. Now if you take away one, you can still do 99. Is life worth living without being able to smell the rose in the garden? Of course it is! How about losing two or seven, or 23—is life still worth living? Of course!
But suppose you get to where you’ve lost, say, 90 things, and now with each thing taken away, a bad thing is added. … Life is still worth living, but you’re getting tired.
At some point, no matter who you are or how strong, you can lose enough things that matter—and acquire enough negatives—that the burdens will outweigh the joys of being alive. This is the stage when, as a doctor, I would reassure my patients and their families that they had fought the good fight and it was now OK to accept moving to the next phase.
Soon, hundreds of emails poured in from around the country. So here’s where a stranger entered the picture.
A Teacher of the Year from Wisconsin, Terry Kaldhusdal lost his brother to cancer around this time, and the experience made the part-time filmmaker decide to make a documentary about how people face death. When Kaldhusdal read my brother’s “100 Things,” he knew Marty was meant to be part of his project. Soon, Kaldhusdal and his filmmaking partner Mike Bernhagen flew to Sacramento and proceeded to film Marty for their documentary.
The film has just been released; it’s called Consider the Conversation: a Documentary About a Taboo Subject. With it, the filmmakers hope to become part of a national dialogue about end-of-life choices. In fact, the film and a panel discussion that includes the filmmakers and others will make its local debut in the Sacramento region this coming week (see column note).
A favorite writer of mine, Michael Ventura, once wrote an essay titled “You, in Particular, Are Going to Die.” I never have forgotten that “particular” and how important it is to live in full awareness of it. And I’ve come to realize lately how much my brother Marty understood that word “particular” to the core, and embraced it fully as he first imagined his theory of the 100 things.