The Evening of Life   /   Fall 2018   /    Thematic: The Evening of Life

Body on the Altar

Sarah Ruden

Sacrifice (detail), 1946, by Mark Rothko (1903–70), The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation/ ArtResource; © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

My father never had a high opinion of the medical profession generally.

Before dawn one day a little over a decade ago, my brother called to tell me our father had died. Just a week before, he had collapsed from a “digestive trouble,” and my mother had summoned an ambulance, but none of us thought at the time that he was in any serious danger. He was only seventy-six, and had gone along on a bird-watching expedition a couple of weeks before.

My father had never made his own welfare or mortality an issue—and his devotion to this arrangement discouraged the rest of us from disputing it. As he aged, it was also of course convenient for us grown children to have a tireless, faithful, though bad-tempered servant in the background of our adventures. Even now, in fact, though this essay is supposed to be about my father, it’s hard for me not to bring the attention straight back to me and my generation. In my defense, that is how he wanted things to be; he was stubborn in his efforts to prevent anyone from knowing what his suffering was actually like. Writing about him now is therefore an act of impiety I’d rather avoid.

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