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Is a better home awaiting in the sky?

By Robert O’Connor.

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[This is part of a series on the complete works of Studs Terkel. The last book looked at was The Spectator.]

Studs Terkel had death on his mind ever since he was a little kid. When he was growing up in New York, he had terrible asthma. His next door neighbor died of scarlet fever. His father was ill with a set of ailments, ultimately done in by a bad heart. Studs grew averse to sleep, fearing he may never wake up.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken (named for the famous hymn of the same name) is a book about death, and our relationship to it. He interviews Delbert Lee Tibbs who looked at death head on. Tibbs, a black man, was sentenced to death row for raping and murdering a white woman in Florida, but he was later found innocent and released. Tibbs talks at length about his experience facing possible death at the hand of the state, and how  difficult it is being a black man in America. The interview is even more relevant now considering the recent firestorm concerning the shooting of Trayvon Martin, whose murder some people are comparing to the murder of Emmett Till.

Till’s mother, Mamie Mobley, appears again in the book. Kid Pharaoh is also interviewed – the last time he’ll appear in any of Studs’ books. He’s now a 73-year-old man with back issues. Dr. Marvin Jackson is also interviewed. It’s here that Studs reveals that Lucy Jefferson’s real name was Lucille Dickerson. Jackson is her grandson. Dickerson was a hospital aide who told Studs, “The only thrill left for me is to see my grandchild come to life and see what I can do about him.” A few sentences later, she mentions the “feeling tone.” As she was talking, her pregnant daughter was sitting in the room, and she would later give birth to Dr. Jackson. Jackson was interviewed in Race under the name William Freeman.

Kurt Vonnegut is interviewed in the book and has some things to say about death. He was interviewed not long after he was hospitalized for smoke inhalation. He was in a coma for three days. He had just published God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, where the premise is that Dr. Kevorkian gives him a near-death experience. Vonnegut says that everyone has had a near-death experience, called sleep.

The book is not just about people who have faced death – those people are rare. More often people think about death with some first-hand experience with it. Ira Glass, the host of the radio program This American Life, says in the book he thinks about death every day, and this encourages him to live a fuller, more satisfying life.

Chaz Ebert, Roger Ebert’s wife, is also interviewed about death. She considers herself an atheist, but talks about the grim reaper – who she didn’t believe in – visiting her when her ex-father-in-law died. She wonders about what happens to people when they die, and whether she’ll die suddenly. She mentions at the end that Roger is more pragmatic about death – people are born, people die, and he doesn’t expect to be reunited with them.

Ebert’s interview came shortly after Roger’s longtime television colleague Gene Siskel passed away. Siskel had kept his illness private even though it took an obvious toll on him, and when he passed it was a hard shock for everyone (much of this comes from the recent oral history of At The Movies by Josh Schollmeyer published in March in the Chicagoan and excerpted in Slate). A year after this book came out, Roger Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and was open and frank about his illness in order to avoid a similar situation. In 2006, Ebert underwent a series of operations – and was even declared dead on the operating table at one point – which resulted in him being unable to speak. According to Ebert’s recent memoir Life Itself, he is comfortable with death, and grateful that Chaz is with him for the time being.

When Studs was beginning to work on this book, his wife Ida died on December 23, 1999 after undergoing heart surgery. The chief cardiologist at the hospital where she died is one of the first interviews in the book. Ida had undergone another heart surgery a few years earlier, which nearly shattered Studs.

Studs underwent quintuple bypass surgery in 1996. His two brothers and father had died in their 50s of bad hearts. Studs had some of the same difficulties, but survived to the age of 96. His mother and wife lived to the age of 87.

There’s a mortician interviewed in the book who says he was often told there were three things to not bring up in conversation: You don’t talk about religion, politics or sex. He says that death should also be included. It’s a subject on everyone’s mind, and yet it is so emotionally charged, and unique to everyone that we cannot talk about it. It is, as Studs puts it, the one adventure we all must take, but that none of us is perhaps ready to. Ida’s death was not the impetus for writing the book – Studs gives Gore Vidal the credit of coming up with the idea of “a book about death.” But writing this book may have helped him grieve. It certainly wasn’t foreshadowing on his part that death was coming – he still had a few more books left in him.

[Next: Why activists and those who fight the good fight are so important in Hope Dies Last.]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

profileRobert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012.