Death with dignity has come to mean choosing to end a terminally ill patient’s life. But there is a different kind of death with dignity, which I witnessed this week. My best friend, Andy Bornstein, died Sunday. He had been ill with complications from diabetes for many years. In April, he lost his foot, but he had been unable to walk for some time. Yet he maintained a will to live life to the fullest.
Andy enjoyed the finer things. He loved a good meal (too much, as he’d be the first to tell you). He loved going to the theater. His preference was Broadway musicals, but he indulged my more serious bent by subscribing to season tickets for the Shakespeare Theater in Washington each year. Our last big outing together was just last month to see Aeschylus’ "The Persians."
"You’ll love this one, it’s depressing as hell," he said. "Much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments."
I met him in the lobby just minutes before curtain time. He was outfitted in a sports jacket and Hermes tie with his trademark Borsalino straw hat. Getting ready to go out took hours and required assistance ever since he lost the feeling in his legs. Always a fastidious dresser despite his weight, he was chagrined that lately he was consigned to wearing T-shirts and sweat pants for ease of dressing. But there he was in his candy-apple red motorized wheelchair dressed to the nines, despite the bandaged stump of his newly amputated foot.
Getting him into place in the theater was quite a trick. He had become adept at maneuvering his bulky wheelchair, but the tiny box at the Shakespeare was a real challenge. The entry to the box was perpendicular to three steps, which would have spelled disaster if Andy overshot. I finally persuaded him that I should stand on the stairs so that he’d know when to turn. After several attempts, with everyone holding their breath, he parked his chair perfectly.
He claimed to have loved every minute of the play, but I saw him nod off a few times. Afterward we went next door to our favorite Spanish restaurant, but his appetite was waning the sicker he became. We talked about the play, especially the politics of the production. "The Persians" is the oldest play extant in Western culture, but its story of an ill-conceived war seemed very contemporary.
Andy was a conservative in most things, political and cultural, even though he worked for a labor union, which is how we met in 1977. I was the editor of the American Federation of Teachers’ newspaper and magazine, and he was the graphic designer. It was only when I told Andy that I was planning to vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980 that he admitted to being a lifelong Republican.
Even as Andy’s health deteriorated, he insisted on working. After being hospitalized several times this year, he decided to move his bed into his office so that he could continue to design publications even as he became bedridden, as he knew he inevitably would.
He was aware he was terribly sick, but he never felt sorry for himself. His days increasingly were spent shuttling to and from doctors’ offices, being poked and prodded, subject to countless indignities. But he remained cheerful, always optimistic. When I told him that I was planning a pool party over July 4th weekend but I assumed he wouldn’t be able to come, he said, "Why not?"
There was no stopping Andy. He could barely sit up, but he delivered the final design for the AFT magazine late last week. He was getting ready for a much-anticipated family reunion at the end of the month and looking forward to a hot dog and homemade potato salad at my house a few weeks later.
Andy taught me many things over the years, but his final lesson was the most important. Death with dignity means a whole lot more than dying quickly. It was impossible to pity Andy because life remained a joy to him. He will be missed by everyone whose life he touched.