Don Ross has lived 92 years of an achieving life, but uppermost in his mind these days is how it will end, and specifically the beginning of the end. His concern is not death itself, but dying. He thinks we defy nature by obsessively trying to keep old people alive past their time.
Now, if you’re muttering, “What a downer of a way to start Monday,” well, yeah, you could look at it that way. So, let’s take a breather from the morbid and look at this man’s peripatetic life.
Don’s ready to talk. He does that well and often. We’ll have to skip around a bit to follow him because his restless mind has migrated across many borders before landing in his retirement apartment at Wesley Palms in Pacific Beach.
Don was born in New York City in 1922. He would have borne the surname Rosenbaum had his father not changed it to hide from the anti-Semitism that was in full gallop across the country during that era. Though Don’s family completely eschewed religion, back then a Rosenbaum was still a Rosenbaum. What his father did was the same as many others. He joined the line of Jews at the courthouse to take shelter in goy names. Thus, was born Don Ross.
When his mother was criticized for antipathy against her heritage, she said she had none, but she didn’t want her son to be an obvious Jew. “What you’ve got to do is mix with the Christians,” she told him.
Don realized early on, as did a great many other Jews, that learning well was the best revenge. He earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University in engineering science in 1953.
As happens in so many careers upon graduation, engineering got put away in the same drawer as the diploma. He spent more than four decades as a Navy civilian worker specializing in something distant from his education, but as he says of many science disciplines, “If you’re good at one (specialty), you probably would be good at another.”
Don ended up with a career in underwater acoustics. He was an expert on submarine noise and detection, and aspects of torpedoes. He found himself deep into what he called the “hot cold war during the Cold War,” between the submarines of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
“Our submarines were going into Russian waters in order to spy on their submarines. We gathered information by listening to their cable transmissions, by taking underwater pictures and by capturing acoustic recordings. I was responsible for interpreting the results they were getting.”
In the gray waters of the Arctic or the blue waters of the equator, nuclear subs of both countries played hide and seek, and sometimes even tag, aware that at any time it might cease to be a game. The trade name for that is spying, which conjures visions of derring-do by Ian Fleming’s James Bond, or Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. However, I can’t see James Bond selling many books by spending hours-weeks-years listening to blips through earphones or analyzing zig-zaggy lines on graph paper.
Don describes one of the contributions he made. “In 1957, the Soviets claimed they had produced a nuclear submarine. Our Navy didn’t believe they could have one so soon. The Russians operated their new sub where they knew we could record its noise. I was called in to analyze the recordings. I was able to determine that their sub was powered by steam turbines geared to the propellers. I could even tell how many teeth the gears had. This was consistent with nuclear propulsion, and the next day our Navy confirmed that the Russians had a nuclear sub.”
When he retired in the mid-’80s, Don departed with a submariner’s Dolphins award for his service. That left him with a remaining quarter-century of life, and still counting.
When he married Harriet, his Christian first wife, Don, being Don and open to anything, became baptized, joined the church and became a congregational deacon. He was an enrolled Christian for 25 years.
“I served communion and things of that sort,” he says. “I had already read the four books … what do you call them?”
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Gospels.
“Yeah, the Gospels. From that, the teachings of Jesus made a hell of a lot of sense to me. Since I married a Christian woman, it made sense to become Christian. However, I did not believe in the Trinity. I believed in God at that time, and I believed in Jesus’ teaching, but I did not believe in the Trinity.”
When you became a Christian, were you running from being a Jew?
“Not particularly, no. I really wanted to be a follower of the teachings of Jesus, and that’s still there, by the way. The teachings of Jesus and Buddha are very compatible.”
(In my mind’s ear, I can hear conservative Christians groaning. Faith-based acoustics.)
Don says he’s no longer religious but subscribes to being “spiritual,” the definition of which is as stable as a loose bottle on a pitching deck. To him, spiritual means sensitivity toward social justice and his work through the years for minorities and racial equality.
Don has lost one of his three children to heart disease and has had his own health battles in recent years. However, he learned much about the nature of life and its proper end with the 2010 death of his second wife, Nancy, who was 91. Nancy was a retired secretary and a person of strong convictions that were tested when she was diagnosed with rectal cancer.
It was no surprise to Don when she made the decision to forego chemotherapy and other life-extending measures. Nancy was an active member of the Hemlock Society and believed that for a terminally ill person, death was to be respected as the closing of the circle, and not to end in lingering pain and being stripped of dignity.
Don says Nancy had observed elderly friends with terminal cancer who had undergone the full course of chemo, radiation and exotic drugs. She saw that it didn’t seem to make much difference. What it did do was consume medical and societal resources and personal wealth, all for naught.
Don says if she had undergone treatment, she’d have to wear a colostomy bag. She didn’t want to go through all that. Also, Medicare would be paying for it, and she did not want to burden taxpayers.
Nancy’s two daughters and two granddaughters were supportive. Nobody said anything negative to her. There was absolutely no attempt by anybody to change her mind, he says.
“The doctors kind of went, ‘Huh?’ but didn’t try to talk her out of it. It was four weeks from diagnosis to death. She spent the time in home hospice until her final four days.
“Those last weeks we had quite a bit of time together, particularly at night. I’d come in and lie down on the bed with her and we’d talk about things we had been talking about for years, nothing new. We talked about the children.”
Was she sad?
She’s dying and she’s not sad?
“She believed in the Buddhist philosophy where dying is part of life.
“She was free of pain, and was not medicated. She was lucid up to three or four hours before she died. She kept conversing with everybody.
“She was a role model all our married life, and by the way she chose to die, she was a role model then, too.”
Don says he also sees death as, ideally, the benign termination of existence. What he has learned to fear is dying badly — the suffering of pain, the withering away, the forcing friends and family to bestow pity in the last days when the focus should be on love and respect.
“I believe in legacies. Nancy left a beautiful one. My legacy will mainly be all the young people I’ve influenced by mentoring them, and by working for social justice. And, finally, by leaving goodwill behind me.”
Don Ross at 92 can see the exit gate as he nears it. And when he walks through and into the darkness beyond, he wants that last act to be thinking and thoughtful. The last entry to his legacy.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org