Ushering My Father to a (Mostly) Good Death

Saturday, November 25th, 2017


[Published in Longreads, November 2017]

“How about Tuesday?”

My father is propped up on three pillows in bed, talking logistics with my sister and me. We’ve just brought him his Ovaltine and insulin.

“Or would Thursday be better? That’s a couple days after the kids are done with camp.”

“Ok, let’s plan on Thursday.”

My father is scheduling his death. Sort of. He’s deciding when to stop going to dialysis. That starts the bodily clock that will lead to his falling into sleep more and more often, and then into a coma, and eventually nothingness.

He is remarkably sanguine about the prospect, which we’ve all had a long time to consider. A master of the understatement, he promises it’s not a terribly hard decision, to stop treatment and let nature takes its course, “but it is a bit irreversible.”

If I’m honest, he’s ready now to stop dialysis. It’s a brutal routine for someone in his condition, incredibly weak and fragile from living with end-stage pancreatic cancer, kidney disease, and diabetes. It’s painful for him to hold his head and neck up, which he has to do to get to the dialysis center. During the procedure, he must be closely watched so his blood pressure doesn’t plummet.

But he’s always been a generous man. He’s willing to sacrifice his own comfort in his dying days for the convenience of his family, since we all want to be present at the end. If he pushes his last day of dialysis to Tuesday, then my sister can still go on the California vacation she’d been planning with her family. If he pushes it to Thursday, I can still take the journalism fellowship I’d accepted. It will also give his grandchildren time to finish up their summer jobs and fly down.

Are we selfish for allowing him to make these choices? Possibly. But he insists, as he always has, that living for his children’s and grandchildren’s happiness is what gives his existence meaning. We hope that’s true. This is a man who spent his career as a professional decision analyst but always picked the worst-colored ties.

As it happens, though, when Thursday comes, he just can’t get out of the house. He is practically crying from discomfort as the caretaker lifts him off the bed onto his rollator, to start the journey up the stair lift and into the car. I tell him it’s okay. He can get back in bed. He looks so relieved when we rest his head back on the pillows.

I cancel my Amtrak ticket home to western Massachusetts and tell my husband not to expect me for the rest of the month….

(To keep reading, click here)

Rex V. Brown: A Life

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

Rex Brown was a devoted family man, a pioneer in the field of decision theory, a warm and brilliant wit, an infuriating contrarian, an irrepressibly generous friend and father, an ever-trying (in both senses) husband, and – if his gracious handling of several terminal diagnoses is any indication — the very definition of a trooper. He died on July 25, 2017 at the age of 83.

He was born on September 25, 1933 in London to Diane Vandesteene Brown, a Belgian immigrant to England. He was raised by Diane and her husband Leon Brown, who Rex learned years later was not his biological father. While his relationship with Leon was marked by tension and mistreatment, he was utterly devoted to his mother and they had a warm, loving relationship. He was also close to his sister Ines.

He grew up during World War II, and almost didn’t survive the blitz; he was recovering from tuberculosis in a London hospital when it was bombed, but managed to crawl out of the building holding his toothbrush. Years later, as an adult, he worried about not having enough to eat and always ordered more at restaurants than anyone could consume.

He was born into Roman Catholicism, but during the war a Jehovah’s Witness came to his mother’s door and converted Diane and her two children. After adolescence, Rex left the religion and became a disciple of atheism, then agnosticism.

He was smart, curious and mischievous from a young age, and won a scholarship to attend Minchendon Grammar School.  He excelled, though he always felt he was falling short, something he attributed to his father’s emotionally abusive behavior. He nevertheless earned a place at Queens College at Cambridge University, where he experienced some of his most fulfilling years. (This was after a two-year stint in the British Navy, for which he had volunteered, he said, to “toughen” himself up.)

At Cambridge University, he was active in theater and briefly considered pursuing acting as a career. In 1956, he organized one of the first student trips from England to the University of Moscow (Russian, which he learned in the Navy, was among his several languages). He reported being approached for espionage by both the West and the East, but – in deference to his academic interests – declined all offers.

He later got a doctorate at Harvard Business School, where he met a number of like-minded colleagues in the fledgling field of decision analysis. Several of his publications, including an early textbook, are considered classics in the field. He ended up leaving academia in the 1970s to become a professional decision analyst for several consulting firms, starting in Michigan and then the D.C. area. He co-founded the company Decision Science Consortium in Reston, VA.

On the personal front, he enjoyed a number of girlfriends throughout his twenties and early 30s –and remained close friends with several of them for the rest of his life. But his goal was always to become a father, so he set about finding a wife. In 1965, his Harvard roommate introduced him to Dalia Levy, an Israeli interior designer, and within three weeks they were engaged. (Family lore has it that visa issues sped up the process.) They married three months later, and remained married for the rest of his life. He converted to Judaism so they could raise their children Jewish.

His first daughter, Michele, was born in 1962 from an earlier relationship with Gay Moran, who raised Michele in England.

His next three daughters, with his wife Dalia, were born in 1966 (Karen) and 1969 (twins Tamara and Leora.)

As much as he enjoyed and found satisfaction in his profession, nothing came close to the joy, commitment, and love he felt for his children, and later, his grandchildren. He had long wanted to raise children with an affection that would represent the opposite of how his father had raised him, and he succeeded. He could never understand why anyone would not want children, and as many as possible.

He doted on his seven grandchildren – Keenie and Shane (from Michele), Sam and Lucy (from Karen), Kobe (from Tamara), and Hazel and Jackson (from Leora.) He often said he felt incredibly lucky with his sons-in-law, including Karen’s husband Sean, Leora’s husband John, Michele’s husband Eamon, and Tamara’s partner Anthony.

He was often the center of family gatherings, singing Tom Lehrer tunes, cracking inappropriate, politically-incorrect jokes, and managing to bring his wit and generosity into every conversation. Most people adored him. He loved to challenge established opinions, to make people see the uncomfortable side of any issue (which could drive his family mad). He also liked to defend Quixotic endeavors – and remained convinced that feature-length “hologram movies” were an untapped goldmine.

He was dedicated to supporting other people’s ambitions and dreams, often using his own money, connections, or creativity to help them, and this included people he didn’t know that well. He once brought a little girl home with him from the bus stop to play with his children because she looked like she was lonely. (He also made a habit of donating to public broadcasting several times a year, because he never remembered his previous donation.)

His absentmindedness was infamous; he may be the only person who left the gas nozzle in his car as he drove away from the station…twice. He often left the house in his slippers, and once checked into a conference hotel … in the wrong city (he forgot he had a connecting flight).

His lack of self-consciousness, combined with a deep desire to learn new things, led him to a number of unconventional pursuits: he’d go to drum circles in Takoma Park and dancing at a lesbian bar in Northampton, he took guitar lessons alongside his daughters, and he could always be found dancing with his hands making odd-looking circles at any party gathering.

Although he “semi-retired” in the 1990s, he remained committed to the science of decision-making, and spent his last decades writing papers and books about how the layperson can make better decisions. When he wasn’t with his children or grandchildren, he was at his computer, writing his professional tomes. This was a common source of frustration for his wife Dalia, but she knew it was also what fed his vitality.

In 2011, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer – after he used his decision analysis know-how to convince his doctor to test him. He had surgery to remove the tumor, and – in a feat that amazed most doctors – went into remission. Over the next few years, he had a number of additional health issues, including several orthopedic surgeries and diabetes, but he was always able to bounce back and continue with professional work, trips with family, and many probing conversations with friends and progeny.

In late 2015, his kidneys started to fail, and after traveling to Florida to attend his daughter Leora’s wedding, he began dialysis. In early 2017, he was diagnosed with a recurrence of pancreatic cancer, and chose not to treat it. He entered hospice care at home.

Throughout this medical turmoil, he kept up regular visits to the swimming pool and weight machines, took trips out on his backyard boat, and remained fully engaged in family life. He also expressed great relief at having finally come out from under the poor self-esteem his father had instilled, and declared that he believed he was actually a pretty impressive guy.


Up until the final month of his life, he was putting the finishing touches on his last book, “The Art and Science of Making Up Your Mind: Decision Theory for the Everyman.” He learned a week before his death that it would be going into production.
After he wrung every last drop out of his physical being (he lost about 75 pounds in 4 years), his irrepressible spirit left his body. He was surrounded by his family when he took his last breath.
As he often said in his final days, “I am not too bothered about shuffling off this mortal coil. I feel quite complete. I am just sorry that, if I’m not mistaken, a number of people will miss me.”

He got that right.






Forcing My Teen To Talk, By Extortion

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

[From The Washington Post's "On Parenting" Section, March 30, 2016] 

Parenting by extortion came to me naturally one morning during the regular breakfast hustle.

My 16-year-old daughter was rushing to get out the door for school, wrapping her peanut butter sandwich in cellophane, when she stopped suddenly. Her face went white. “Shoot. I forgot this was my day to bring snacks to European History.”

Never mind the potential for a time-traveling pun. In an academic culture where brown-nosing is blood sport, this was a serious oversight. In the split second I had to respond, I sensed I had a few choices. I could be Magnanimous Mom and sweetly offer to save her you-know-what by handing over our household granola bar supply for the week. Or I could be Teach Responsibility Mom, and explain stoically that this is how you learn to write things down in your calendar.

I decided to be Opportunistic Mom.

“Okay, here’s the deal,” I said, as she slowly raised her eyebrows. “I will pick up some ginger snaps at the supermarket and drop them off at the school before work. But I want something in return: This evening, I want to hear three full sentences from you about your life. Each has to have a subject, a verb, and at least 2 adjectives.”

As she pondered the deal, I sensed I had aimed too low. “Also, one piece of harmless gossip about someone in your school.”

She knew she had no leverage; first period started in 18 minutes. She also knew why, out of all the cruel promises I could extract from her, intimate conversation was the most valuable to me….

To continue reading in The Washington Post, click here


Extreme Parenting: On Snowshoes and Rollercoasters

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

The New York Times’ “Motherlode” Blog, April 3, 2015

By Karen Brown

When I was growing up, my father was terrified of roller coasters, but he would still ride on them with my sisters and me. Our favorite, the Rebel Yell, had several towering, rounded peaks and a rickety wooden track. My father would pace nervously for the 45 minutes in line, feel sick in the trek to the top, nauseated on the drop, green and queasy as we rolled back to the gate and then just shake his head the rest of the day in shock and relief. 

Then one day, after he had endured this routine for a decade, he had a revelation: “I don’t have to do this!” He realized he could let us get on the ride alone and wait for us at the bottom, happily eating his corn dog.

And guess what? While we might have preferred that he join us, when we got off the roller coaster, we loved him exactly the same.

I thought about my father’s epiphany a lot in the weeks leading up to my four-day snowshoe hike in the White Mountains with my son. I signed up for this guided trip, not because I was dying to trudge through several feet of snow and sleep in an unheated hut, but because my son loves extreme adventure. It’s not easy to curry favor with a 16-year-old, and this seemed like a potentially winning entry in the sweepstakes called: ‘How do you get your teenager to love and appreciate you?’ (My daughter, thankfully, is happy with a Broadway show.)….

To read full essay, click here

“It’s Monday. Why Does It Always Have To Be A Snowday.”

Monday, February 9th, 2015

The New York Times’ Motherlode Blog, February 9, 2015

By Karen Brown

All around me, doors are swinging open and closed, boots are dripping on the wood floor, the dog is jumping up and down with white flakes on her snout, siblings are arguing over who gets more of the shoveling money, and my husband is reorganizing our books and doing the laundry.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. 

It’s a Monday and I should be home alone. 

It’s my “me” day. And I will do many things for my family, but I will not give this up. Even on a snow day.

O.K., officially, Mondays are my day to freelance. After 16 years of full-time reporting at a public radio station, I negotiated one day off a week, unpaid, to have some control over my own time and try my hand at new kinds of writing. And, in fact, this new schedule has allowed me to take on jobs that I didn’t have time for in the past.

But here’s what I really do on my freelance day….

To read full essay, click here

Motherlode: Whose Anxiety Is It Anyway?

Friday, March 21st, 2014

What does a parent — who happens to be a mental health reporter — do when she’s concerned about her son? Dives headfirst into the D.S.M., of course. He could have Social Anxiety Disorder. Or maybe Social Phobia. Perhaps Generalized Anxiety Disorder? Or he could just be shy.

Read my personal essay in the New York Times’ Motherlode blog here