“Waiting for Death, Alone and Unafraid,” paints a portrait of Dr. Edwin Shneidman, a 90-year-old suicide prevention expert who longs to die. A single day provides an elegant frame for this Los Angeles Times story, in which so little action unfolds that the reader feels as if Schneidman is dying into the story—or is already dead.
Author Thomas Curwen moves between scene and summary, filling in Shneidman’s backstory as the day progresses. Using the unexpected to advantage, Curwen offers surprises, such as his subject’s disappointment that emergency room staff were able to save him when he thought his life had ended. The piece feels less surefooted as it draws to a close. But imagery like “ash trees [that] throw their empty limbs into the sky” creates an elegiac and consistent tone for the story.
The accompanying audio slide show by Liz O. Baylen pairs Shneidman’s voice with understated but nicely composed photos of his daily activities and home. Baylen’s images manage to respect the elderly man’s dignity while betraying his vulnerability. And the pristine audio—in which Shneidman’s breathing contends with both the ambient sound and his own voice—lends a powerful intimacy.
The slide show portrays a more animated Shneidman than the print piece reveals. But ultimately, the print and audio portraits do what different media ought to do but so rarely manage to: offer complementary insights rather than aping each other.