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A Serpentine Demise

Reflections on life and a biting headline

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Ben Portnoy

SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS Ben Portnoy looks for enlightenment in the morning paper. (Photo:

Snake handler dies after being bitten in shoulder at fest.” This headline, as seen in the Houston Chronicle on May 3, 2022, jumped out at me. The article read:

A South Texas snake handler died Saturday after he was bitten by a snake during the annual Freer Rattlesnake Roundup that day, officials said.

Freer police said Eugene De Leon Sr. was handling rattlesnakes in front of a crowd when he was bitten in the shoulder around 1 p.m. Corpus Christi’s KIII-TV reported.

De Leon was flown to a Corpus Christi hospital but died that night. Freer, an area where there is a large rattlesnake population, is about 110 miles south of San Antonio.

In a Facebook post, De Leon’s family said he was passionate about snake handling at the Freer festival and “died doing what he loved.” 

I pause to consider the above news item, and two questions come to mind. The first is whether it matters if you die doing something you love, and the second is what do you love to do so much that dying while doing it makes your death a bit less of a downer. 


Recently, a friend fell over dead in his backyard while building a playhouse for his grandchildren. He was an accomplished carpenter in his free time and, over the years, he had made beautiful cherrywood furniture, artistic cutting boards and salad bowls as well as greenhouses, tree houses, and wooden decks. Clearly, he enjoyed his woodworking hobby, but when he breathed his last breath while hammering shingles on the playhouse roof, was that pleasure sufficient to offset the event of his demise? I don’t know, and he is not around to interview, so I will never know whether dying in this way made it a little more acceptable. At least his death was sudden. Still, he is dead.

I had a medical colleague years ago who smoked cigarettes every chance he had. He even smoked in his office while interviewing and examining his patients. He was warned that his smoking habit, in addition to his elevated cholesterol level and lack of exercise, posed a real danger of heart disease.

Once at lunch, another doctor tore into him about this smoking habit, and my smoking colleague told the preaching friend that he knew the risks. He said, however, that he loved the feel of lighting a cigarette, of putting the Lucky in his mouth, and of inhaling the warm flavorful smoke so much that he would never stop smoking. And then one day he dropped dead in his office with a lit cigarette in his hand. As he fell, the cigarette tumbled from his grip and burned a hole in his trousers. Did dying this way lessen the horrible facts of his end and of the hole in his pants? 

Back to the introductory questions: Does it matter if you die doing what you enjoy most? And if you do expire doing that activity, is your death somehow made better? I think the first question is not so easy to answer. Did the snake-loving Texan referenced above succumb more quietly as a victim to the activity he dearly loved? Or did he think, in the end, what an idiot he was to have let that rattlesnake bite him? In that case, his end was probably bitter as well as bitten. 

The second question is equally difficult to answer. I try to think what I love so much that dying while doing it would make my end a happier occasion or an easier one.

I like swimming, and I usually swim in a pool unattended by a lifeguard. I imagine myself having some fatal episode and sinking to the bottom of the pool. But that is not an attractive option. I am basically a shy person, and I hate to make a spectacle of myself. I like taking photographs and editing them on the computer, but when I consider this, I do not think the joy is sufficient to make dying while photographing much of a mitigating factor. Lately, I have taken up birdwatching, and I think of myself out on a trail looking for some warbler and falling over dead. Then a turkey vulture could pick away at my body and leave nothing but bones. Ugh, that is pretty ugly.

There are so many things I love – getting together with friends and family, participating in book clubs, tending to our garden, riding bicycles, travelling, watching movies. None of these seem to me very soothing for a death. I guess what I love to do most is sleep. In that case, dying would be kind of nice as I would not be aware of my passing.

The truth is that I cannot make up my mind about what I love so much that it could be said that he “died doing what he loved.” So I have made up my mind, at last: I shall not die at all, and that settles that.

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