ONE OF the closest members of my family, someone whose mental spirit is flagging, who is suffering anguish and confusion, and who is exhausted from major operations, recently confided in her brothers.
"Tell me what's going on," she said urgently. "I'm very afraid, very nervous. I want to know what's really going on."
Her oldest brother replied: "How can we help you be less frightened?" Both brothers' hearts thudded when she quietly replied: "Take my life."
The brothers left that alone just then. It was too difficult to respond.
When I think about my own mortality, perhaps my grimmest fear is to lose my memory and my facility for language and understanding. I "want to know what's really going on."
I do not wish to be lost in the stratosphere. My dad was lost the last five years of his life. He was no longer able to write letters to the editor, play bridge, read history, sing the old songs off-key. Gone forever from his mind where the stories we cherished: about marching off to World War I with the Fair and Square Boys' Marching and Chowder Society; the night the market crashed in '29, and he and his pals got tanked up and burned their useless stock certificates; the days in the '50s when he testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Racketeering.
Fortunately, amid Dad's terrible confusion, there was still room for tenderness when I visited and we walked the beach and swam together. When he became too heavy a burden on my mother, he would come and visit me for a fortnight. I had all his medications. Sometimes, when he'd cry out in anguish, not knowing where he was, who I was, I'd stare at his supply of tranquilizers. It's a terribly awesome responsibility to even consider ending, or helping to end, another's life.
I never had to choose. One day my mother heard the car start, and she rushed outside to see my father speeding up the street. (He had not driven in many years.) She called the sheriff. We found out later that he'd gotten on the Sunshine State Parkway and sped north. (What place or memory was he pursuing?) He refused to stop for the cops who, sirens blaring and hands waving, were trying to stop him for speeding. He pulled over only when the car ran out of gas. Yes, Pop was finally out of gas. He died in a hospital a few weeks later.
Upon reflection, one could say: Well, it's all in the woof and the warp. Life and death are difficult. Let nature take its course. Let the larger spirits prevail. Take us away in all good time. But it's not the good time that any of us wish to avoid.
No, it's the unremitting pain and exhaustion, the terrible fears arising from no longer knowing who in the name of God we are. Or who we were. Not recognizing the mates and children and friends who've stood by for so many, many years.
I want to die as peacefully as I can.
Last winter I made my annual journey to south Florida. My mother is 83. Her brother, Dan, is 91. In my journal I wrote: "Now the century and Uncle Dan have started into their 90s." I gently clip my mother's toenails, fry up some lamb chops, harangue her about the volume on the TV, skip the trip to Dad's grave. I never imagine getting out of Florida alive; even the weather is old.
I talk to my mother about living wills: "I don't want any hospital hook-ups. I want to be taken up by the weather. Consumed by a tornado, a flood, a blizzard." My own simple pine box is resting and waiting in a cow barn down the Paradise Valley near Yellowstone.
The fear I have, about losing my mind to senility, is that by the time I realize I'm hurtling down the track toward irrationality, by the time I know I've become an alien, gone incommunicado, been stranded on the far shores of human intercourse, it will be too late to stop this awful pain. I won't be able to disembark without help.
That is why I am already preparing for such a journey. Why my friends and family are already empowered to assist me, when I can no longer assist myself, in crossing the last river. When I can no longer recognize that the stop I was looking for has arrived.
And they are forever held blameless for their action. Not to be penalized by the state for knowing and loving me well enough to be the guardian angels I choose.
McCarthy Coyle writes from Missoula, Mont.