One day in my father’s final year, he slumped to the floor while pushing his walker down a nursing home hallway. The staff came running, but he asked them not to call an ambulance. Later, when my sister wondered why, he told her, “I was hoping that was it.”
That wasn’t it. He lived another seven months, waiting for God to take him home and wondering what the holdup was.
Over the last five years, I’ve watched both my parents and my father-in-law decline and die. All three left me thinking, “That’s not how I want to go.”
Indeed, it could have been worse. None of the three lived the kinds of horror stories I’ve seen in TV dramas. Their “Do Not Resuscitate” orders were respected, so none lingered as attachments to machines. The medical system did what it could to minimize their pain rather than increase it with heroic one-last-hope treatments. But the very ordinariness of their dying process was horrifying in a different way.
I couldn’t tell myself, “This is what happens when something goes terribly wrong.” It just seemed to be what happens: the world shrinks, and people and places fall off the edge as you realize you will never see them again. Topics of conversation shrink as well, until even the weather becomes just another TV show—a show behind a different kind of glass.
And of course, no matter what drugs they give you, there is pain and distress. Eventually you need help to eat, help to sit in a chair, help to visit any room other than the one your bed is in. Life is full of embarrassing surprises as you lose control of bodily systems and have to wait for someone to clean you.
The most intractable pain is mental. My father-in-law developed increasingly dark delusions that could not be addressed in the reality where his daughters lived. One day he was surprised to see my wife, because he believed she was in the hospital recovering from a violent rape. Other days he waited to be arrested for the murders he believed he had committed recently, during a period when it took more than one person to get him out of bed.
I can’t imagine how I would feel if I believed things like that.
And what joyful events sat in the other pan of the balance? The Stephen King line I find most terrifying is a philosophical observation made by the narrator of Duma Key: “Someday, if your life is long and your thinking machinery stays in gear, you’ll live to remember the last good thing that ever happened to you.”
I don’t believe that statement is literally true; flashes of happiness can slip past even the most dismal circumstances. Still, I wonder: When will I have my last good day? How many days will come after that? As few as possible, I find myself hoping.
At the moment, I still find life fascinating, and I think of myself as a character in many stories whose endings I am curious to see. But I suspect that my world, like my parents’, will shrink as my abilities diminish. I hope I will manage my retreat skillfully, that I will retain enough imagination and creativity to write myself into new stories that give me meaningful goals more suited to my powers.
But it would be arrogant to expect that I will never lose that battle. If I live long enough, someday my world will shrink to the size of a room, my field of action to a bed or a chair. If I have visitors, they will come on their schedule, not mine.
I have watched four people decline towards death. My mother-in-law, in her sixties, could imagine many things to see and do, if only she could survive. My mother, in her late eighties and in considerable pain, hung on (I believe) mainly to keep my father from being alone. In their final months, only religion kept my father and father-in-law alive. Both believed that death was God’s to give, and feared that the promise of Heaven could still be revoked.
I have a different religion. I don’t pretend to know what happens after death. Maybe nothing. Or if there is something, no vision of it impresses me as much more likely than the others. Maybe, as my parents believed, there is a God who will resent me interrupting his plan for my death. Or maybe the path to Heaven is tricky, so I’d best set off while I still have my wits about me.
What seems more solid to me than any such speculation is the likelihood that someday I will have wrung the last drop out of my life, and yet, perversely, I will still be alive. At that point, I have one hope left. I hope to have the power, the will, and the fortitude to toss the husk of my life aside. I hope to die. Cross my heart.