If I wasn’t a coward I would have put a pillow over my mother’s imploring face and ended her misery. My misery. Everyone’s misery. But the world is so complicated. So ripe with legalese. We can put an animal out of its agony. But my mother, my best buddy, must suffer.
Such deplorable wretchedness we commit upon those who are begging to die.
She has moments of hazy clarity amidst long delusional stretches. Like a flaccid muscle her mind has gone limp. When she could remember who I was she was beseeching me to do something… to help her end it all. The spinal stenosis has been spiking screams of agonizing torment. There is little to be done as her spinal bones decompose. Narcotics can be applied… to a point.
So there I stood. Over her bed. Watching helplessly upon the torture. In a home where old folks go to linger and suffer until they are rescued by death. It’s across the Golden Gate Bridge not far from my brother-the-heart-doc and my sister-in-law-the-lawyer. Mom lays there like a plant towards the sun, in a room that costs more per month than what I pay in a year for my gracious apartment in Philadelphia.
She hardly eats. And not only because the unsavory food makes my bad cooking an epicurean delight. Her soft skin sags in loose billows about her emaciating 95-year-old body.
She had a good run of health up until about a year ago. Then she broke one hip. Then the other. At about the same time my brother’s fellow cardiologists put a few stents in some clogged arteries. At that my brother’s son, also a practicing interventional cardiologist, wondered to his Dad about his grandmother: “Are we doing the right thing?”
And my renowned brother, no doubt with a mixture of professional and gripping emotional overtones, replied: “We’ve got to give her a chance.”
When my nephew related this I got to thinking back to something said to me a lifetime ago after college when I was in Chicago. And there was only a week to go in our six-week training program to be a VISTA Volunteer.
VISTA was then a newly started program created as a sort of a domestic Peace Corps. And in the final week this laughing girl in our group of over 100 suddenly stopped laughing and announced that she was leaving. Moving on — just days before we were to be released to perform the seriously incongruous business of saving the world.
She judiciously explained: “I’ve learned it is always best to leave before the party’s over.”
Over 40 years later as I gazed upon the skin and bones of my once vivacious mother I heard myself screaming: “Let her go, the party’s over!”
It was almost exactly what an aging and ailing Nida repeated the other day over the phone. Six months older than Mom, Nida, a once voracious reader and Bridge player has lost her sight and can do neither. She doesn’t have the stomach to nourish her spindly body. She can’t drink her once savored cocktails. She can barely move with a walker. And she dies a little more with every step.
“When is enough, enough?” Nida cried to me. “Why can’t I just die with the little dignity I have left?”
But of course that is the question that may finally get answered when enough of us aging baby-boomers start pleading for our own Dr. Kevorkian.
The fact is, we have been so successful in the past century at the art of living longer and staying alive that we have forgotten how to die – at a time of our choosing. It should be a right, just like the rest of our liberties. Too often we learn this harsh reality the hard way.
As a free person, I ought to be allowed, if I’m dying or in unmanageable pain, to take something to end it all.
Most painful to my invalid mother is she is embarrassed at what she has been reduced to.
“Help me, Andrew,” she moaned, practically supplicating. “I want it to be over. I’ve had enough. I don’t want to be a bother to anyone anymore… It keeps getting worse… I want it all to end.”
For hours I held her soft hands. And tried to distract her pain with stories. Even though she couldn’t remember last week, or yesterday, or sometimes even me, today. But she could remember a boy named Jake from across her small-town girlhood street who was always getting into trouble. Like it was yesterday. Which to her it probably was.
Minutes of absolute silence would pass as my mother’s wandering mind struggled to remember who she was. And where she was. And what she was. And why she was here, when there was no ‘here’ here anymore. Only there… somewhere in time. Lost far, far away at sea — where the sky and the earth seem to greet and meet, melding into one.
From there in desultory fashion she asked me if I’d seen Pearl lately. Pearl was her older sister, who had polio as a child. And had died some 25 years ago.
I was about to tell Mom that I hadn’t seen Pearl in quite some time when Mom interrupted. And in a voice weakened by pain informed me: ‘You know, she married Henry because she thought she was getting old.’
How old was she, Mom?
‘She was almost 25.’
Did she love, Henry?
All my mother replied was: ‘Pearl thought she was getting old.’
And then Mom added: There weren’t many Jewish men around. A cousin in Philadelphia (some 50 miles away) introduced them. And a marriage was arranged.
At that I wondered about Dad who died over 22 years ago.
How about Dad, I asked. Did you love him?
She didn’t take long to respond.
‘He was a man. He walked into our store,’ she said. ‘I thought I was getting old.’
She was 23 when she married my 25-year-old father. He proposed to her in a letter that said in understated romance: “Let’s consider ourselves engaged.” And in the frigid month of mid January they wed. He wore a plain blue suit. And she wore a simple white dress. And their lives were never as plain and simple thereafter.
Amazing, 72 years after her wedding I learned that my mother married my irascible father because she felt she was getting old. By the ripe age of 23. Of course this was four years after that muscular guitar player on the beach in Miami had simply strummed a few chords to my curvy, well-endowed future mother and pitched her with: “Let’s get hitched, babe.”
Naturally, my immigrant grandfather, who mother would drive down U.S.1 to Florida for the heat to ease his brain tumor, would have none of such nonsense.
But of course. Truth is indeed the daughter of time. And in time, if you listen and pay attention, all things are revealed.
Meanwhile, as the sun was setting over the San Francisco Bay my mother wanted to sleep. But she said the pain thru her back wouldn’t allow it. And yet again she pleaded for me to make it go away. To end it all.
So I whispered her magic words: “Blue…Blue… Blue…”
And the baffle on my mother’s creased face eased into a faint smile. It was what her father had instructed her to say when he had painted her room pink. And my mother, as a petulant young child, wanted it to be blue, like the rooms of her two much older brothers.
At that my grandfather, who died before my time, instructed her to go into her room. Close her eyes. Turn around three times. And utter: ‘Blue… blue… blue.’ And when she opened her eyes she gleefully gushed. For now, if only in her mind’s eye, it was the most beautiful royal blue room she had ever seen. In fact she hung a sign outside her door announcing: Welcome to my Royal Blue room.
My mother got lost in that ancient memory for so long I thought she had perhaps dozed off. But then she slowly eased her head my way and stared at me… totally puzzled.
“Andrew,” I reminded her.
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘You live in Florida?’
No, Philadelphia, Mom.
‘Is that far?’
Right now to her everything is so far away.
Sometimes I think G-d put me on this earth to accomplish a certain number of things. And I am so far behind that I will never die. But on this day, I think I performed one of those tasks. I was holding my mother’s hands. The woman who had done so much to allow my life some dignity.
She asked for so little… except for me, in my writings one day, to pen her a love story – even though she knew that my love stories never ended in the grand manner of the romance novels she was always absorbing.
Indeed, I tried to give her so much with so many of my entertaining adventures. But now all I can give her is the time to hold her frail body in her final pain-filled days… when what she really seeks is for me to help end her misery.
In a firefight once years back in West Africa I was forced to kill men attacking us. There could be no equivocating. But that was then. And this is now, in America, where we quibble about everything.
Like I said, life in America is so complicated. Our laws are more concerned about the first nine months of an unborn, than the last nine months when we are miserably begging for it to be over.
And here and now this outrages me. Why is it that when we are ready to die we cannot die in the way we want?
Then again, I am a coward. And like all cowards we die a thousand deaths with somebody’s life in our hands.
And dats yDrewIS on dis penal colony…