She’ll walk into the sea. Just like that. In an older version, she takes a boat, rows herself out a ways, and then lowers herself in. Paf, the end.
My mother has imagined for some time how she wants to die. In her later years, which, really, are upon her now, she wants a cottage near the ocean with a Mercedes Benz sitting in the driveway. Not necessarily to drive it, though.
“Just to look at it from my bedroom window,” she’d say.
She’s never owned a Mercedes, to my knowledge. It had been one of those status symbols for which she vied but never attained. Over the last five or six years, since the cancer came and went, and the cysts came and went, and the complications from the surgery to remove the cysts came and went, she’s dropped the fantasy about the Mercedes in the driveway. She still does look at real estate inMaine. Choosing her battles, I guess.
I visit her and my father for her 65th birthday. And his 68th, a month late.
“If it weren’t for this wedding, you wouldn’t have made the trip,” she says. She’s alluding to my friend’s wedding an hour from where they live. She’s right, but I don’t tell her as much.
On this visit, there’s no cancer, there’s no cyst, but she’s finally admitting that she might have Alzheimer’s.
“I just can’t keep track of anything anymore,” she says. She’s been saying it for years. She’s right, and I tell her as much.
Her mother died from Alzheimer’s. Forgot who the President was, forgot that her friends had long since passed away. Forgot it was Thanksgiving. Forgot who I was. Forgot how to talk. Forgot to breathe. Forgot to stop dying. So now my mother is thinking that that might be how she goes.
The prospect doesn’t excite her. By her own admittance, she hasn’t done the whole aging thing with any amount of grace.
“This getting old stuff is for the birds,” she tends to say.
When she got cancer, she opted out of chemotherapy. She was aware of the risks, of what would happen if the cancer came back, how she’d essentially be fucked if it did. She knew. And she opted out anyway. Despite our objections, the objections of the oncologist.
“I’m just not doing it,” she said. “That stuff’s just too yucky.”
So we watched as she didn’t do it. Fingers crossed, since none of us pray anymore.
We knew she wasn’t one for compromise – she never had been.
“Only child,” we’d say.
It manifested itself in many ways, mostly to our embarrassment: sending food back, returning faulty or imperfect products, demanding to speak to a manager and entrenching herself until the situation was resolved (i.e. until she got her way).
But with her health, we were all a little surprised when she remained as obstinate as she did. When she returned to the hospital after complications from the surgery where the cysts were removed, I spoke to a very drugged, very cranky, somewhat paranoid version of her. They were keeping her there against her will, the food was awful, she just wanted to go home. She had to go to work. I felt bad giggling.
“I need to get out of here, Jeff,” she slurred. “There’s no way I’m staying here another twenty four hours. I just can’t take it.” This, after they had told her she needed to stay the weekend. She, like her mother, did not do well in hospitals. Her mother would sneak out of her room, fold towels and sheets, and then deliver them to unsuspecting patients on other floors or halls. She had no idea where she was.
Again, though, on this visit, no hospital horror stories, no scary lumps, no x-rays with bad news. So instead, we ruminate on the possibility of a degrading brain. We don’t invoke her mother, not that we need to.
It was a long death. One that started with rheumatoid arthritis; in an earlier chronicle of her passing, I wrote that the arthritis slowed her down enough for the Alzheimer’s to catch her, to sink its teeth into her gray matter. Which it did, slowly, fucking painfully so.
When she took a cognitive baseline test at some point in the early 2000s, one of the questions was Who is the current President? She said Gerald Ford. Which was not correct.
It was before I went to college that we began to see it. Then in college, when I was living abroad and called home, she did not know that it was Thanksgiving, nor that dinner had been served already.
“We have to go eat now!” she said, as she hung up the phone.
When I last saw her, she was in a home, having forgotten how to dress herself, how to walk, how to form sentences. She could sit; she could move her eyes. For the half hour that we were there, my mother implored her to do the exercises the nurse had been doing with her: it was little more than raising her arms above her head.
“Do you remember your grandson Jeff?” she asked her mother. My grandmother looked at my mother and smiled. I waved, said hi, that it was good to see her.
“K, mom, we’re going to leave now,” my mother said eventually. “Do we get to hear you say good-bye?”
“Good-bye,” my grandmother said – the only words from her that day, the last I’d hear from her.
So now, we think, it might be my mother’s turn. For purely selfish reasons, I hope to shit it doesn’t get her. Looking at what a toll it took on her, the exhaustion, the frustration, the laughing at the fucken tragedy of it all – I can’t imagine my sister and I putting up with the shit that she did, being as good an advocate as she was, being as stubborn as she was to make sure her mother got good care, doing homework on the prescribed medications. I mean, she bought The Arthritis Bible; we mocked her for it, if only because we never saw her read it. But she bought the fucken thing, and that’s more than I’d do. I’d type a query into Google, see what it yielded, and if it took more than five minutes, I’d tell her I didn’t know how to help. Maybe my sister will be better about it. Maybe I’m underestimating my ability to care for her. Who knows – maybe we’ll rise to the task. Or maybe she’ll make us. She does understand the motivating power of guilt, and hasn’t hesitated to use it.
But we’re not there yet. We just don’t know what’s going to happen to her brain, what it will look like after the autopsy (we learned during my grandmother’s experience that a brain that dies from dementia looks different from a brain that dies from Alzheimer’s). We can’t even really say that my mother’s dying more than anyone else. We’re just sitting at the kitchen counter, her leafing through the paper or a flyer, me trying to edit a chapter for a book that I’m working on. I don’t even know how it comes up, but it does. Since no one else is dying, it might as well be her. My father’s parents are dead. Hers are both gone now, too; her stepfather hung on to the tether of his oxygen tank until he died on the toilet the next town over.
So it’s someone’s turn. My father’s genes are too good, and we all acknowledge this. We assume that Susan and I have a while, although our medical histories aren’t yet known (adoption). So maybe it’s right to assume that she’s next. Our extended family, well, sure, there are probably others in line before her, but in the immediate sphere, the cards are stacked against her.
“I’m not going to do it,” she says, referring vaguely to a slow, protracted death. “One day, I’m just going to walk out into the sea and keep going.”
I don’t look at her. I just nod. She knows she’s told me before. I don’t tell her I like the idea, that it sounds peaceful, that I’ve heard that drowning, after the panic dissipates, is actually a soothing way to die. I don’t tell her that a former colleague of mine who did search and rescue talked about how we often return to the water to greet our death. How in the winter inNew England, the water is warmer than the air. I just nod. Because what else can I do?
Because honestly, what the fuck is a son supposed to say to his mother who’s just told him how she wants to die?
I wonder if it’s a bluff, like her threats that she’s going to divorce my father. She’s been telling that story almost as long as she’s been telling me about the Mercedes that she’s now given up on, the boat trip that’s now just a casual walk in over her head.
I think to myself: I haven’t seen her in a body of water since I was in high school. I can’t even be certain that she’s taken a bath.
I wonder if this simple plan of hers will face as many obstacles as every other simple plan in her life. Every product she buys has a problem, every customer service experience she has requires long periods of being put on hold, escalation, fights with a manager, letters of complaint, a resolution that leaves a bitter taste (Four hours on the phone, Jeff, four hours). She does have terrible luck, and I can see her attempted suicide going horribly wrong: the Coast Guard doing some practice drill the day that she chooses to meander into death off the coast ofMaine. A dolphin or whale nudging her back to shore, where she’ll spit up seawater, look around, and then trudge back to her car which now won’t start because she left the lights on. Some improbable event would get in the way. And the thing is, I think she’s stubborn enough to try again just to prove her point. That she gets what she wants, that as with everything else in life, she is going to die on her own goddamned terms.
I continue typing, looking at the chapter that I’m editing, letting her commentary hang in the air. I finally look at her, and say: “Okay, then.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll make sure it looks like an accident,” she says.
“You better,” I tell her. “Otherwise, I won’t be able to collect on the insurance.”