Dying with dignity

My sons are all too eager to help me go.


Dying with dignity

Old age, and the necessity to prepare for it, are hot topics of late. We are urged, those of us moving into middle age, to ready our families for the decline. We must discuss “arrangements” — nursing home, retirement village or Leisure World — while preparing living wills and making sure that everyone knows our wishes, pull-the-plug-wise.

This makes sense, especially as it has become apparent to me that certain relatively common side effects of old age are ones I would prefer to forgo. Senile dementia, for instance. I’ve seen the effects in my own family. To my thinking, senile dementia is a good place to make one’s exit. Who would want to stick around for that? (Assuming, of course, one has the presence of mind to know exactly when senile dementia has arrived.)

Consequently, I decide to announce to my two sons, each of them in turn, that I do not intend to go through anything like that. No way. If I start to slip, if my mind starts to dim, they are to escort me to the balcony and give me a push.

I spend time phrasing this request, to give it both the impact and the weight it deserves. My sons, I feel modestly, will undoubtedly be impressed with my foresight, my trust in them and my discernible courage.

The conversations, however, do not go quite the way I’d envisioned. To their credit, both my sons politely refrain from pointing out that my apartment is only on the second floor. They understand that I am talking metaphorically, not asking for a sprained ankle. I appreciate this.

Still, their reactions are not what anyone would call satisfactory.

Jesse, the older at 31, actually gets a noticeable gleam in his eye, which I find most unsettling. He squares his shoulders, clearly finding the image of himself as the Terminator strongly appealing.

“You mean it?” he asks. “You really mean it? Because I’ll do it.”

There is something a bit unseemly, not to mention precipitous, in his readiness. I do mean it, and am sure many others over the years have made similar requests just as wholeheartedly, but I don’t know that such a frank eagerness to comply is the effect I was looking for.

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“I mean it,” I say, but even I can hear a note of doubt creeping into my voice. I move to clarify. “I’m talking about my mind going, you understand.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he says impatiently — he’s focused on the bottom line. “Sure, great. If you want it, I’ll do it.”

I suddenly recall how often in the past he has been quick to call me on small errors of memory; how incensed he has always been when I accidentally call him by his brother’s name, or his father’s name, or make any one of the tiny inadvertent slips a middle-aged woman can be expected to make. Perhaps he thinks …

“When it goes completely,” I emphasize. “You know, totally. When I no longer know what I’m …”

“You want it, I’ll do it,” he says, smiling happily, overriding me. “Sure. No problem. Nooo problemo.”

At this point, I consider it best to change the subject.

I comfort myself with the knowledge that Toby, his 29-year-old brother, will react differently. A compassionate guy, he will sense instinctively the correct response, know exactly the sensitive, caring, reassuring words …

“I’ve got an even better plan,” says Toby, immediately, when I reach him by phone.

“What’s that?”

“Why don’t I just take you out right now?”

“But …”

“Sure, that way we won’t have to wait around, not knowing when it’s going to happen, wondering … you know. We can just take care of the whole thing right away. Case closed.”

He’s joking, right? “I’m not sure that would be quite what I …”

“Of course it would! Great idea, Mom. That’s how we’ll handle it, then. See you soon!”

I have, it appears, given birth to the Menendez brothers’ brothers.

There was actually a time when I was proud to have produced sons. Girls whine, I used to say dismissively. They sulk, their hair needs undue attention, their clothes need ironing.

They never talk casually about whacking you, either.

I fantasize lovingly about having the dignified-death conversation with a daughter.

“Mom, don’t talk like that! Don’t even say it!” She bursts into tears.

I am calm, infinitely serene. “Darling, we need to talk of these things. It’s much better to prepare.”

“I can’t even bear to hear you say it. I could never — and anyway, it’ll never happen. Why, you have the best mind in the world! I can’t imagine …”

“Yes, yes, I know. But if something should happen …”

“Why, if anything like that happened, I wouldn’t be able to live! How can you even think of it? What would I do without your advice? Your counsel? It’s unbearable to even contemplate!” She sobs uncontrollably.

That’s my girl.

But I have sons.

Thus I am now faced with the necessity of informing Jesse firmly, at regular intervals, that his services are not yet required. Toby, I’m not sure I even want to be in the same room with. I cannot move out of my second-floor apartment anytime soon. In fact, it might be wise to stay away from heights, period, and keep my back to the wall around both of them for the next 30 years.

Or, to be extra safe, I might arrange my retirement through the Federal Witness Protection Program.

Judy Oppenheimer is the author of "Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson" and "Dreams of Glory," the tale of a high school football season. A longtime freelancer, her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Baltimore Jewish Times. She lives in Washington DC.

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