By Ron Kokish
“A time to love and a time to die” … Ecclesiastes 3:2
At 85, my father was failing badly enough for his doctor to insist he stop driving. A few months later I called and casually asked how he was feeling. “Fine, physically,” he replied, “but life is hell when you don’t have a goal.”
Dad deteriorated gradually and steadily. He became confused, incontinent and often unaware whether or not others were present. When he fell after his 89th birthday and my mother couldn’t help him to his feet, she called 911. He was hospitalized, and I flew to New York to help her plan.
We decided that long-term nursing care was the only viable option. Mom couldn’t bring herself to tell him, so I did. He replied with a single word I’ll never forget. “Finished!”
Later, when I told Dad I had to return to California, he began sobbing. When a nurse asked why he was crying, he said, “because my son is leaving.” Arriving home, I asked mom what happened after I left. She told me that less than five minutes later, Dad hadn’t remembered I was there.
Mom visited daily at his nursing home until he died, less than three months later. He was never diagnosed with an illness. He just got old. His spirit died the day he stopped driving. His body waited another four years.
Six months after dad’s body died, my mother was hospitalized for an obstructed bowel. Except for medical appointments and essential neighborhood shopping, she hadn’t left her apartment since my father’s funeral. She refused counseling. Surgeons cleared her bowel and she rejected assisted living. When I asked, “Do you want to continue living?” she said, “yes!”
“Why?” I asked. “What are you living for?” She thought for a few moments and said, “To have lunch? Watch television?” Apparently, her spirit, which had never been adventurous or ambitious, wasn’t dead. We arranged in-home care. Mom ate lunch and watched television for six more years.
For over four decades, Adrienne Germain advocated passionately for economic, sexual and reproductive rights for women across the globe. She lived publicly in many high-profile roles and often spoke about her determination to not outlive the pleasures of life. On May 19, at age 75, she actualized her determination.
There is no public information about the means she employed, but she left a one-page letter elucidating her decision. “My life has been rich, satisfying and, I’ve concluded, complete.” After quoting Eleanor Roosevelt, she wrote, “I decided that my last brave statement and bold act would be to end my life at a high point of satisfaction and joy.”
Adrienne was not inclined to wait for the hell of life without goals, nor would eating lunch and watching television lend sufficient meaning. But Adrienne told almost no one about her specific plan and, caught off guard, many of her friends could not understand or respect her choice. Her obituary in the New York Times called it “tragic.” Was it? Maybe!
Adrienne’s death was certainly tragic for those who lost her companionship, her leadership, the benefit of her wisdom and, perhaps worst of all, the opportunity to tell her, one final time, what she meant to them.
For Adrienne though, there was no tragedy involved. It was her life. By all accounts, she lived it her way and she ended it in that spirit. She wanted to go out on a high note, and, from her point of view, she did. But for her many friends her final note was exceedingly sour.
The Right-to-Die community calls what Adrienne did “life completion.” Others have done it, some quite publicly and, usually, with support from loved ones. But no one I know of was as vital, as capable, as healthy as Adrienne was. Maybe she too would have preferred surrounding herself with friends as she died. Maybe she really wanted to share an intimate farewell with each friend individually. But could she?
Even in the Right-to-Die community, some would have been horrified, many would likely have tried dissuading her and a few might even have intervened with legal action. Having made her private decision, Adrienne was apparently reluctant to justify it to others. Should we blame her? Maybe.
At 81, I’m as fulfilled as Adrienne was and life completion does often seem attractive. But, apparently unlike Adrienne, I don’t feel my life belongs only to me. I do believe I have the right to end it at will, but having a right is one thing; using it wisely and generously is another.
When I no longer have a goal, when what’s left to me is lunch and television, perhaps my loved ones will support me if I decide it’s time to leave them. But I don’t think they’d understand me singing my private high note just yet and, because I love them, I don’t intend on singing it in my present circumstances. Anyway, not right now.
Mature Content is a monthly feature from the Carbondale AARP Age-Friendly Community Initiative (CAFCI)