I’ve always planned to live forever. Or die trying.
Rationally I know human beings — including me — are mortal. Still there’s a lot more I want to do in life — including enjoying lazy Sunday afternoons without guilt — and it would help to have an infinite number of years to do them in. Besides, there are any number of interesting things going on in the world that aren’t likely to be finished before I shuffle off, and I resent it that I won’t get to know how they turned out.
But my father is 93 now and his mind is slipping away. He’s in an assisted living facility right now and sooner or later we’ll have to move him to some form of nursing care, because he needs a lot of help taking care of daily life.
Visiting him every week and taking care of his medical needs and business matters has thrown a bucket of cold water on my illusions about old age.
My father’s mother lived to be 91. She was still mentally alert until the day she died, still doing her own cooking and taking care of her house. She was frail and had stopped driving, but other than that she could still enjoy life. One morning she just didn’t wake up.
Even at the time, I knew that was a happy ending, much as I missed my grandmother.
I used to read the obits and thrill at the people who lived into their 90s or 100s. Now, though, I find myself wondering how many of them suffered from dementia in those last years. A lot of times the obituaries don’t say that. I don’t know if people are embarrassed about it or just more interested in remembering the person as they used to be.
Up until a couple of years ago, you could still get my father going on politics, especially Texas politics. He was a proud Democrat and knew not just the current story, but the history behind it.
And he told stories. In the last few years, most of the stories I heard were old ones, going back to his childhood. But he also told stories from his years as a reporter and occasionally he talked about his experiences in World War II. As his memory started to go, it seemed like the war became foremost in his mind.
Mike Wallace died last weekend. He was the same age as my father and in the same profession, though since Daddy did his work in print and Wallace was on TV, Wallace was a lot better known. Apparently Wallace was also suffering from dementia. A blog on the NY Times quoted this about his memory loss from a recent interview by his son Chris:
“He still recognizes me and knows who I am, but he’s uneven. The interesting thing is, he never mentions ’60 Minutes.’ It’s as if it didn’t exist. It’s as if that part of his memory is completely gone. The only thing he really talks about is family — me, my kids, my grandkids, his great-grandchildren. There’s a lesson there. This is a man who had a fabulous career and for whom work always came first. Now he can’t even remember it.”
I get the feeling Chris Wallace thinks the “lesson there” is that family is more important than work, even for someone who cared so passionately about his work that he kept doing it into his 90s.
I think that’s horseshit. It makes dementia sound like a romantic illness in which the true person comes out, instead of a cruel disease of the brain in which memories and the ability to understand the world around you slips away.
Maybe Chris Wallace wants to believe his father regretted not spending more time with family. Me, I just want my whole father back. I’d like to hear his (probably profane) views on the current crop of presidential candidates. I’d like to know what he thinks about Texas redistricting. I want to hear him tell stories about his family’s move to California in 1923.
I want him to tell me what to do and know it’s a rational decision. Instead, I have to tell him what to do. I have to decide whether he needs to see a doctor, whether a problem should be dealt with to make him comfortable, whether to spend all that money to replace his hearing aids the next time he loses them.
And since he can’t really tell me what he needs, I have to guess at what decision he would make if he could.
Susan Jacoby had a fine piece on the subject of old age in the NY Times a couple of weeks ago. Her mother, in the hospital at 89, asked a doctor, “Is there anything you can do here to give me back the life I had last year, when I wasn’t in pain every minute?” And when the doctor said no, she went home and did not have any further major medical procedures in her last year of life.
Fortunately, she was still able to make those decisions. Jacoby uses her op-ed to make us all remember to prepare living wills and let our relatives and caretakers know what we’d like while we still can.
She ends the piece with an observation I found particularly inspiring for myself:
I do not consider it my duty to die for the convenience of society. I do consider it my duty, to myself and younger generations, to follow the example my mother set by doing everything in my power to ensure that I will never be the object of medical intervention that cannot restore my life but can only prolong a costly living death.
I haven’t quite given up on immortality, but if my body or mind have different ideas about it when I get old, I don’t want intervention just to keep the shell going. That’s not living.
For a couple of years after my mother died, my father shared some of his stories on a blog called “I Heard It at the Icehouse.” Over the next few weeks, I’m going to post some of those stories here.
Flashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.
My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.
Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.