Life and death in God’s Little Waiting Room

My neighbor, who I’ll call Trudy, has a plan for what she will do in the event she ever gets diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

‘I’ve told Rick,’ (which I will call her husband here), she told me poolside, last summer. ‘You can still train people who have it.’ (She bases this on what she has seen; she has worked as a nurse’s aide). ‘So just put the gun on the bed table, and train me, when you hear the door shut, pick up the gun,’ (she gestures putting it up to her temple), ‘and go bang. When the door shuts, pick up the gun and go bang.’

She repeated this with a laughing exasperation through which she makes it clear she believes she, with Alzheimer’s, some day, will be easier to train than Rick right now. Rick was lying on his back, next to the pool, next to her, splayed in an unconscious manner, the sun bathing his bald head and his broad belly, that protrudes even when he is lying down, and is lined down the middle with a foot-and-a-half-long scar he wears, evidently as a badge of honor (shirtless unless a frost alert has the oranges covered and the homeless shelters open) of having survived open-heart surgery. He also has diabetes, and at the last community get-together piled his plate so defiantly high with a mountain of colorful desserts to give the impression that he has his own plan for dodging any long-term wages of old age.

But barring the central flaw in Trudy’s plan that it is dependent on his attention and survival, I liked it, although it also probably will fall short of her two major goals: that nobody go to jail, and that she not be dependent on anyone. (If I think about it, I’m picturing an easy case for negligent homicide, or attempted homicide, for leaving the gun at the bedside of an Alzheimer patient, and also the consequences of the patient missing just enough to produce injuries that would make Alzheimer’s look like golden years in contrast.)

For all its shortfalls, it is a plan, and I reminded her of it last night, when she was saying that she can’t imagine anyone wanting to take his or her own life. The conversation was careening around, as it does here, at the annual Christmas party in God’s Little Waiting Room, like a pinball bouncing off walls of hope, philosophy and reality.

Two of our neighbors had lost their husbands before last year’s Christmas party and were adjusting to the idea that their widowhood wasn’t new anymore, that this is the way it will be from now on, until they, too, die.

Another, who I’ll call Doris here, had just finished telling me that she, having been widowed twice, has no interest in sharing her life again; she is at peace — enjoys, even, her solitude. She was married to the first for more than 30 years, the second for a dozen years. The second was an old friend, and by the time they were in a position to join in matrimony, had this in common: they had been, but no longer were, parents.

She had lost her only son to a virus that made its way brushfire-like through San Francisco during the 1980s. You figure it out — apparently she eventually did. Her second husband had had two daughers who, she said, asphyxiated. Doris has never finished a sentence in front of me since I’ve known her — about 15 years — so you have to listen over several tellings to put the parts interrupted by left parentheses together before you understand what happened. This was the first telling, so all I can offer is that it had something to do with  Japan, no central heating, and they were both dead in the morning.

The part I could follow is that while she keeps pictures of her deceased son prominently displayed, and greets him when she comes home, her second husband had taken the opposite tack, and hidden all traces of his girls. And that during their marriage she had put out pictures of the girls, and she believes, although it was never discussed in so many words, that he appreciated that.

So now Trudy was telling me that she, too, can deal with loss, because it is part of life.The one loss she can’t understand is the death of her grandson, who killed himself last summer. But she believes in an afterlife, and looks forward to getting a chance to ask him why he did what he did someday.

Because, she said, it is the one desire she can’t understand at all — wanting to take your own life.

So I reminded her of my friend, for whom this blog is named, who got a vicious degenerative disease, and said that once it got bad enough that she didn’t want to live that way anymore, she wouldn’t. A friend who owned a nursing home had told her that she probably wouldn’t — that the will to live would assert itself. Before she could find out if that was true, she had a stroke, and it was too late after that to make any decisions anymore.

Yes, Trudy said, then there’s Alzheimer’s . . . So we talked about her solution, and laughed, while her husband walked past us looking vacant, as usual, and everyone around laughed and talked while the ice tinkled in our glasses. It was, after all, a Christmas Eve party, here in God’s Little Waiting Room.

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