Saturday, March 14, 2009

how should we live?

From geographic but not emotional distance, I follow through daily phone calls my parents lives. My father's life only comes to me from others. His profound deafness cut off his ability to communicate by phone some years ago. His detachment from the world put an end to even the occasional letter. But my mother still speaks for herself, every day. She doesn't always make sense but she shares her thoughts and feelings with me freely.

My parents example is a fearful one. At 97 (Dad) and 86 (Mom, in two weeks) their physical bodies are outlasting their minds and their abilities to care for themselves. Each of them is the second youngest child in their families, and their older siblings who died before them stayed mentally alert and in possession of their faculties until they died, even when they faced far worse physical ailments (cancer, heart disease).

My father has now lived four years longer than the longest lived of his siblings -- Aunt Mary died at 93, a sharp and irascible woman who made all her own decisions, including pre-arranging her funeral exactly as she wished it a few months before her death. The others died at even younger ages. Mother's oldest brother, James, was well into his 90's, and still went out to the fields every day.

I observe my parents and I am afraid. They have greater financial resources than my husband and I are likely to have in old age -- my father inherited substantial property from his deceased siblings, most of whom did not have children, and their California home is worth, even in this market, nearly a half-million dollars. And yet, given the costs of care, this may not be enough to provide for them.

My parents also have children, three of us, although only my brother Charles is both able (by retirement and proximity) and willing to shoulder the arduous responsibilities. My husband and I have no children.

I want to be healthier than I am at present. My current mantra is "I will not be a diabetic. I will not be a diabetic," as I struggle to lose weight to back away from the precipice ("pre-diabetic"). I want to enjoy walking, dancing, riding bikes, and things that have escaped me for some years as rheumatoid arthritis and other maladies have limited mobility (and helped to add the pounds).

Yet I wonder, is it possible to be too healthy. For the body to go on long after the mind and spirit have given up, or gone away? I think about the people I have known who have dropped dead suddenly from heart attack or stroke, or who have died fairly quickly after diagnosis of cancer. I fear pain far less than I fear helplessness, isolation and loss of control.

An academic and mystery fiction writer, Carolyn Heilbrun (better known to mystery fans as Amanda Cross), "often mused about killing herself at 70" (New York Times) rather than become old and dependent. Instead she waited until she was 77. She was a reasonable, rational, pragmatic and principled person, who made a deliberate choice to end her life while it was still enjoyable. I do not think that I ever could or would make such a choice, but I find myself admiring her for her choice.

1 comment:

Maggie said...


As I grow older and death comes closer...I find people want to distance you if you try and speak of death.

It is not always a sad subject and all conversation is not easy for all concerned.

Many questions do arise...