“Death is scary,” Dan said, tucking into a grass-fed Argentine steak the size of a small footstool. “And I don’t see a cultural shift to accept it. I see fewer people paying increasingly more money to the government to fund my parents’ self-entitled generation’s losing battle against death.”
“Oh, okay,” I said. “If I get cancer, instead of trying to cure it, I’ll just lie down and die, so you and your pals can have an easier go.”
But what I was thinking about were my own Saturday-afternoon conversations with my father at the end, as I limped him off to lunch and a beer.
“Why can’t I just die?” he often asked. He had been complaining about all the “tablets” he was suddenly taking, after never taking a pill in his life: Tylenol (he was convinced it helped him sleep), furosemide (the diuretic for his legs and heart), Senokot (bowels), Restoril (to sleep, but not so good for depression or bad kidneys or glaucoma, all of which he skirted), mirtazapine (for anxiety and to stimulate his appetite), Cosopt (eyes). “I can’t understand why God would make me live like this, in such a pathetic manner.”
“Yes, God can be thoughtless that way.” I tried to change the subject. “What do you think will happen after you die?”
He looked at me as if I were an especially elemental form of excrescence. “I presume I’ll see your mother again in heaven, of course.” Pause. “And that she’ll be quite put out that I’ve kept her waiting.” A smile.
We struggled into our chairs at the restaurant table with the usual complicated hydraulics – lifting, pulling, all the while pretending it was nothing, a breeze. Then, again: “Why can’t I just take a pill to die?”
“Because it’s illegal.”
Or one day in the hallway of the Balmoral just before Christmas, before they threaded him full-time into a portable oxygen tank, his final millstone:
“The ladies” – the women in the residence, who outnumbered the men 10 to 1 – “say there’s a way it can be done. There’s a machine. You’re a journalist, surely you know someone who could arrange it?”
He was referring to a morphine drip, used on young and old terminal patients alike, in palliative situations: The steady infusion of morphine decreases pain and eases anxiety but also naturally suppresses the breathing, until breathing is no longer required. The trouble was, he wasn’t terminal. Well, he was – we all are, of course – but not in the way he had to be to qualify for such a contraption of mercy.
“If he doesn’t have cancer,” the palliative-care counsellor explained when I inquired, “he wouldn’t be considered terminal.”
“But he is terminal.”
“The time of his death cannot be predicted with any precision.”
Here is what my father hated most about the final shrivelling of old age: The involuntary drip of saliva out of the right side of his mouth. Peeing into a hand-held urinal in his chair because he couldn’t get to the bathroom fast enough. Insomnia – he often called me at 5 in the morning after a sleepless night, frantic with panic. Not being able to walk, much less run. Losing weight. Losing his eyesight. Losing my mother. Not driving. Not gardening. And going to the toilet.
“If I learned that I was going to die at 2 p.m. tomorrow,” he said to me a year before he expired, “that would be fine, because then I wouldn’t have to go to the toilet again.”
“Going to the toilet is so bad?”
“At my age, going to the toilet is like single-handedly planning the invasion of D-Day.”
Here are a few of the things he still enjoyed: A whisky (sometimes two) with a companion. Surprise visits from people he liked. Any conversation about the news. His beloved daughters (my twin sisters). A fresh shirt and blazer and tie. His friend, Mrs. D. – she lent him espionage novels, a late discovery.
His care worker, Magnolia, who could get him out of bed, washed and dressed, in 20 minutes. Flirting with younger women (in their 50s and 60s) at parties. Fresh fruit. Any television sport requiring hand-eye co-ordination. Thinking about my mother and her sisters, his first close female friends. Gardens and flowers – the last ones he saw were some purple crocuses I wheeled him past two weeks before he died, before I left to try to feel alive again on a motorcycle.