I was riding my stationary bike and since our old boombox is broken and I have no music, I was looking around the sunroom for something to think about, for I was bored with going nowhere. My eyes landed on a metal comb on the windowsill with black hair still in it. It used to be our old cat, Socks’s comb. We had to work it through her fur once she got older and could not keep herself groomed. Her thick black hair once reminded us of a seal, but in her old age, it got grossly matted and looked painful, but perhaps not as painful as it felt to have it combed out.
Socks is no longer with us. She disappeared one day when we were on a trip. When she grew older, she would disappear for days. Every time it happened, we wondered if it was the last time and she had wandered off to die somewhere in peace, from starvation, hypothermia, or both?
Todd and I saved two people in our lives two separate times on Mount Whitney in the High Sierra. We found them sitting sleeping in the snow without gear or protection from the elements. We hauled their butts up to the summit stone shelter, cooked them hot food, fed them liquids, got into sleeping bag with them and saved their lives. They say you get sleepy when you begin to die of hypothermia, after the uncontrollable shivering subsides. It is said to be a very peaceful way to die. “I just think I’ll sit here and take a nap for a bit,” but then you wake up to pearly gates or the hot flames. It seems like a simple and seemingly painless way to go, if you are making plans.
Todd and I saw a Japanese art film years ago, called the Ballad of Narayama, 1983. It is set in a poor 19th century rural Japanese village, where food is scarce, life is harsh and people are desperate and cruel. Anyone who lives for 70 years is hauled to the mountaintop by their children and left to die in the dead of winter.
The son carries his 69-year-old mother, who was still strong, on his back, to the mountaintop. It was difficult for her son, for the climb was arduous, especially carrying live weight on his back. Also, psychologically difficult, carrying your mother to her death-bed, knowing it was the last time you would be with her. Then having the strength to leave her there, by her choice, and returning without her. This scene was startling, as he put her down amongst other skeletons that were sitting in the snow that had gone before her. It was a very powerful scene and one that I has haunted me for decades.
My girlfriend is experiencing a situation where her step mother is clearly ready to die but her birth children are not granting her permission to. They want her to eat, improve, get better, continue living. This 90+-year-old woman is tired. She wants the opportunity to decide for herself when she has had enough living. It is the ultimate personal decision.
Ninety seems like a reasonable age to call it quits. But what about 67? When Guy Waterman, a noted outdoor writer, hiker and wilderness protector, turned 67, he decided he had enough. Famous for his books, “Backwoods Ethics” and “Forest & Crag,” he was no stranger to wilderness, particularly the White Mountains of New Hampshire and knew what happened when you went for a walk in cold weather with inappropriate clothing. Atop Mount Lafayette, on the open, treeless Franconia Ridge, he sat down and froze to death. It was on the same stretch of trail where he and his wife, Laura, had voluntarily maintained for years.
Guy had personal demons and bouts of depression. He lost his two sons, one to suicide, the other to a solo climb on Mount McKinley in Alaska. His wife knew of his suicide plans more than a year before he took his last hike, and said “I can’t agree with him, but I can respect and love him as an individual. He wanted out. And he chose the way he felt was appropriate for himself.” He was executing his personal choice of when he had enough of this life.
I remember when Todd and I stopped to visit our friend, Steve, in Minnesota, who was helping me edit my manuscript., “Journey on the Crest.” We were on your way home across the country and Todd was leaving me there to work for a few days and I would fly home later. Steve’s mom was walking around the home while we both visited, cooking meals, doing light cleaning, when she decided she was going to go check herself into the hospital. She had cancer but was not “dying.”
When I walked Todd to the truck to say good-bye, “I said, “She is going to die while I am here, I know it, so I can help her men through this. She has chosen this time to go.” And she most certainly did. We edited my manuscript in the hospital by her bed, keeping vigil, editing in-between death rattle episodes. I will never forget it. And I was there for days afterwards to help Steve and his dad through the process. They were not emotionally capable of dealing with her death, as well as make all the arrangements necessary for a funeral, without my help.
My own dad seemed to have control over when he died. His cancer had gone from his lungs to his heart when Todd and I were getting ready to head to remote log building school in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. There was no phone service there and we would be out of contact for 10 days. “Are you going to die while I am gone, Dad? If so, I won’t go.”
And he promised me, “I will not die while you are gone. Go to school and learn how to build your house and I will be here when you return,” and he was. I believed him. I believed he had some control over when he went and how long he stayed. He died weeks after my return.
My friend Lucy committed suicide when the pain became stronger and harder than she could deal with. As was my friend’s Veteran son, Zach, who struggled with PTSD. We who are left behind think it is way too early for them to go and we miss them terribly, but who are we to say that they must continue on, for us?
My mom checked herself into the hospital when she was 57. We found old love letters on the coffee table in her living room. My dad had died three years earlier from lung cancer, also at the age of 57, around this same time. None of us four kids knew why she was checking herself into the hospital. She had never experienced even a small heart attack. They were doing a battery of tests on her, but had found nothing. She looked fine to us. She must have felt heartsick over missing my dad. I thought, along with my siblings, that she should kick herself in the butt and get out of there. Live for us. We wanted a mom still. I visited her in the hospital and brought strawberries in for her to eat fo she was refusing to eat. She laid back in bed, her lips parted, pretending I was not there. I obnoxiously slipped a strawberry into her mouth and she angrily spat it across the room with force and energy and said, “Go home, Cindy,” which I did.
She died that night. When we came to see her dead in the hospital, after “the call,” there was a look of pure joy on her face, her eyes were open and she was smiling, as though she had just seen my dad. I guess she was where she wanted to be, with him. I still felt it was bullshit though, for quite some time, and that she was coping out. But that was my loss speaking.
I definitely think my mom and my dad had a hand in deciding when they would go. Just like Socks, our cat, and certainly Lucy, Zach and Guy Waterman. My girlfriend wishes that her step mother will be allowed that privilege, that gift of deciding when it is enough.
Years ago, when we were sitting by Steve’s mother’s dying bed, and the death rattle was going on for hours, a psychic friend came in to pay her last respects. The friend said to us, “She is concerned about leaving her men. She needs to hear that it is okay for her to go, that you both will be ok.”
“We’ll be fine,” Steve and his dad both said loud, “you can go,” and within seconds, much to our utter amazement, her spirit had left her body and she had moved on.
Todd and I told the kids, “If me and dad tell you we are going out camping one day when it is winter and we are very old and we have scant clothing on, just let us go. We are planning on getting hypothermia and dying together.” They said, “That is so gross.” I was kidding, of course, but it is something to think about, when we are very old and are ready, why not? Up to North Lookout at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. They only have to haul our dead butts 3/4 of a mile down. That’s a hellava lot closer than Mt Lafayette on Franconia Ridge!