Tag Archives: death

How We Die in America

Evelyn “Evie” Chavoor would have been 100 this year. I don’t remember as much of her story as I should. Born in December, 1917, she attended UCLA and spent many years working for Helen Gahagan Douglas. By the time I knew Evie, she had retired but remained a force and followed politics closely. She was devastated when Edwards was outed as a philandering creep–he had been her candidate. I think she eventually backed Obama. We spent time together talking in her apartment, making trips to the grocery store, and visiting the doctor. She was one of my best friends in Washington, D.C.

I inherited her friendship from my great Aunt Isabelle, whose apartment my mother had inherited and in which I resided about ten years ago. On her 90th birthday, at a crowded party thrown by another friend in the building, she wore a sparkly plastic crown and an outfit that my mother intimated had cost thousands of dollars. She celebrated her 91st birthday in a nursing home, among four or five of us, in a shirt and slacks.

Evie had a brother who had studied law but became disillusioned when he realized that lawyers didn’t want to defend the law, but rather find ways around it. She seemed proud of him when she told this story. I think he died while she was still living in her apartment, but when I asked if she would fly out to California for the funeral, she said no. Flying is difficult when you’re hale and hearty. Once able to climb the stairs between our floors, she now took the elevator.

My great-aunt lived for many years with her mother, who mainly spoke Armenian. Evie was Assyrian and remembered Isabelle’s mother chastising her for using Turkish words. The word I associate most with Evie is “okie-doke.” And the phrase, “wellllll…I don’t know about that!” She was sharp and funny and opinionated and a general delight.

Around March of 2008, Evie went to the emergency room. Among other issues, she had a wound on her leg that wouldn’t heal. After about a week in the hospital, she was transferred to a nursing home up the street from our apartment building, where she lived for the rest of her life. For several months, I visited her almost every day. Our friendship grew so intimate that I assisted her in the bathroom. When someone you love asks for your help in there, you just provide what they need. That Fourth of July, I brought an assortment of berries–red and white–so share with her and her frenemy, Angelina, who had resided in the nursing home longer and was much more willing to engage in the provided social activities. As a result, she was happier than Evie, who always intended to return home.

My daily visits ended at some point during the summer, where we had a bit of a spat over some papers I was supposed to get her to sign. She, understandably, wanted to know what she was signing, and I tried to explain it to her, but she wouldn’t accept my explanation. This was probably because of the medication they were giving her, which caused her to mistrust me, forget what a platypus was and, one scary evening, to ask me, pleading, when her mother and father were going to arrive. I had to stop visiting her every day for my own mental health. Eventually, they readjusted her medications, which improved hers.

I’m still not sure why she was never able to return home. She wasn’t getting physically better, but home care could have met her needs and might have even been less expensive than the $18k/month nursing home. Her niece was more or less responsible for her, but she lived in California, and during her visits seemed to be unable to make any progress when it came to finding Evie alternate care. Evie refused her niece’s offer to move in with her–she wanted to go home, not across the country. If she wasn’t going to travel for her brother’s funeral, she certainly wasn’t going to travel now that she could barely walk. At one point I created a list of local home health care agencies. It’s possible her niece looked at it.

One of the last times I spoke with Evie, my mom was visiting her. I remember my mom saying I wouldn’t want to see her like this. I think I told Evie I loved her.

Eight years ago, I was waiting on the banks of Lake Michigan for the fireworks to begin. Upon waking, I had learned it would be over 100 in Chicago that day. Anything over 75 in the summer being disgusting, I spent the morning hooking up a window air-conditioner. It was a convenient way to avoid working on my graduate thesis. As I waited in the sticky night, my cellphone rang. It was my mother. “You know how Evie loved America…” Evie had died on the Fourth of July. I don’t remember if she was alone.

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Autumn Chill

The October night is mine to fill. My parents have long since gone to bed with our cat, who knows something is wrong. I’m left alone with my paperback copy of Never Let Me Go, purchased yesterday during our weekly trip to Costco. Never have I been so invested in a fictional friendship. I let the drama absorb me; it’s an effective distraction from the death that looms outside.

Autumn lies on the top step of the stoop. Once a swift jumble of insatiable canine exuberance, tonight she is quiet and still. The cool concrete seems to give her 13-year-old body some relief. A year ago Autumn was overweight for a shepherd-lab mutt her size. The growth in her lung that announced its presence in March has siphoned away much of her muscle, leaving a scrawny, dull-eyed creature whose every breath seems to cost effort she doesn’t have to spare.

It’s brisk outside. I put down my book and rise from the couch, opening the heavy wooden screen door to check on her. This is the third or fourth time I’ve done so tonight. It is a ritual I will reenact on several evenings before we let her leave us.

“Do you want to come inside, baby girl?”

Autumn does not raise her head at the sound of my voice. I crouch and lay a hand on her greying brow. We have to be gentle; sometimes she flinches when we pet her. I watch her ribs rise and fall under the mottled brown coat that inspired her name.

The humans in the family have realized that we should take her to the vet for the last time. We’re still not sure when. No one wants to decide. Soon is too close to now, even as now extends her decline. We’re watching her, waiting for a definitive sign, but Autumn doesn’t give us one. She simply fades, often imperceptibly. Eating less, sleeping more, weighing less, hurting more. There is no marker, no metaphorical cliff over which she can fall to let us know that the time, her time, has arrived.

We cannot discuss this with her. We do not ask, Have you suffered enough? Do you want to die? When should we kill you? but we have taken it upon ourselves to answer for her.

Inside, Ishiguro’s codependent characters await reactivation. They will endure intimate betrayals and paradigm-shifting revelations under my watchful gaze until one character enables the others to slowly disconnect from life. Even fictional mercy requires consent.

I stroke Autumn’s torso, my palm barely grazing her. We look into each other’s eyes and she seems to sigh. I tug her collar and again suggest that she come indoors, lay on her soft bed, let the cat cuddle close.

She won’t move.

Unwilling to wait, to be with her stillness, I stand and return to the house, to the couch, to the book whose ending is probably as dismal as our family’s current reality. How long do we let her endure this lessened life? Even after we make the call, we won’t know.

Autumn never tells us.

The essay above is a dispatch from 2010, written for a 2016 creative nonfiction class.

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Poetic Interlude: Past Particle

A tale from the end of the Universe

The last particle
Torn asunder

Drifted farther

From anything
Before

Shredding

Silent

No companion
To share its dissipation

Not even consciousness
Remained to witness

Ultimate solitude

Preceded nothing


Inspired by this news story from August, 2015.

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