CHAPTER TWO

I thought about what I had learned during the tour of the facility. I admit that I was starting to feel weirded out by what Dr. Ammit and Ophelia said, and all of a sudden my friend Delilah’s suggestion that I go on a cruise instead of coming to Death’s Door suddenly seemed like a good idea. Except my heart’s pain would not go away on a ship with 1,500 couples. Jonathan and I took cruises to Alaska, through the Panama Canal, down to Mexico. He surprised me with a cruise to the Mediterranean. He brought home pizza and a Greek salad and told me to guess my surprise. I thought he had found a new deli. I will never go on a cruise without him.
Jonathan was the social person in our marriage. All of the friends we accumulated over the years were people Jonathan knew. Some were neighbors. He rode his bike early in the mornings before he went to work and on weekends and said hello to people taking in the newspaper, getting in their cars, or deadheading their roses. He met fellow golfers and joined a men’s group that played on weekends. I met their wives at tournament dinners, and we were invited to their homes for cocktail parties and barbeques. Some friends began as Jonathan’s clients.
In college I did develop some friendships with guys in my nursing program. It was an intense program, and we studied together. But we were more than study buddies. We’d go out drinking and would share confidences about our respective boyfriends. Jonathan, of course, knew about these friends and, for reasons I never understood and uncharacteristic for him, was jealous of them. He called them my furry friends, but I can’t remember why.

I lost friends after Jonathan died. I became the extra woman. About a month after Jonathan died, except for Delilah, the only time I saw my former pals was when they dropped off coffee cakes and tuna casseroles. They thought that widowhood was contagious. They all said, “I don’t want to bother you. You need your rest.” I didn’t need rest. I needed the stability, lovemaking, and surprises of my marriage. I needed my husband. I was sucked into a vacuum of misery. It was difficult for me to grasp the idea that I was a widow. The word meant I had no husband. It meant I was alone. It was too final for me to accept. And besides I didn’t like tuna.
Delilah was a nurse. Years before Jonathan died, I met her at the hospital where I worked. She was blonde, blue eyed, tall Nordic goddess, toned and tan from competitive swimming. She repeatedly came in first in the age forty to forty-nine category in regional swim meets. Delilah was single, no children, married two times and divorced two times. She said she was through with all that “marriage nonsense,” and ran a deep swath through men in the valley, but she respected my marriage and liked playing with Bethany when she was young. Delilah knew that Bethany was attached to Jonathan, not to me, but she was confident my relationship with my daughter would improve when she had her own family. Delilah visited me frequently at Death’s Door, and I leaned on her for support almost daily.

The issue of my coming to Death’s Door further alienated me from my friends. I belong, or I guess I should say I belonged, to a book club that met every month to discuss a book. Each month a different person from the group chose a book to read for the following month. Since I was investigating assisted death facilities, I thought a book that focused on death would be a good choice so I picked Death of a Salesman. No one had a problem with my book choice, but, boy, could I clear a room if I mentioned Death’s Door. One of my friends, Molly, took me aside one evening and said that I was making the other book club members uncomfortable by talking about death.
“Molly, we’re all going to die,” I said. “I’ve just chosen the way I’ll go.”
We were at Ginger’s house, that was the quintessential middle class home. She had three children that were corralled by her husband upstairs. We could hear the general noise of children banging around being children. We met in her family room with a tan sectional that faced an eighty-inch LED flat screen. Through our discussion, she kept us interested with wine and snacks all evening long. She set out cashews, Jelly Bellies, and gummy bears. For more substantial food, we had deviled eggs, prosciutto on wafers, guacamole and chips, and fried dumplings. A well-balanced meal. She capped the evening with coffee, and strawberries and whipped cream. Half the time when we discussed the book, we talked with our mouths full of food.
I don’t think Molly was convinced by my abrupt assertion about death, but did say she supported my decision. Even though the rest of the women wouldn’t talk about the reason for my leaving the book club, on the last day that I was at a meeting, the group had a cake and the room was decorated with signs that said “Bon Voyage” and “Have a Great Trip.” The cake was a cruise ship with blue and white frosting. They gave me gifts of lingerie, Mrs. Fields cookies, and sun tan lotion. I hadn’t given it any thought before that night, but what kind of gift do you give to someone who is planning their death? A coin to placate Charon at the entrance to hell?

“Saturday Night Live” did a skit with people rushing toward the River Styx with the ferryman Charon holding out his arms to assist them onto the ferry to take them to the Underworld. One woman carried a pink poodle, while a man had Sports Illustrated, the Swimsuit Edition under his arm. A couple carried a picnic basket, and a guy came in a wetsuit with flippers and snorkel. Charon handed each person an orange life vest and people took coins out of their mouths and handed them to him. As one man gave his coin to Charon, Charon said, very enthusiastically, “Wow! I haven’t seen a Susan B. Anthony dollar in a while. I think I’ll sell it on eBay.”

After my tour of Death’s Door I spent a couple of weeks pacing the floor in my house or wandering through the hospital rooms of my patients. Then I had individual sessions with Dr. Walls, a psychiatrist, and with Dr. Nicholson, a psychologist, as required for admission to Death’s Door.
I have a generalized distaste for psychiatrists. I don’t trust them, although I haven’t had much experience with them myself. At some point in his illness, Jonathan went to a psychiatrist to get prescriptions for medication for depression. Jonathan told me the questions the doctor had asked him, like about his childhood. I didn’t think that the doctor needed to go back to when Jonathan was eight years old and discovered his father was having an affair. Jonathan was depressed because he had untreatable terminal cancer. Finding a photo of a pretty lady in a bikini in his father’s sock drawer couldn’t compete with cancer cells gobbling up Jonathan’s pancreas. I didn’t have a positive mindset going to my appointment with Dr. Walls.
Dr. Walls’s office was in a shell pink two-story Mediterranean office building in Rancho Mirage. He had a small waiting room and then his office. Everything was beige: beige paint, beige couches, beige carpet, beige drapes. Dr. Walls was not beige. He wore a gray-green suit with pink shirt and paisley tie in a kaleidoscope of colors. Maybe he didn’t want his surroundings to compete with his clothing. He had a white goatee and full head of white hair. I even noticed his hands, because his go-to posture was to put his elbows on his desk and steeple his fingers. Dr. Walls’s fingers had been professionally manicured, and he wore clear nail polish.
He engaged me in a lengthy conversation about the soul.
“I don’t know if I have one,” I said, my throat tight as though I had swallowed concrete.
He wrote something in my file.
“What do you think happens to us when we die?” Dr. Walls asked me.
I became aware of a desk clock ticking down the seconds. Was that to remind me I had limited time in his office or in life?
“I think that’s it. End of life, end of story.”
He wrote more. What was he writing? How were my answers to his questions going to affect my getting approved? Should I have said I believed in an afterlife?
“I know you are grieving for your husband. Yes, is that correct? So you don’t believe you will be with him after you die?”
And then, of course, the waterworks started. I put my hands in front of my face and bawled. I tried to nod my head to answer him, but had started shaking all over, as though I were inside a blender. That did it, for sure. He wasn’t going to give me a positive report. It didn’t seem that he was even going to give me a tissue.
I blubbered through my fingers. “I want to believe I will be with him. I do want to believe. But it’s like Santa Claus. After I learned there was no Santa Claus, I wanted to believe anyway so that I would get presents from him. Same thing. I want to believe that after I die Jonathan and I will find each other.” I began to hiccup. Santa Claus! Really?
Dr. Walls looked at me as though I had just said the weather was nice. He wrote in my file. I wondered if he was just doing his grocery list. If so, he should have put cologne on his list, because the one he was wearing consumed the air in the room. If it weren’t for the seriousness of the appointment, I might have giggled.
“What about your daughter Bethany? Are you concerned for her welfare? Don’t you imagine she will have a difficult time grieving for both your husband and you?”
Aren’t doctors supposed to be objective? He sounded as though he was judging me. Or was I being paranoid. Even though I was still hiccupping, I was able to answer his questions. I sat up straight, sitting on a beige corduroy couch.
“Yes, Bethany is having a difficult time. I think she is mainly upset because she says I am committing suicide, which is a mortal sin. She believes I will go to hell. Bethany and I don’t meet eye-to-eye on most subjects, so I don’t think she will miss me. She’s closer to my sister Alexandria.”
“Does she believe hell is a real place?”
“You’ll have to ask Bethany that question.” I snapped at him because his questions blamed me for my decision. And then I wondered if he was asking me those questions to see if I would get rattled. If so, he accomplished his goal.
“What about your parents? What do they think about your decision to die?”
“Since my parents are dead, I don’t know that they have an opinion on the subject. Now Jonathan’s parents. That’s another story.” Why oh why did I bring up Jonathan’s parents?
“How is that?” Dr. Walls said.
“They are Catholic. Their beliefs related to suicide, which they say I will be committing, are the same as Bethany’s. Initially, they said I would be besmirching—isn’t that a funny word—Jonathan’s name. I don’t see how my decision affects Jonathan’s memory at all. In fact, I think I’m honoring Jonathan by fulfilling the promise we made each other. They’ve come around now, except for the fact that I’m leaving Bethany. They don’t like that.”
For the remainder of the appointment I gave monosyllabic answers and grunts, and at some point Dr. Walls simply seemed to give up. His clock was still ticking off the seconds.

Dr. Nicholson gave me a 100-question test to examine my lucidity and competence to make decisions about my end game: “True or false. I am being followed by persons unknown to me.” “True or false. The president of the United States is Al Gore.” “True or false. My hair is dyed.” The last one was just plain rude.

Death’s Door also required residents to undergo a second psychiatric exam two weeks before going through Death’s Door to ascertain whether at that moment a resident had the requisite mental competence to make the decision to die. The owners of the company added the last requirement after three lawsuits were filed by families of residents who had already gone through Death’s Door. The plaintiffs alleged their family members lacked mental capacity at the time of their deaths and, therefore, did not know what they were doing. Death’s Door prevailed in two of the cases. In the third case the plaintiff prevailed. The resident was ninety-five years old and suffered from MS. The plaintiff, who was the nephew of the resident, produced medical records that said the resident suffered from Alzheimer’s.

Each day I cried. Each moment was longer than sixty seconds. Nothing distracted me from my loneliness. Three weeks after my doctors’ visits, I was approved to move into Death’s Door. Evidently there was a board made up of the franchise owner—who I learned later was a sultan from a Middle Eastern country who owned Death’s Door franchises in five or six states— Dr. Ammit, Dr. Walls and Dr. Nicholson. The death business was getting more and more popular because of the number of baby boomers who had reached sixty-five and wanted to have control over the way in which they died.

I sold the house I loved for eighteen years, and moved into my apartment at Death’s Door. Jonathan and I built that house after he was named the head of his department at Wilkins & Rossi, the architecture firm he went to work for after MIT. He was twenty-nine years old and was the youngest department head the firm had ever named. We bought a lot in the Mission Hills country club, because Jonathan played golf religiously. Golf was Jonathan’s church and his friends were the congregation. We chose the lot on a small lake because our dog Putter peed on it while we were looking for property on which to build. We saw that as a sign. The backside of the property faced the lake and mountains, and Jonathan designed the house in an L shape so that most of the rooms had the views as backdrop. We spent a year designing and building the house. I dragged Jonathan to model home after model home to get ideas for a floor plan. As the house was being built, I scoped out flooring, kitchen, and bathroom showrooms like pilgrimages to Mecca.

When the cancer caused such pain that Jonathan needed medication, the house that we built became a hospice. He was at home when he died. Bethany, Lexie and Jonathan’s parents were at our house when he died. I called the mortuary to pick up his body and made arrangements for the cremation and then called the hospital supply company to pick up his hospital bed, final tasks after months of twenty-four hour days waiting for the end. Our home would never again be the refuge it had been when we lived in it for almost twenty years.

When I decided to come to Death’s Door, I began the god-awful task of going through twenty-five years of accumulated necessities and frivolities of life that had traveled with us since we first lived together in college. I hadn’t yet disposed of Jonathan’s clothes and drafting table, computers, books, cameras. Delilah and Alexandria helped me box up his books, four cameras with lenses, flashes, sketches of buildings in his precise hand, and tripods to give to Bethany.
I was okay with pitching some things, like his socks, his white socks that he wore with his sneakers and his golf shoes. The clothes that got me were his sweaters of all things. We lived in the Mojave Desert. Our winter was on a Wednesday last year and wasn’t very cold. Our cold temperature would probably have been considered nice weather in Chicago. But Jonathan loved sweaters, got used to them in Boston, and he probably wore each one once in the desert. He had a baby blue cashmere cardigan and a tan alpaca with nubby threads whose style looked like it came from the ‘60s, very Frank Sinatra. I kept the sweaters and wore them in the house. I had to turn the air conditioner on to survive.
I kept one complete change of his clothes. He would need something when he came back. For a while after he died, I was afraid to leave the house in case he came back. I sat on our bed wearing one of his sweaters, willing him to come back and get angry with me for giving his clothes away. “Where are my socks,” he would thunder.
I wondered, while I sat on the bed wearing his baby blue cashmere sweater, how his health would be if he came back. Would he be pre-cancer healthy Jonathan or would he be last day of his life Jonathan?

When Bethany moved out after college graduation, she left behind the detritus of her childhood: photo albums, Girl Scout uniform, CDs of boy bands she found too immature to take with her. I told her I was selling the house and, even though she had set up her own household and presumably had room for her memorabilia, she was agitated and angry because I told her to take what she wanted and throw away the rest. We stood in the garage looking at the boxes stacked against two walls half way to the ceiling.
“I don’t understand why you have to sell the house,” Bethany said, hands on hips, legs apart, her shorts showing off her toned legs and her butt cheeks. She was already at full volume.
“I can’t keep a house I’m not going to be living in,” I said, pretty sure I knew where this conversation was headed. I began absentmindedly taking bins of Christmas decorations out of a closet. I sneezed from the dust I stirred up. The garage floor was in bad need of sweeping.
“If you didn’t have the insane idea to kill yourself, you would still be living here,” Bethany said. “Or, if you’re determined to do it, then leave the house to me.” I willed her to lower her voice.
“You want me to leave you the house so you can keep your New Kids on the Block videos in the garage?” I wasn’t voluntarily going to address the first part of her invective. Just to amuse myself while we emotionally circled each other, I opened one bin and began to untangle a string of Christmas lights.
“You’re not going to need the money when you’re dead,” she said, fairly hissing at me. She turned so that she was facing me with the speed of a predator in sight of prey. “Dad’s pillow is still warm, and you’re boxing up his life already, like it didn’t mean anything.” Spittle squeezed out of the corners of her mouth, and her eyes showed a ferocity I had never seen in her, although I’d already seen about as much as I wanted to.
“You are making no sense. Your father and I designed this house together, and we—”
Bethany interrupted me. “It was dad’s money that paid for the house.” She moved away from me and began yanking some of her clothes that she hadn’t worn since college off hangers and throwing them on the garage floor. The plastic hangers made tiny soft noises as they landed on the concrete.
“Where is this coming from? Your father and I both worked our entire marriage.” I didn’t add that we had a down payment basically because of me.
She looked at me, something sharp and dangerous in her features, from her sneer to her balled up fists to her deathly pallor. Without saying another word, she left the garage with the pile of clothes still on the floor.

Six weeks after I walked through the doors, I moved into my apartment at Death’s Door. It was a one bedroom and bath with a living—dining—kitchen. I bought new furniture. I didn’t want to sit on a couch where Jonathan and I had fallen asleep watching “The Good Wife” or lay in the bed where we slept and made love and fought and clung to each other. Too many memories to break my heart a little more every day. I even bought new towels and utensils. It may not have made sense to spend money considering I was not going to be there much longer, but I was a sucker for decorating, and this would be the first time I decorated a space just for me. I had never lived alone. I could have gone with the residence’s generic furniture package, but I wanted something that was mine. I bought a lemon yellow couch and two light gray and white striped barrel chairs. I was on the first floor, so I had a patio that looked onto the endless undeveloped desert. The landscape was minimalist as though Mother Nature pared down to only essential elements: sagebrush, cacti, and wild grasses. The only thing in abundance was sand, which tended to creep into my apartment when the wind blew. Considering the reason I was at Death’s Door and what I left behind, the decorating-moving process was kind of fun. It kept me from thinking twenty-four/seven about Jonathan.
Grief sometimes overpowered me, and I stayed in bed and howled into my pillow. The unfairness was my usual complaint: Jonathan was such a good man, and it was unfair that he died. I loved him as much as a human could love someone, and it was unfair that I was left as his widow. Jonathan was my rock when my parents died, and I needed his solace when he died. My best friend was dead, and I had no best friend to tell me that everything was going to be okay.
Other times I needed a distraction from the grief, something to modulate the pain. I didn’t want to sit in my apartment alone, so I checked out some of the residents in the café and dining room. I wasn’t quite ready to take on the groups at the pool. They were kind of intimidating in their robustness. When I initially researched assisted death facilities, I got an image of over-the-hill Medicare folks outrunning the grim reaper, but according to Ophelia, the residents ages ran from twenty-five to eighty-six. They came to Death’s Door for a myriad of reasons: terminal illness, deep chronic depression, belief that the next life would be better, loss of the will to live, and wanting to get out while the getting’s good. And then for me there was the promise.

One morning at breakfast I met the man in the boxer shorts. It was noisy as usual with the sounds of dishes, glasses, and cutlery, the sound of people greeting each other: “Good morning. It’s nice to see you alive today.” Boxer shorts man’s name was William Vanderbilt. It was not clear whether he showed up to breakfast in his boxers and slippers because he was befuddled or because he was making a statement. I didn’t ask. William was about six feet tall, slender, with pure white hair, eyes the color of melted chocolate, and caramel colored skin. He was seventy-four, lost his wife of fifty-one years a year before. In his Georgia drawl he said he had children and a sister, but they couldn’t take the place of his Cynthia Lee.
“I am torn between wanting to sleep all the time because I can’t abide the pain I feel because of her death and wanting to stay awake because of the nightmares,” he said as he stirred cream and two packets of sugar into his coffee.
I shoveled food into my mouth, hoping that if I didn’t say anything, I wouldn’t cry. So I ate mouthfuls of grits and egg.
William blotted his eyes with a handkerchief. “I didn’t know anything could cause such pain. Grief is 100 times worse than physical pain.”
I broke a piece of bacon in bite-sized pieces and sprinkled them on top of the egg. I nodded my head, so far holding back the tears.
“Someone told me you made your husband a promise to die. Is that true?” he asked.
I nodded again and chewed. I wondered if I could get through the entire meal without crying.
“Tell me about your husband,” he said.
I took in a deep breath, sipped my tea, and cleared my throat. “We were married for twenty-five years, and we knew each other since we were kids.” So far so good. “My story is very similar to yours.”
“But the promise?” he said.
I told him the story about the fair and the promise. And I did it without crying.
“Are you saying you’re going through Death’s Door because of a promise you made when you were, what, teenagers?”
“Jonathan talked about that promise a lot.”
“A promise to die came up in idle conversation?” he asked.
“No,” I said. He was starting to piss me off. I picked up the teapot and was disappointed to find it empty. “When we had our wills done, for instance, and then when he was sick.”
“Do you have trouble sleeping?” he asked. He slathered strawberry jam on a piece of wheat toast.
“I sleep a lot or I don’t sleep at all.” I got a new pot of tea. “From the time Jonathan and I got the diagnosis I slept only to keep from fainting. I had plotted the hours if he lived three months, 2,160 hours, or if he lived six, 4,320. I did not want to do anything except be with him, even if that meant watching him while he slept fitfully or had bad episodes of pain. I wonder how we would live our lives differently if we knew how many hours we had to live.”
I realized I wasn’t answering his question, but I was on a roll.
“I remember the morning I had to go to DMV, something to do with registration on our boat. Even though I had made an appointment, I had to stand in line to make sure my paperwork was in order before sending me to a window. I hated every minute I was away from my husband. I hated standing in line while humanity walked through the office. No one could have been more important than me that day, no one who needed to get through the line and bureaucracy bullshit like I did so I could get home. I could barely keep from screaming ‘My husband is dying every minute I am here.’”

CHAPTER ONE

My Death Date is tomorrow, March twelfth. My birthday. I will be forty-seven. I think there is a nice symmetry to dying on my birthday. To the extent I want to think about dying. There are countries I haven’t visited, books I haven’t read, music I haven’t heard, ballets I haven’t seen, grandchildren I haven’t held, hot flashes I haven’t sweated through, sample sales I haven’t pillaged. And since he died I haven’t heard Jonathan tell me he loves me. I haven’t been able to listen to Jonathan belch when he didn’t know I was within earshot. I haven’t held Jonathan, not since he lay in a hospital bed, pumped full of morphine, smelling of disease and lost chances.

Jonathan died. I miss him so much. I have no life left. The pain of grieving is unbearable. I can’t live without him, but I wasn’t going to jump off a bridge or anything. And I wouldn’t qualify for a physician-assisted suicide. I’m not ill. I did some research and learned about assisted death, which is different from assisted suicide. Assisted suicide is available to people with terminal illnesses. Assisted death residences exist for anyone who wants to die, for any reason, on his or her own terms. Don’t have to be terminally ill. Only criteria: the person has to be of legal age, wants to die, and has the mental capacity to make the decision. Boom, that’s it. Want to check out, do it. I found an assisted death residence Death’s Door online. They are franchises just like McDonald’s, but without the happy meals and carb count, with locations throughout the western states. Death’s Door has a monopoly in the assisted death industry.

It seems like it would be difficult to make a decision to die, but it wasn’t. It was simple: While Jonathan was ill I thought about my options. First, there was the suicide route, but I knew I would have chickened out or I wouldn’t have been successful and would only have accomplished breaking my neck or becoming an artichoke.

Assisted death is different from assisted suicide, and it isn’t just a matter of semantics. Assisted suicide requires that the person choosing to die have a fatal illness. A few countries allow doctors to assist in the death of a terminally ill person. A person has to be ready to go into the end zone, buy the farm, check out, and shuffle off this mortal coil, for the act to be legal. This is the basis of the End of Life Options Act, which was effective in California.

Most countries that allow euthanasia will not accept foreigners, but a company in Switzerland is the exception. So I could go skiing at St. Moritz, and if schussing down an ice-slicked mountain doesn’t kill me, then there is someone who will serve me a fatal fondue. Again, there is the requirement of fatal illness. Death’s Door has a lock on providing death to anyone for any reason.

Of course there are people—like the ones who picket outside Death’s Door—who consider assisted death to be murder. Others say that allowing assisted death facilities is a slippery slope, and Californians would soon be passing legislation allowing private citizens to kill each other. Oh, wait, that’s right. That’s Florida.

Print ads appeared in Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, and Death’s Door was all over social media. Debates on Facebook began in states that had not passed assisted death legislation. On-line grief groups cropped up on Death’s Door’s website.

 

California’s Death’s Door was housed in the desert in a valley surrounded by San Jacinto, Santa Rosa, and Little San Bernardino Mountains. Jonathan and I lived out in the desert since we graduated from college. For five months out of the year, the hot season that eclipsed spring and autumn, if it weren’t for air conditioning we would have grown scales and laid under rocks. The other seven months were beautiful and the reason we lived out here: tall palm trees set against postcard blue wall-to-wall skies with wispy clouds—clouds that the fierce sun burned up in the hot months. We could see stars at night and hear nothing. No sound unless the coyotes were horny. That was our desert. The only thing missing was Nordstrom.

The buildings of Death’s Door had red clay tile roofs, desert pink walls, and arched windows framed by palm trees, cactus and bougainvillea. I parked under a portico that looked like valet parking at the Ritz Carlton. In a burbling fountain, swimming creatures looked like Item sixteen on the menu from my favorite Japanese restaurant. Through a hedge I saw a pool with a raucous bunch, seemingly trying to drown each other. I heard “Marco,” “Polo,” “good lord, Tyler, you’re cheating, and “I got you. You are so dead,” followed by groans and laughter.

The lobby doors to Death’s Door were arched dark brown mahogany with pewter-colored handles. The doors were heavy and required two hands to open. I yanked hard and walked into the facility scared out of my mind, but believing I was making the right decision.

While I waited for the director to give me a tour, I sat in a lobby that looked like a boutique hotel where I might have a spa weekend: white linen couches, concrete coffee tables with Death Ray, The Walking Dead, and Dead Rising magazines, chandeliers that looked like they had been purchased from Versailles, and tall vases with seasonal flowers the size of a Rose Parade float. Tasteful people—men dressed in suits and women in slacks and cashmere sweaters who looked like they should be in a TV commercial for sparkling wine or a cruise line, but definitely not for Neptune Society—stood in groups of two and three, probably having tasteful conversations. I feared I was dressed too casually in jeans and an Oxford rugby shirt.

A woman in her fifties approached me. Her blonde hair was in a neat bun at the nape of her neck. She extended a hand and gave a firm handshake. “My name is Ophelia Valdis. Welcome to Death’s Door.”

“Thank you. Portia Phillips.” Self-consciously, I patted my hair to make sure I had combed it that morning.

“I am the head of resident relations,” she said. “I will be giving you a tour today and will introduce you to our director. I understand you would like assistance with your death.” She sounded as though she were asking me if I wanted my teeth cleaned. “Why don’t we talk as I show you the residence? We’ll be walking through the Olympus wing. This is our library.”

Ophelia maintained eye contact with me and raised one arm in the air and extended her other arm to take in the room. She was a cross between officious and capable, resembling a high school band director or tour guide at Disneyland. The library was filled with actual books along the walls. I noticed Divine Comedy was the Librarian’s Weekly Choice. A few people sitting at flat screens looked up and smiled.

We walked on, passing more tasteful people. I wondered if Death Door’s air was the reason for their healthy, sophisticated appearance. Something like in the water perhaps. Healthy looking people who were going to die. Going to die. Saying those words in my head made my throat go dry. Before that day following Ophelia Valdis through Death’s Door, the only time I had said I was going to die was when I found a black hair on my chin.

“This is our café. Made to order breakfast, waffles, hamburgers, salads, that sort of thing. We also have a formal dining room and a cafeteria in the Nirvana wing.”

I heard the clatter of people and dishes. I smelled bacon and coffee. People probably between twenty-five and seventy sat together at tables of three or four, casually dressed, except for one man in boxer shorts, undershirt and bedroom slippers who was sitting alone.

“Oh, my goodness. Excuse me for a moment,” Ophelia said.

She walked to the man, talked to him quietly, and he rose from his chair, with disappointment and confusion on his face. Ophelia cocked her head discreetly in the direction of a woman wearing khakis and an earphone.

“Mr. Vanderbilt. Let’s go back to your apartment and find some warmer clothes,” the woman said. She took Mr. Vanderbilt’s arm as though he was leading her, instead of the other way around. He smiled at her, straightened his back and, with as much élan as a man can muster wearing underwear with red lips all over them, left the café.

“Now, let’s go on,” Ophelia said. “Residents must be at least twenty-one and have the ability to manage their affairs legally. We do not allow a third party to make decisions about death unless we have a court order. When you’re approved, you enter into a contract where you live here for a minimum of six months and maximum of twenty-four months. You set your Death Date any time after six months.” She obviously had given that spiel a hundred times. “Of course, you have the option to leave Death’s Door any time. We do provide palliative care for fatally ill residents where there are no time constraints. Do you suffer from a fatal illness?”

“Uh, no. I’m healthy. Six months, two years?”

“Yes. A resident must live here a minimum of six months before going through Death’s Door,” she said. “It’s our version of the waiting period for guns. While we believe people have the right to make end of life decisions, we also want to give them a kind of cooling off period; so, for instance, they don’t come in here after a week-long bender and, feeling appropriately contrite, want to end it all. We do waive the six-month period if a resident’s physician reports that the resident is terminal with less than six months to live.”

We walked on.

“Here is the Thantos Theater. We show first-run movies, and we have older films, too.”

Two heavy gold doors opened to a small theater with black baffle walls and fifty red leather overstuffed chairs. Posters for Death to Smoochy and Death Becomes Her were advertised in the lobby behind Plexiglas. Jonathan and I saw Smoochy when it was first released. He laughed so hard I thought he was going to snort popcorn out his nose. Jonathan was a big laugher. Whether it was a knock-knock joke or seeing Lewis Black in concert, Jonathan could laugh. He had one joke he told over and over to his friends toward the end: What do you call a hair salon next to a cemetery? Curl Up and Dye.

People walked by and greeted Ophelia, and she introduced me. A couple of people gave me a knowing smile, but I didn’t know what for. A group of five men wound up like Slinkys walked by.

“Jim’s Event is tonight,” Ophelia said. She pointed her head toward one of the men. “He chose a stag night with steaks, strippers, and slot machines.”

“What’s an Event?” I asked.

Ophelia didn’t answer me. We continued on our way with a wall of glass on the left that ran the length of the hall, inside of which was an atrium filled with black calla lilies that gave off light in silhouette as though there was a solar eclipse.

“This is the Hades wing,” Ophelia said.

On the right side of the hallway were doors with numbers and people’s names on small tasteful placards. Blue carpet. The walls were covered in mauve and gold patterned wallpaper with white wainscotting.

“An Event?” I asked again.

“Dr. Ammit will answer that question. Let’s look at some model apartments. This is our studio.”

As I walked through the door of the apartment, I saw that the gold designs on the wallpaper were actually depictions from Paradise Lost.

“Your wallpaper—”

“Yes, we imbue the surroundings with references to death to create an atmosphere that normalizes it. Okay, here we have—”

Ophelia continued to tell me the features of the apartment, but I didn’t listen. I knew I was making the right decision. I either died and left my twenty-four-year-old daughter Bethany behind or I spent the rest of my life reliving Jonathan’s death and living without him. Bethany was furious with me for even thinking about assisted death. I didn’t think she understood how badly I missed her father.

 

The word grief does not encompass all the pain and terror I felt with the loss of Jonathan.

When I did research about assisted suicide and assisted death I found Death’s Door online. I called 800-GODEATH and talked to a counselor.

The counselor said, “Tell me your feelings since your husband’s death.” She sounded like she actually wanted to know my feelings, like she was sitting me down with a cup of tea and chocolate chip cookies, and we were going to have a chat.

“Since Jonathan’s died—and actually I began to grieve before Jonathan died—I have panic attacks almost daily.”

“How do those panic attacks manifest themselves physically?”

“I hyperventilate, my skin feels as though it is badly sunburned, the top of my head feels like I’m cooking a fried egg.”

“Do you have any problems connecting with other people?” The counselor’s voice was soothing, like Milk of Magnesia.

“Yes. When I begin to speak, I forget words and forget what I was going to say. I feel as though I’ve swallowed a trout. I think about Jonathan constantly.” The hand that held my phone was slick with perspiration.

“Do you think you have accepted your husband’s death?”

“I have to remind myself that he is gone. I will not see, hear, or touch Jonathan ever again. I look at photos of him at home and remember: Jonathan is dead.”

“Do you think you could grieve for your husband and live out your life?” The magic question.

“I have to stop these feelings and this reality, and the only way is by my assisted death.”

“Are you ready to come to Death’s Door?” The counselor had made her sale.

“Yes, I am. Sign me up.”

 

“Now we’ll find Dr. Ammit, the director of our residence,” Ophelia said, walking me out of the model apartment.

After we left the apartments, it seemed we walked through miles of hallways. I could hear musak coming from speakers in the ceiling. Musak—an abomination. Large floor-to-ceiling windows let in streamers of sunlight that rested on the opposite walls, highlighting the scenes from Paradise Lost. I wouldn’t look at the wallpaper. Yes, I was afraid of death. But it was necessary.

Ophelia and I walked through double doors and stood at the back of an auditorium with several hundred blue theater seats in stadium tiers. At the front of the room sat a stage. A lectern stood at the foot of the stage. The room smelled of suffering and determination. Or was that I? No one else was in the room, but I heard someone giggling on the other side of heavy purple velvet curtains. The room was in darkness except for the stage, lit with one spot, and LED lights that ran down the two aisles. There was no sound except for Ophelia talking, as though we were in a sacred place.

“We use this room for classes, speakers, plays, musicals, and concerts put on by residents or outside companies,” Ophelia said. “We’ve got a group rehearsing Antony and Cleopatra now. Do you act, sing, like music?”

“I don’t act or sing. I love classical music. Tchaikovsky, Abramsky. Stravinsky. The Russians,” I said as I followed Ophelia down the steps to the stage.

 

In the last several months before his death, Jonathan began listening to my classical music CDs, especially Shostakovich.

“Did you know,” he said one evening while I was making a stir-fry, “that Shostakovich wrote the Fourteenth Symphony based on poems with the theme of death?”

I did know that. At that point Jonathan seemed to be obsessed with death. I guess he had the right to be. It wasn’t real to me yet that I could also become obsessed with my death.

 

“Morton, are you here?” Ophelia called out to the room, as we started to walk down the aisle.

“Yes, I’m here. One minute.” A man’s head emerged from behind the curtains. He was sixtyish, had minimal hair the color of dust, an enormous smile and black round glasses. Woody Allen without the existential melancholia.

Ophelia talked to his head. “Come meet our prospective resident, Portia.”

He flung open the curtains. “Ta-da.” He positively bellowed. He jumped down from the stage, walked to us, took my hand in his and kissed it. He was about my height, five six, wore a yellow Hawaiian shirt with blue waterskiing reindeer and purple Nike high tops. Quite a lively man.

“Hello, my dear. Dr. Morton Ammit. Why don’t you sit here and we’ll talk.”

He pointed to a seat in the front row. Ophelia sat next to me.

“What can I tell you about us?” he asked, as he stood with his hands on top of his head. His light gray eyes said he was in love with life, either that or he was stoned out of his ever-loving mind. “Did Ophelia tell you about the two-year rule? Residents come here with intentions to die.” He pointed a finger toward the ceiling. “However, after we had been open a few years, some residents had not gone through Death’s Door yet. They had changed their minds or were afraid, but for whatever reason, they didn’t leave. They liked living, living here specifically. We can’t keep residents here forever. Forever!” He giggled. “We have such a high demand for apartments. Two years. That’s long enough to reach a final decision. During that period, a resident can opt to die any time after the first six months when there’s a Death Date available, but if he hasn’t gone into the end zone by the two-year deadline, clekkk—” He drew his finger across his neck.

I clutched my throat. “Uhk.”

Ophelia looked from Dr. Ammit to me and shook her head. “Morton, please. Residents can leave any time before they go through Death’s Door.” She reached back to feel her bun. No hairs were out of place.

“They go through a door and then they’re dead?” I asked. I was twisting my hands as though I were kneading bread.

Dr. Ammit gave me a look as though I was his star pupil and had said something brilliant. “Yes, dear,” he said. “That’s why we’re here. To provide a badly needed service. Some of our residents are older. They feel they are at the end of their lives. Others have given up on life, but don’t want to commit suicide. And then we have our ill residents. Our residents all have their reasons. Like you for instance. You look like you’re still young, healthy.” He rubbed his hands together, rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. I saw that there were tiny lights on the heels of his shoes that lit up when he moved. “Residents pick a date to die, then plan their last day.”

“Is that the Event?” I asked and turned to Ophelia, “like that guy, Jim, we saw in the hallway.”

She nodded her head.

“Yes, that’s right,” Dr. Ammit said. “Their Event.” He seemed so pleased with me. “They might want to watch their favorite movie with their friends, followed by a dinner of their favorite meal, and then sudden death playoffs of the PGA tour.”

I must have had a horrified look on my face, because he said, “No, it’s not like prisoners on death row having their last meal.” He giggled again. He was having fun.

“You’re talking about dying like it’s a theme park ride,” I said none too kindly.

Dr. Ammit was unfazed. “Interesting you should say that. Actually, dear, an English Ph.D. student designed a roller coaster as an art concept. I think it was called the Euthanasia Coaster. The idea was that during the ride, the passengers would all die from lack of oxygen. I remember this because I love roller coasters. The designer said that the roller coaster would take lives with ‘elegance and euphoria.’” Dr. Ammit made air quotes.

I was speechless, but planned to look it up on the Internet. I had a strong desire to throw up, right there.

Ophelia cleared her throat. “Coming back to our conversation. We were talking about Events. The last dinner might be meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and mango cheesecake.” She was clearly infatuated with alliteration.

Dr. Ammit whistled to get my attention. “This is a lot to take in,” he said. He sat on the stage, dangling his feet off the side banging his Nikes on the polished wood, sending out sparks of light from the heels of his shoes. His pant legs rode up, and I could see his socks: green and yellow paisleys. I wondered if he was colorblind. “When you schedule your Death Date, we ask if you want a church, temple, synagogue, whatever service or celebration is appropriate before you go through Death’s Door. Episcopalian is lovely. Or you can forego a service. Get right to it, as it were. We ask that you or your family pre-plan whether you want to be buried or cremated.”

“I don’t want a funeral,” I said. “I don’t like rituals. When it’s over, it’s over.”

“But your family?” he asked.

“My family’s Catholic. I left the church in high school. My parents are both dead. Since I told the rest of my family what I’m doing, they’ve given up on me. Cut off contact. They said I’m committing a mortal sin. My daughter Bethany’s pretty angry, traumatized really. I don’t have a choice.” Tears escaped in earnest.

I quit the church because I didn’t believe in the Catholic Church’s edicts regarding birth control and abortion. Women should have complete control over their bodies, and procreation shouldn’t be the only reason people have sex. I just couldn’t follow a bunch of antiquated rules.

My younger sister Alexandria is a good rule follower. In kindergarten she was first in line to go into the classroom after recess, followed the Catholic doctrine regarding the Ten Commandments so she could receive the sacrament of penance, and adhered to the Girl Scout promise. I would be surprised to learn that she ever got a moving violation or didn’t sell enough cookies.

There I was with my Catholic family and Jonathan’s Catholic family, and I rebelled I guess. Even though Jonathan told me he didn’t believe in an afterlife and didn’t agree with the church’s teachings, he loved saying the rosary, loved the rituals of mass, and thought that confession gave people opportunities to unburden themselves of real and perceived wrongs. I don’t know how he reconciled his basic beliefs about life and death with the church’s teachings, but it all worked for him.

 

Dr. Ammit and Ophelia appeared to be listening to me without judgment, both making eye contact with me, although Dr. Ammit was humming.

“Exactly how do we die? Do you inject us or give us something to drink?” As I talked my voice sounded uncertain.

Dr. Ammit jumped down from the stage and placed his hands on my shoulders. He looked somewhere between disappointed and concerned. His breath smelled of peppermint. “Heavens. I’m not Jim Jones. We want your death to be painless. You go through your Door, we prepare you in a chair, bed, hammock, whatever would make you comfortable. Then we give you a Death Pill. Within ten to fifteen seconds, that’s it. Show’s over. Fat lady sings.”

“Why a pill?” I said.

He sniffed the air and must have liked what he smelled, because he smiled. “We’ve followed research in methods of assisted death around the world. There’s poison like Jim Jones’s god-awful concoction, but there was evidence that people suffered after ingestion of the Kool-Aid. There are injections of cyanide and potassium chloride like Dr. Kevorkian used. I saw something on the Internet recently. An assisted suicide site showed people how to commit suicide by asphyxiation. They inhaled helium inside a plastic bag. The Dutch have been the most advanced in creating combinations of substances they call the ‘Van Drion Pill.’ Death’s Door has developed a superior pill, a magic pill, if you will. The Death Pill.”

“What’s in the pill?”

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that, dear. It’s proprietary.”

“Oh, god,” I said. I watched Dr. Ammit’s Nikes light up the room like a float in Disneyland’s Electrical Parade.

“Well, yes. Your Door could involve god,” Dr. Ammit said. “You choose your Door: Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Jainist, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan, Confucian, Tao,” he said. “Norse, but we don’t allow human sacrifices.” He looked at Ophelia with his head cocked to one side like a pretty blue and yellow cockatoo.

“New Thought, Peyote Way,” Ophelia said, ticking options off on her manicured fingers.

“That’s right. A few others. We can accommodate other sub-groups like Southern Baptist, though they’re a spooky lot,” Dr. Ammit said, shivering exaggeratedly.

“I didn’t realize I had to be religious to die here. I’m not religious at all. Or spiritual.” When she was young, Bethany went to church with my sister, and I wasn’t surprised she asked to be baptized Catholic when she turned twelve. Jonathan and I went to church on Christmas, our one concession to her.

“Don’t worry, dear. We have Doors for non-religious residents.” Dr. Ammit counted on his fingers. “Agnostic, Atheist, Secular Humanism, Apatheism.”

“What’s that last one?” I asked.

“Complete indifference to religion and the existence of god.” He made a tent of his fingers and blew into them.

“That’s me,” I said, although I want to believe Jonathan’s waiting for me somewhere in some form. My throat tightened and tears flowed. “I’m sorry.” What was I doing there talking to two strangers about my beliefs—or lack of them?

“Completely understandable.” Ophelia said. “Let’s continue our walk.” She handed me a tissue, stood and put her hand out signaling for me to leave with her.

Dr. Ammit kissed my hand again. We left him in the auditorium.

“I want to point out the chapel, craft room, and cafeteria,” Ophelia said.

“What is Dr. Ammit a doctor of?” I asked.

“Geriatrics,” she said and did not elaborate.

I planned to Google him.

We walked down another long hallway that dead-ended at a set of white doors with the words “RESTRICTED ACCESS.” On the wall adjacent was a retina scanner.

“This is where death occurs,” Ophelia said with a hushed voice.

“Tell me about this,” I said.

“No. The only people who know about the Door Room are Dr. Ammit and his assistant Bella Donna. They make the atmosphere appropriate for your relationship with death—”

“My what?” I interrupted her.

“They are soothing, jolly, compassionate, serene, macabre, whatever you need.” Ophelia turned her back on the doors and took my arm to walk on.

“Dr. Ammit is so happy, as though he is a vaudeville act,” I said.

“He takes each person’s death seriously. But he also wants to take away the fear.”

We walked back to the lobby, walking past the café. The smell of French fries made me hungry. Ophelia invited me into her office and pointed toward a pale blue tufted love seat, where I sat down. She sat at her polished mahogany desk with a stack of papers in front of her. We went through background and credit information. I wonder if I can pay for my death with my AMEX. I could get frequent flier points.

“Rent is $2,500 a month, including utilities and all meals,” Ophelia said.

“Can people just come to Death’s Door to die, you know, without living here?” I asked. “I own a house. I think I’d like to stay there.”

“We have certainly gotten requests, but, no, we aren’t a drive-thru.” She sniffed the air. “Then $3,000 for your Death Date. Your Event will be extra, with the cost based on your choices. Financing is available. Short-term.”

As though I were putting my death on layaway. Then we talked about my plan to die.

“I want Apatheism.” I looked at the ceiling, trying, unsuccessfully, to hold back the tears.

“Are you sure?” She rested her elbows on her desk and looked at me as though she were trying to see inside me. Was she looking for my soul?

“Absolutely. It’s just difficult saying this stuff out loud.”

“Do you have a date in mind?”

“Not yet. I’m thinking about everything I learned today, digesting the significance of my decision, still reeling from Jonathan’s death, and I’ve got a daughter in emotional free fall.”

“How did he die?”

“Pancreatic cancer. One day we’re playing golf and six months later—” I felt the weight of each word as it left my mouth and resisted the urge to scream. Moments sneak up on me where I feel that I’m being suffocated.

“Sometimes when people grieve, they make rash decisions.” She cocked her head to one side as though she were getting a chiropractic treatment.

“I know I’m emotional right now, but I know what I want.” I was scared. The top of my head felt like it was being stuck with a thousand acupuncture needles. But love trumps fear. I was going to die.

 

One hot summer Saturday night when we were in college Jonathan and I went to the county fair. We walked on sawdust that stuck to the bottoms of my combat boots. We walked onto the midway with the cacophony of sound—people yelling, merry-go-round tinkling, barkers calling to their next mark—flashing lights, and smells from cotton candy, polish sausages, and animal waste. A guy wearing a green t-shirt, dirty jeans and a bored look about him, took our tickets for the funhouse. One mirror made Jonathan elongated and me squat. He laughed and pointed at our reflections. He was wearing tan board shorts and a green plaid flannel shirt. Jonathan was taller than me by about six inches, so in the mirror he looked like he was on stilts compared to me.

“I’m so fat I’m going to die,” I said as I held my hands over my stomach. I was wearing a t-shirt with sequins, mini cotton pleated skirt. Poufy hair. Very valley girl. Totally.

“Don’t say that. Don’t even tease about it. I couldn’t live without you, babe,” he said, taking my hand and walking through the maze of mirrors.

“If you die first, I’ll be on a tropical beach with a cabana boy the next day,” I said.

“Seriously. I can’t imagine myself with anyone else or you with anyone else.” His voice took on a decidedly un-Jonathan cadence.

We stopped, and he pulled me into him. As we stood in front of mirrors, we embraced and our conjoined bodies reflected off other mirrors to infinity. It was pretty easy to find our way out, because the glass was covered in fingerprints. I was in search of the art hall.

“Jeez, I was just kidding,” I said.

Jonathan held onto my arm. Hard. I stopped walking. “We’ve never talked about dying,” he said. “Let’s promise. One of us goes, the other one goes.”

I laughed until I realized he was serious. “Why are we talking about dying?” I asked him and put my hand on his to loosen his grip.

He let go of my arm and put his hands on my shoulders. “I can’t get my cousin’s death out of my head, you know. I watched her husband at the funeral. And I’ve talked to him since. The man is thrashed, Porsh. He said he can’t live without his wife.”

“Okay, but it’s only been what, a month? He’s probably grief stricken right now.”

“Why aren’t you getting this, Porsh?” He shoved his hands in his pockets and turned away from me.

I put my hand on his back and then walked around so that I was facing him. “All right, Jonathan. I wouldn’t want to be with anyone else if you die.” There, I thought. That ought to satisfy his sudden morbid thoughts.

I wrapped my arms around his neck and rested my head on his collarbone. People pushed against us to get to the crowning of the fair queen. I smelled their anticipation. As they walked, streamers of light from the Ferris wheel painted them a kaleidoscope of colors.

“If I die first, would you kill yourself for me? How would you do it?” he asked. We moved out of the way and stood next to the cart selling cinnamon buns. He pointed toward the cart, and I nodded.

“If you died, I would want to die. My life would be unbearable without you,” he said. He paid for the cinnamon buns and handed me a plate and fork.

“What? Die? I don’t know,” I said. “I think you’re being a little dramatic. Not like you. We’ve never had a conversation like this.” I giggled, anything to move him off that topic.

“Do you want to take some time to think about it?” he asked after purchasing two of the luscious sugary smelling, thousand calorie confections. We found a bench, I put down a bunch of napkins because it was probably sticky, and sat down.

“I was just thinking about our families,” I said. “Don’t you think they would be devastated losing both of us?”

As young as we were, we had already decided to get married. At that point in our relationship, we planned not to have children, the population and all that, so leaving children behind wouldn’t be a factor.

“I understand if you want to decide later,” he said, forking a morsel dripping with liquid sugar into his mouth.

“No, no. I know I wouldn’t want to live if it had to be without you,” I said. “You are more important to me than my family.”

We found a trashcan and threw away our empty plates and forks. I patted my stomach, groaned, pulled out a map of the fairgrounds, and we headed to the art Quonset hut.

“What do you think happens when we die?” I asked. “Do you think there is a hereafter?”

“Nah, I think you get this life, and that’s it,” he said. “What about you?”

“I agree with you.” I loved Jonathan so completely that it was easy to believe what he believed.

I thought about that conversation a lot over the last few weeks, not because I was eternally sorry I had made the promise to him, but because I was so quick to dismiss the possibility of a hereafter. If we get glory when we die and angels play golden harps to the tune of “I’m Forever Yours,” would I like that? I couldn’t envision it, didn’t have faith that an afterlife existed, so I agreed with Jonathan.

Jonathan brought up the “promise” a few times after that evening at the fair. When we married, he wanted the promise included in our vows. I nixed that idea as too morbid. Later, when we agreed to be cremated, rather than buried, he reminded me of the promise. I wanted to tell him “I get it, I get it.” If I had only known then how easy it would be to keep that promise. I’m coming, Jonathan.

 

Jonathan didn’t want me to have any kind of service for him when he died, but his friends insisted, so I said okay. A few of his friends from the men’s golf group planned a memorial, and it turned out nice. It was held at the country club outside on a beautiful day, the kind of day Jonathan would have enjoyed the hell out of, as long as he had a golf club in his hand. Gold-painted chairs were set up in rows on the grass. We had seating for about a hundred, and we wound up with a bunch of people standing, too. A lectern stood in front of the chairs. About ten people spoke, including my daughter Bethany. I knew that he was well liked, but didn’t realize how much.

Bethany, who had her father’s reddish brown hair, brown eyes, and olive coloring, stood before the group, praised her father’s kindness and his ability to make people feel comfortable, including her friends. “My Dad would come into the family room and say hello when someone visited me. He remembered things, so he’d asked Melanie how she was doing in her chemistry class or, Lynda if she had passed her driving test. I mattered to him, I always mattered,” she said, her voice faltering. She stood at the podium with tears streaming down her reddened face. “I will miss him every day of my life, but I will find a way to go on, because that is what he would want for me.” I had the feeling she was making a point directed to me.

My sister Alexandria said we needed to write an obituary. I couldn’t write it. If I saw his obituary in the newspaper, Jonathan’s death would have become real. The obituary published in the newspaper couldn’t contain Jonathan. He was larger than the lines of type used to express the passing of a “beloved” man. Why are deceased always defined by the word “beloved?” Four paragraphs to capture an entire life.