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.’”