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 my husband 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 residences 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 a blue and green striped 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.
“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 apartment, 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–and the giggling–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. 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 miles.
“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 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.