“Alzheimer’s, early stages,” said Dr. Moore. He reached over his tidy desk and patted Edith’s clenched hand, “I know that’s bad news;” he paused and sighed, “but the good news is that we can mitigate and delay many of the symptoms and you still have a long time.” As he droned on describing treatment options Edith let her thoughts wander, glad that she could still control them. She had watched her mother die of this same affliction and she knew, without even going through an analysis, that she was not going to put her family through the same pain.
As she drove home she began to make plans. “I must get my affairs in order, I must clean out my belongings and then,” she paused as she stopped in a school zone and watched school children crossing the street, their youthful voices carefree and shrill. A dog bounded down the sidewalk and her mind drifted as she mused that when he was dying his owners would “do the right thing” and “put him out of his misery.” Dr. Moore hadn’t mentioned that possibility, or had he? Edith couldn’t remember. When the road was clear she drove again, and spoke to her car radio, “How and when will I be put out of my misery?” She often talked to the car radio and now told it “The problem is when?” again she stopped and then took up the thread of her thoughts again. “It can’t be too long or I’ll be too far gone.”
Edith felt relief in knowing and experienced a renewed burst of energy. Some things were easy like rewriting her will; others were more difficult including cleaning out her clutter – accumulations of possessions of a lifetime. Daily she fought to conceal her forgetfulness writing herself notes to remind herself to remember to do things. Sometimes she agonized over her decision, momentarily questioning herself whether what she planned to do would be considered “ethical”. She longed to tell her children, but knew that such a disclosure would be tantamount to aborting her scheme. There would be tears and recriminations and discussions about the sanctity of life and little said about the quality. “After all,” she repeatedly reminded herself, “when the active mind is dead there is no meaningful life.”
The last place to clean out was the attic. Here, in a far corner, she found an old box of her mother’s clothing. Inside was a shiny black fox pelt. It was set into an article of women’s clothing so popular in the 1930s, with the mouth transformed into a clip, and the eyes replaced by shiny yellow glass orbs. Edith took it downstairs to her bedroom. She stood before her mirror and wrapped it around her shoulders. She clipped the mouth onto the white-tipped tail and marveled at the silkiness of its soft caress.
She took to wearing the fur all the time. It came to symbolize her impending death; its sleek blackness wrapped around her shoulders in soft embrace. The last step of her journey didn’t take much planning as she knew that it had to be clean, so that nothing despoiled the pelt which, she wrote, was to be buried with her. The day she chose for her departure, was the anniversary of her mother’s death, and turned out to be one of those brilliant sunny spring days when most living things celebrate life. At sunset she filled the car with gas and drove to a secluded spot in her favorite park overlooking the river. She attached a hose to the exhaust and wedged it into the rear window and then sat in the driver’s seat stroking her coat and listening to the soft purr of the engine.
She was already beginning to feel drowsy when a brown moth with yellow patterned wings flew out of her surrounding pelt. A sun ray streamed in through the car window and silhouetted it in a radiant halo. For a moment she thought that she ought to try to help it; but by now her hands felt heavy and all she could do was gaze and marvel at its beauty. As she watched, it fluttered for a moment, magnificent in its struggle, then wilted and lay still. She closed her eyes and embraced her own imminent flutter and ensuing stillness with a deep sigh of content.
I’m glad I read this story… beautiful in a way. So well told with the pelt on her shoulders.
I think when we reach a certain age, we start thinking about this… I do. I know something will take me away… anything but Alzheimer’s… like Edith, I won’t let that happen. Never thought about talking to the radio… I’ll have to try that.
Thank you for your comments. There is much to learn about Alzheimer’s and dementia, – all scary. I say why not talk to the radio especially when a cogent responses isn’t needed, or perhaps even wanted?
This is so thoughtfully told, Jane. I’m editing a research paper about Alzheimer’s this week, so I found your story particularly meaningful. I love the way you use the fox pelt to ground her decision. Very nicely done! 🙂
Thank you for this most thoughtful comment. Editing a paper on Alzheimer’s must be gruesome.
You’re welcome! 🙂
And, actually, it’s not so gruesome. It’s about the importance of allowing people with Alzheimer’s to maintain their “personhood” – and it’s challenging some of my own views on the disease.
Are you able to share it? It sounds interesting
Unfortunately, I can’t share it at the moment. The researcher has to finish going through the academic approval process. But I will ask her to let me know when it’s approved. Stay tuned!
I usually don’t read other’s comments too much, but hey… It’s Suzanne, and I couldn’t help it.
About 15 years ago, I went to work at a house and the elderly gentleman had Alzheimer’s… It was the first time I had actually been confronted with the disease up close. It was about four in the afternoon, he was doing a complicated jigsaw puzzle, and his wife brought him a martini… frosted stem glass and all. It was kind of odd. She explained his condition and said that the only thing he can really do now is a jigsaw puzzle, which he is better than anyone at doing. Each day he has his martini. He doesn’t know who anyone is anymore. She introduced me and he was very polite and interested to see me and know what I was doing. As I was leaving, I looked into his garage and saw a complete work shop… and knew that at one time he could have easily done what I had came to do. It made me sad.
Ted, thank you for adding this interesting glimpse into a peaceful Alzheimer’s progression. We all fear it, but perhaps, like me, don’t know enough about it.
I’m told that when dementia sets in a person’s salient character traits surface. I think that your puzzle man must have been an endearing person.
I like how you detailed her day-to-day life up to her death, interspersing the absolutely normal with the symptoms of her disease. I find your writing in this piece both intense and soothing. Really nicely done.
Thank you for your perspective comments . I’m sure you’d agree that it is a challenge when the words have to be kept to under 750.
You captured so many thoughts and feelings here. I think your character was very brave, although those left behind will suffer, especially as they will not know of the diagnosis. Well written piece.
I think that maybe she did tell the children about the diagnosis even if it was merely in her last instructions it was her decision on how she intended to handle it that she had to keep to herself. I hope that this is how it was. Those left behind always suffer do they not? Jane
I’m not sure which would be worse, finding a parent dead from suicide or living with the consequences of alzheimers. Given a choice between two bad choices, she chose the better of the two, in my opinion. Your sensitivity and narration was wonderful. This was sad, but heartfelt.
Thank you, I agree and suggest that, until we find a cure Alzheimer’s is a living death – and the loved ones are best spared having to witness this agony. Jane
This was such an emotional story. It’s true – for our pets we ‘put them out of their misery’ when their lives are mostly pain, but with people, our urge is to do things that prolong life. My grandma had Alzheimer’s and it was hard to watch… thankfully, a heart attack took her before Stage 6 set in full-force…
So sorry about your Grandmother – it seems that most of my commentators on this story had relatives who had this mentally debilitating disease. Many even endorse Edith’s decision although I can also empathize with the bereaved loved ones. It is not an easy one to determine and ultimately I suggest that it is each to his or her own destiny.
oh so sad. my uncle, very early 60’s, has Alzheimer’s. it’s not good. honestly, i’m not even sure if he knows he has it. i think, because he was so young when things started to go awry, nobody pushed him to the doctor. so by the time he was diagnosed… well, you get the idea. it’s a horrible horrible disease. thank you for writing about it and trying to bring out the side of those suffering with it.
So sorry about your Uncle – yes I agree it is one of the most insidious diseases – there may be little conscious pain for the sufferer but oh how the loved ones suffer! This piece of mine has brought some interesting and sad commentary.
At least it was caught early on to where the progression could be slowed and so she could control her thoughts.
I agree and suppose that there wouldn’t have been a story if this hadn’t been the case, Thank you for your visit.
I understand this one, it was beautifully done. Having watched my brilliant father descend through the stages of Alzheimer’s and then saying to me, “I am done”, while he still could. This was heartbreaking, yet not.
I think that Alzheimer’s is a conundrum. Those who hang on until the end are the brave ones. I’ve been near a few people who died and at the end and know that often there is often an acceptance and even choice of the time – eating less and so on. It always amazes me to remember that Jefferson and Adams died on the SAME day JULY 4th. It seems that both chose their moment. I’d like to think that the Alzheimer’s patient could have the same luxury.
My father said ‘done’ the day of his beloved wife’s funeral, standing at her graveside. She was my heart mother, my step-mother. She was the love of his life and had been his caretaker through the early stages. He chose, he stopped his medications, all of them. He stopped eating regularly. I knew, I had his DNR. My brother has never fully forgiven me but I am fine with the choice my father made.
Thank you for sharing this. Your brother is wrong, but deaths always tend to bring out strange emotions in the bereaved, and, it seems to me that blaming someone else is one of the most common. I’m glad that you don’t accept the blame and are fine with the choices that you and your father made.!
I said a while back that I would be interested in a piece from you that went for feelings and here it is. Thank you for this moving piece. My own view on the the ethics is that the right to take our own life is one of our few ‘rights’ and that we should be freed up from considerations of others in making that choice. It is after all our life not anyone else’s.
It would of course make me very sad indeed if anyone I loved were to do it…
I believe that most of us do have some choice and most exert that right al be it not until the end (see comment above about Adams and Jefferson.. Obviously in my story I accelerated the time frame and showed someone exerting their choice earlier rather than later based on the knowledge that an Alzheimer’s sufferer eventually is unable to make decisions.
This is such a powerful narrative and something that perhaps many people dwell on. It certainly provoked and brought to the fore some stored thoughts.
I’m with Ian on this – the happiness of my wife and children are paramount.
At age three, I almost died and consider myself on borrowed time. I suppose that’s why I never feared death – no bravery here, but mere acceptance.
Someone once said that we are all ‘terminal,” and I agree the impact on others is paramount. I didn’t dwell on this in my story but obviously Edith’s choice is mostly to protect them from the horror of seeing a loved one deteriorate into nothing mentally and, finally, physically.
Nicely done. More than one story here!
Thank you. It was written for a Speak Easy challenge which I missed by a few minutes. Word count was limited – probably a good thing.
A huge guffaw, here, at the description of the pelt with the clip and the glass eyes…I know that heirloom… (“what shall we do with it?”) I absolutely love this piece, Jane. It describes exactly how I myself have planned it, more than once. It is a marvelous, beautifully rendered, prose poem. Thank you!
Hi Cynthia, thank you for your comments. I agree about the fox fur – what do we do with these relics?
On your other comment I think that we are on parallel paths. I’m glad that they intertwine in this blogging medium.
Yes there is that tension between not wanting to cause children distress in watching it all happen, and the possibility insurance won’t pay out on a self inflicted death. One does like to leave something substantial to the children as a final gift and the old and worn furniture and home doesn’t seem enough. Perhaps we will be among the lucky minority who still have their marbles when we say goodbye to this vexing world? Let’s hope so, as what I’ve observed it’s a frightening time for those affected and time of worry for the children.
I agree that, having buried our parents we know what our children may have to go through and sincerely want to protect them as much as possible. I think that we moderns with our long life expectancy aren’t nearly as well prepared to cope with death as our forefathers were. For the very young there is also that nagging belief that death is going to be like it is on film – an often reversible event.