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Ann Latham: Deaths in the family

My mother thought they would meet their demise on one of their wild adventures to remote corners of the world. Once old age tamed their excursions, my father decided a bottle of scotch and a snow bank would do the trick.

My parents always said they wanted to live together in their big, old farmhouse until they could do so no longer — and then they didn’t want to live at all. They had no intention of being hauled off somewhere or letting a caregiver invade their privacy.

My siblings and I worried. What could we do to help that would not incur their wrath?

Despite being mentally sharp, prescription-free, and managing day-to-day, the writing was on the wall. The likelihood of a fall or other debilitating change was increasing dramatically as they crept up on 90. My mother’s chronic pain was worsening and could be exchanged only for a drugged stupor, a condition she abhorred. My father hated watching her suffer. If anything happened to him, she could not have stayed in their house. While my father never complained, neck pain was making it virtually impossible for him to pull out of their steeply angled driveway safely so he could go to buy groceries. He was also becoming less steady on his feet, making his many trips up and down the stairs of their four-story house more dangerous.

I don’t know when they made their decision. I do know they kept it to themselves. Responses to “How are you?” were shifting from old favorites like “we’re still buying green bananas” to “everything’s a hell of a lot of work,” though they insisted they were “still managing — mostly, enjoying life, watching the deer in the yard, drinking good wine, and eating nice dinners.”

When some of us proposed a visit to celebrate my father’s 90th, he refused. In hindsight, we assume he didn’t plan to live that long. At the time, we took his explanation at face value, “Don’t be silly. No one comes to Minnesota in February!”

Those who knew my parents were not surprised by their decision. It fit. Even the short and cryptic email message, “We are checking out. — H&H,” was them. It reminded me of the “letters” my father sent me in college written on one side of a prescription blank and of the torn corner of an envelope that arrived just before New Year’s with a check “in case our idiot lawmakers actually let us fall off the fiscal cliff.”

There were no sentimental comments left behind. No love or regrets, unless you count my mother’s note, which apologized for the mess in her desk, shelves and files.

But that’s OK. It all fit. We knew we were loved; no one had to say it. We knew they weren’t sorry; they simply knew what they wanted. They knew we would understand, because they’d only told us about a thousand times that they didn’t intend to leave that house.

And the way they went about their last few days fit equally well. The wastebaskets had been emptied. Every dish was clean and in its place. There wasn’t so much as a coffee cup in the dishwasher. The bills were paid ahead. The wills were lying on top in the most likely file drawer. Two 5-by-7-inch pieces of paper with notes in my father’s handwriting were squared off on top of his desk.

They indicated that he’d already done things like stopped the paper and paid Dave for snowplowing, but hadn’t yet made five copies of the house key. All the unfinished items required another trip in the car, which is likely why they were left undone. One other note stands out in my memory: “ ‘Til death doeth part’ need not apply us. Our cremations could be mixed together and tossed out into our swamp.”

They did many things during their last several days that demonstrated how thorough and thoughtful they were. The last checks they wrote were to the three younger granddaughters. Each memo line read “for foreign travel.”

They were thoughtful, generous, fair and committed to their values to the end. Growing up with parents like mine, I knew the goal isn’t to live as long as you can; the goal is to live as well as you can. Doing the things you love, learning, traveling, growing, experimenting, loving. All for as long as you can possibly do it.

You can eat well and exercise regularly. You can fight off disease and mend broken bones. But you can’t recover from old age. Prolonging life is great, but there is nothing to be gained by prolonging dying. I didn’t know they had the guts, but it was the only good ending left for them that would fit.

I love snowstorms, but on the night I got the email, I barely noticed as three feet of snow piled up against our front door. It was a surreal night, not knowing what “exit” meant. I alternated between praying for their success, contemplating my loss, thinking they would answer the phone in the morning and Googling what to do when someone dies at home. Time passed slowly. There was one thing I knew for certain: I was not supposed to rescue them.

We need a word besides “suicide.” Suicide is tragic and to be avoided. My parents’ story is one of love, integrity and strength.

To me, there is nothing selfish or shameful about what they did. While sad for me, I can only be happy they were so clear about what they wanted, able to make such an incredible decision together, never separated and never too far gone to live life as they wished it to be. They knew not to wait one day too long and lose control of all they had left.

Ann Latham lives in Westhampton with her husband and is president of Uncommon Clarity Inc.

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