Death with dignity

It took a long time to legalize marijuana for non-medical use in Massachusetts. It’s taking even longer to overcome the NIMBY response to applications for retail space. The wheels of progress chug along at an excruciatingly slow pace, and if we have to wait a little longer to be able to pick up a joint when we go out to buy a bottle of wine, so be it. We’ll live. But when the very issue is one of life or death, we can’t afford to wait any longer.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide has become a leading cause of death in this country; it’s number 2 among young folk and number 4 among 35 to 54-year-olds. It drops to number 8 for those who are 55+. Are older people less impulsive, less depressed, or does it just become harder to find the means to take your own life past a certain age? I’m going to hazard a guess that if it was easier to do, more terminally ill people would, but in those situations, should it be considered suicide?

Only six states (and DC) currently have right to die, or death with dignity laws. If you have the resources you can move to one of those states, establish residency, and take advantage of the statutes. If not, and you don’t have the wherewithal, practically or emotionally, to end your own suffering, you have no choice but to institute a DNR and hope it is respected.

death with dignity

My Aunt Pearle was fortunate to live in California. When she was diagnosed with her third or fourth cancer, in her 80s, she decided she’d had enough. She knew how treatment would affect her and decided that the price for a little more time was too high. Pearle decided to end her life on her terms, at a time and place of her choosing.

While California gave her that right, there were stipulations. The Hemlock Society of San Diego explains what those are: The state requires three requests, two oral and one written, signed by two witnesses. You must be able to swallow a pill (or pills), because that’s the only legal way to go, and before you take the drug(s) you need to sign a final consent form. And it’s not enough for your personal physician to write the prescription, a consulting physician needs to sign off as well. That’s a lot to ask of a person with a terminal illness. But with the help of her husband, Pearle was able to achieve her desired end.

My aunt was the first person I knew who chose to die with dignity. It was hard to process the news that her death had been scheduled for a particular date and time. As said time approached, I was acutely aware that she would shortly cease to exist, and when the time came and went, I felt uneasy. I was sad, of course, but knowing that it was her choice made it less upsetting and more existential.

Years ago, my cousin, Linda, took her own life in a horrible, ugly fashion, often the only way out for a person who doesn’t have access to pharmaceuticals that might do the job. She was depressed, likely angry, and clearly without hope. She was not, however, terminally ill. What she did was commit suicide. What Pearle did was choose to end her own life, with dignity.

It doesn’t take a very active imagination to picture the difference between a protracted illness guaranteed to end in death, and a peaceful departure at the time you choose. I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t ensure that everyone could make that choice. The Death with Dignity organization tells us that once terminally ill people receive the means with which to end their life, “Some people (about 1 in 3) never take the medication. Simply knowing they have this option, if they need it, gives them comfort.”

If you live in Massachusetts, you can make an appointment to drive out to Leicester or Northampton to buy legal weed. You can then ingest it in the comfort of your own home and think about how fundamental the right to choose is under any circumstance. But you don’t have to get high to appreciate that the right to death with dignity is just another choice that every individual should be able to make for themselves.

Visit here for a list of organizations to help you explore this issue more deeply.

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What happened to my ass?

David Sedaris spoke at my daughter’s graduation from Oberlin College. The speech, which I found online in its entirety (you’re welcome) was funny, as you’d expect, but it also delivered some unexpected pathos. He said, “You might not realize it this morning, but thirty years from now you’ll pull out pictures of yourself taken on this day and think, ‘Why did nobody tell me I was so attractive?’” Who knew that was a universal problem?

I remember myself as a tubby child and an overweight teenager. Family photos, however, belie that with evidence that I was a normal, right-sized kid. Sadly, there is no evidence to counteract my memories of my dad telling my petite and attractive mom, “Don’t eat that,” or, “Do you really need that?” I internalized messages that weren’t even addressed to me.

When I hit forty, though, and was still carrying around the ‘baby weight’ from my two-year old, there was no disputing that a diet was in order. I took the logical first step and cut my hair; that was good for a couple of pounds. Then the real work began. Thirty-five pounds later, I looked better than I ever had and life was good for another ten years or so—before nature began to interfere.

As you age, you change in ways you have no control over. Ask anyone who had 20/20 vision what happened when they hit forty. Most will tell you that ‘all of a sudden’ they needed glasses. Hair turns gray. Mine started with a Cruella de Vil silver streak that I thought was pretty hip when I was in my early thirties. But it didn’t stop there; over time, my color went from brunette to salt-and-pepper. It’s thinning now, too.

Are you old enough to remember Magda from the movie There’s Something About Mary? I’m not a sun-worshiper like she was, but there are other similarities. If you’re a woman, I know you’re familiar with the test where you try to hold a pencil under your breast. If you can’t, they’re not sagging yet. Lucky you. I could probably hold onto a desk’s worth of office supplies.

Another indignity is that your weight rearranges. You don’t necessarily weigh more, but your clothes don’t fit. For some, gravity brings on the dreaded pear shape. Me? My ass has all but disappeared. While I wouldn’t say it was my pride and joy, it was an integral part of the hour-glass figure I used to have. Now, I’m pretty much a straight line from the back of my neck to my heel, and I’m forever pulling up my pants.

Nora Ephron said all this much better than I ever could in her book, I Feel Bad About My Neck. So, if you feel that life is treating you unfairly, let David Sedaris and Nora Ephron put things back in perspective. Laughing is good for you. Or you can create your own blog and complain. It won’t bring back your ass, but you’ll feel better.

Adventures in Trader Joe’s parking lot

An older model beige Buick turned left around an island in the Trader Joe’s parking lot and hit the red Subaru that was parked alongside it. The driver backed up, adjusted, and pulled past the island into a parking spot. Indignant on behalf of the Subaru’s owner, I waited to see what would happen next, running confrontational scenarios in my head.

Across the lot, another woman was also watching. At an Active Bystander workshop, I learned that if you want to intercede on someone’s behalf in public, it’s best to enlist another observer, because, in part, there’s safety in numbers. Designed to empower bystanders to address harmful situations—abuse, harassment, injustice—safely, there had been no role-playing for this situation: an elderly woman slowly unfolded herself from the Buick and walked towards Walgreens without a backward glance.

Despite the fact that our antagonist presented no apparent threat, I was relieved when the other observer raised her eyebrows at me, wordlessly offering to join me to inform the driver of her transgression and ensuing responsibility.

The driver, who I will call Hilda, had no idea she’d hit a car. She thought she’d bumped the curb. Her distress was so acute that my need for justice was subsumed by the desire to reassure her that it was a minor accident of no real consequence.

We urged Hilda to leave her name and number under the Subaru’s windshield wipers so the owner could contact her, but she was too upset to understand the how and why of our suggestion. She wanted to wait for the owner to appear and when we couldn’t dissuade her, I told my partner in Active Bystander-ing that I would stay with Hilda and she could go.

I learned a lot about Hilda. She was 87, her son was sick, and her daughter was out of town. She was a religious woman and G-d was referenced as often as her son, who she was sure would be worried about where she was and angry at her “stupidity.” We stood at the Subaru, in the gray mist, watching people come and go. Each time, Hilda would say, “Is that the car’s owner?” as if I knew.

We were damp and chilly. Hilda was thin, the skin on her hands translucent. She wore a lavender raincoat without a hood. I begged her to go stand under Walgreens’ awning and let me wait for the car’s owner, but she refused. I had no way of knowing which store the owner was in, but when I saw a man in a day-glow orange vest rounding up carts from Trader Joe’s, I asked if he could have the store announce that the owner of a red Subaru was wanted in the parking lot. A few minutes later, a blond, middle-aged woman in a tan overcoat came striding purposefully out of the market.

It only took a moment to explain the situation, after which the owner of the Subaru took down all of Hilda’s information on the back of an envelope, asking for my name and number as well. With each new bit of information captured, Hilda would say, “I am so sorry. I wouldn’t have known if it weren’t for this angel here.” But I was no angel. When Hilda dented the Subaru, my response was one of righteous indignation; I was prepared to do battle for something that was none of my business.

I‘m sorry that this parking lot episode will create an aggravating, confounding problem for an elderly woman who has plenty of other difficulties to deal with, and part of me wishes I had not stepped in. On the other hand, fixing the damage to the Subaru will be a trial and expense for its owner, who deserved consideration as well. Perhaps I will look the other way next time, or leave it to some other Active Bystander to manage. Given the ridiculous configuration of the Trader Joe’s parking lot, I suspect I’ll have the opportunity to test myself again.

Decision point. (Short fiction)

Laurie and Max met at Goodwill where they sorted rags for minimum wage. Both had severe developmental disabilities and Max was legally blind. Though they were in their thirties, they asked for, and received, their parents’ blessings to be married, and set up housekeeping in a one-bedroom apartment on Turner Road. They were a good team and were often seen hand-in-hand walking to the bus, or to visit the goats at a small farm down the street. There was only one thing missing in their world. Laurie desperately wanted a baby, but despite the desire and the prayers, they still didn’t have one.

One gray, Saturday morning, Laurie walked to the grocery store and came home with a baby. Max was confused, but delighted, even though Laurie had neglected to bring home the cereal and milk that she’d gone to the store to get. Nor did she have diapers or formula or even a bottle to feed the baby with, so they agreed that Max would go out and Laurie would stay home with the baby, who had been remarkably quiet the entire time.

Max carefully wrote down all the things he needed to buy, adding in a tiny scribble at the bottom, cookies. He was supposed to be on a diet and didn’t want Laurie to know that he was cheating.

“Take the wheely,” Laurie said. “Diapers are big.”

“But I’m getting little diapers,” Max said.

“Little diapers are big, too,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Take the wheely.”

Max didn’t understand, but he was used to that, and to doing what Laurie said, so he dragged the collapsed, wheeled grocery cart out of the closet and bumped it down the stairs behind him. He stood on the threshold for a moment, studying the sky. It was pretty when it was overcast, and it didn’t hurt his eyes to look at it, like it did when the sun was out. He pried opened the cart so it became a tall wire rectangle, and pulled it down the street. When he got to the corner, he stopped and looked both ways.

A couple of blocks further down the road, in front of the grocery store, he could see flashing blue lights, lots of them. There must be something interesting happening for there to be more than one police car and Max was eager to see so he moved a little faster. But he didn’t run, because that could be dangerous. As he neared the store, a policeman held up his hand in the stop position. Max could now see that there were four police cars and an ambulance and a fire engine.

“Is there a fire?” he asked the policeman.

“Nope. Woman dumped her baby.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means,” said the policeman patiently, “that a woman had a baby, decided she didn’t want it, and tossed it into a dumpster behind the supermarket.”

Max nibbled on his lower lip. “Can I go into the store?” he asked.

“Not right now. We’re trying to find the baby, but it’s not where the lady said she put it. This shouldn’t take long, though, and then you’ll be able to go in.” He turned around and put his hands on his hips, one resting lightly on the butt of the gun in the belt full of cool things that he wore.

It was strange, Max thought, that on the same day Laurie brought home a baby, there was one missing from a dumpster. Why would a lady not want a baby? And why wouldn’t she give it to someone who wanted it instead of throwing it away? That wasn’t good. Max was diligent about recycling, reusing, and reducing, except maybe that last part. He decided he wouldn’t get the cookies after all.

Making decisions was hard. Max wasn’t sure if he should wait for the policeman to let him go into the store, or walk home and try again later. If he wasn’t going to get cookies, maybe he didn’t need to go in at all. What was he supposed to buy? He dug the list out of his back pocket and remembered, oh yeah, cereal, milk, diapers, and formula to feed the baby.

The baby.

Laurie brought a baby home from the supermarket, where some lady had “dumped” her baby.

“Excuse me,” he said, reaching out to touch the policeman’s arm.

Without turning around the policeman said, “Not yet.”

“I have a different question,” Max said.

The policeman sighed, turned around and raised an eyebrow. Max knew that meant he could ask his question.

“Does the lady want her baby back?”

The policeman snorted. “That woman is not getting that baby back. She’ll be lucky if she doesn’t end up in jail.”

Max nodded slowly. “Okay,” he said. “Thanks.”

He decided that he didn’t want to wait on the sidewalk anymore so he turned around and pushed his cart home again.

 

 

 

Who hasn’t thought about suicide?

Every time someone famous kills themselves, editorials and blog posts spring up cautioning us all to keep an eye out for our friends’ mental health. I read one post that I thought was particularly interesting because it discussed the difference between everyday depression, with a small d, the kind we all experience when things aren’t going our way, and clinical Depression, with a big D, where no amount of good fortune will make the person feel better because their brain doesn’t act like (dare I say) a normal one. Unfortunately, as the writer pointed out, we only have the one word for all that, depressed.

I hate to pile on with a me too (not the kind with the hash tag, thank you Michelle Wolf), but I’m depressed, too. Not the big D kind, as far as I know, but that’s the problem with depression, how do you know? Years ago I was diagnosed with anxiety, which we all know is a kissing cousin to the big D, and I often wonder, if I tipped over into Depression, how would I know?

I’ve had years of therapy (and as you know, I’m a big booster). I learned an awful lot about myself and was a good enough student to put into practice what I was learning. Once upon a time, the only emotional response readily accessible to me was anger. You can imagine how difficult that was for family and other intimates. Now I have a full range of emotions at my fingertips and can tell the difference between them. The only one I continue to scratch my head over is depression (if you’ll grant me the latitude to call depression an emotion.)

I know people who suffer from the big D, so if I slip and say, “I’m depressed,” I’ll usually add, “not depressed depressed, just, you know, depressed,” so I don’t worry anyone, and then I feel guilty, because after all, I’m not Depressed so what do I have to complain about?

Occasionally, I’ve gone as far as to indulge in suicidal ideation. Don’t panic or jump to conclusions, here. It’s a fact that people who indulge in suicidal ideation (suicidal thoughts for those less inclined to show off their vocabularies) are not necessarily going to kill themselves. Most, I’d hazard a guess, do not, which is to say, lots of people think about it, but if they haven’t gotten as far as a plan there’s probably nothing to worry about. Probably. So how do you know when to worry? That’s a real question; I have no idea.

The point I’m trying to make is that I’d like to be able to reclaim the word depressed. I don’t want to feel guilty when I use it, because, dammit, I’m depressed! My father died last November, I broke my shoulder in January, I work out of my home and need to actively create reasons to leave. I worry about my mother who is now on her own and everyone else in my meshuggeneh family. I’d be crazy not to be depressed.

Unless I’m just unhappy.

In which case, as Emily Litella used to say on Saturday Night Live, never mind.

emily litella

A world of contrasts

It took me years to talk myself into paying someone to come into my home to clean upholstered chairs; it seemed like such a first-world problem. But after donating to a charity to help buy a water pump for a school for girls in Tanzania, I decided I could forgive myself for finally succumbing to the urge.

You see, once upon a time, we bought a dark brown sofa from Crate and Barrel. Then we let the salesperson talk us into getting light-colored side chairs for contrast. She was right, they looked great together, but there’s a reason she had to sell us on them; they don’t age well.

One day, when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I sprayed some fabric cleaner on a spot on one of the chairs. It worked. The spot disappeared and there was a clean patch in its place screaming, “What were you thinking buying light-colored furniture?”

Why not spray the whole chair, you ask? Don’t be ridiculous.

Then the rug in the family room acquired a stain. I have no idea what caused it and no one ever confessed. I suppose I could blame the cats, we have two, but honestly, it doesn’t look like their work. Besides, cats are meticulous groomers, if they’re not sleeping they’re cleaning themselves. Of course, whatever loose fur isn’t ingested, to be thrown up as a hairball at a later date, is going to end up flying around the house. And you know where it’s going to be easy to spot? On those light-colored chairs.

cats on sofa

The constant shedding isn’t their fault, they’re actually relatively well-behaved. They use the scratching posts instead of the furniture for the most part, which is important, because the boy cat is skittish and we can’t cut his nails. Nonetheless, they are cats and when they sit down their you-know-whats are planted flat on the ground. Gross, right? It’s not something you want to dwell on, but once you get it into your head it’s hard to shake. It also makes a good argument for having your rugs cleaned once in a while. And if you’re going to have the rugs cleaned, why not the chairs?

So now the rugs look new again and the chairs have no spots. If you want to spruce up your home, and you live near Arlington, MA, give Marcello at Capone Carpets a call. But first make a donation to your favorite charity. You’ll enjoy your clean space that much more. And if someone suggests that contrasting colors would look nice in your family room, pick up some pillows from Target.

Eulogy for my dad

Unedited – as spoken at his funeral

When I was a little girl, I sometimes went with my dad when he did rounds at the hospital on Sundays. He’d park me with the receptionist and go off to see his patients. When someone from the hospital staff came by, the receptionist would say, “This is Dr. Mintz’s little girl,” and they would reply along the lines of, “Dr. Mintz? How wonderful. We love your dad.” I remember feeling so proud to be his daughter, as if he must be someone very special for everyone to be so happy to meet me.

dad on 80th

When he was short-staffed at his office one summer, I filled in. I was probably 15 or 16. I loved watching him with his patients. They were so genuinely fond of him. When we met, they were surprised that I was so grown-up; they thought the doctor had little girls because the only picture he had of his daughters in his office was from when we were quite young. In many ways, for him, we remained frozen in time as his little girls.

Despite his ability to charm patients, he still had to chase me around the house and pull me out from under the sofa to administer a vaccine. Then he’d give himself a shot to demonstrate how simple it was going to be. I always wondered how he could do that.

But I had the utmost faith in my dad. I had to have some blood taken at the hospital once for reasons I no longer recall. He dropped me off at the lab and went to do something else. The person charged with taking my blood was having a hard time. They were on their third or fourth try and I was in tears when Dad returned. He immediately took over and in one try drew a vial of blood. At that moment I decided he could probably do anything.

My dad was a very smart man, with a great love of silliness. Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in was a favorite of ours and as he got sicker I’d tease him that he sounded like Artie Johnson growling at Ruth Buzzi, “Want a walnetto?” Monty Python’s Flying Circus also provided a lifetime of references guaranteed to produce an appreciative chuckle. I loved his sense of humor, the way he would groan with pleasure at a bad pun.

He loved the animated show, Rocky and Bullwinkle. At the least provocation he’d say, “Nothing up my sleeve.” And every birthday I’d get him a copy of Mad Magazine. Alfred E. Newman was another favorite of his and “What, Me Worry?” his watchword. He shared with us his great affection for Winnie-the-Pooh, Pogo, and Charlie Brown. No holiday season was complete without a family rendition of Deck the Halls with Boston Charlie. And he and I could do a mean chorus of “When the buzzards come back to Hinckley,” a song we learned from a comedy hour on the old WCRB radio station.

Making my dad laugh was one of the great joys of my life, particularly in the last couple of years.

There’s a picture of my parents as a young couple, mom’s pregnant, and they’re holding matching stuffed animals, dogs with long noses and floppy ears. I played with those dogs when I was a child and they were well-loved. They’re still in my childhood room, waiting patiently for attention. I can’t bring my dad back, but, with my mother’s permission, I’ll take those stuffed animals home where my husband will indulge my playful side, just like my dad always did.