Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Considering the Alternative

Robin Williams' recent suicide had me thinking about my father.
My father, a doctor who died over 20 years ago, had Parkinson's for the last 20 or so years of his life. Every day he got up in the morning and left the modest, middle-class home he lived in and went to his medical office in the lower level of the modest, middle-class home where his parents lived a block away.
Unintentional sepia, at Shea Stadium (Margo D. Beller)
A child of immigrants and a striver. As far as I know, he never thought of killing himself.
Then again, my father was the type of man who would not let feelings like that be known to anyone in his family. He defined himself by being a respectable man in an honored profession.
But I am sure he felt terrified at what would be coming because soon after his diagnosis he contacted one of medical school classmates who was running the Parkinson's program at Mt. Sinai Hospital in NY and allowed himself to be used as a guinea pig to test what was then new and untested treatments. I'd have done the same thing.
There is no cure for Parkinson's, and while the drugs helped a lot, he got worse. Along the way his doctor-wife died, his children moved out, his parents died. He kept going to work until he was finally forced to retire. A few years later he died of complications from a stroke. He was 73.
Robin Williams was 63, a few years older than me. Like my father, Williams was, by all reports, comfortable financially and had people around him to care for him, family and those he could hire.
But I know he was terrified, too. Battling depression and addiction, a man known for manic, sometimes physical comedy, the thought of becoming rigid and debilitated must have put him over the edge.
A lot of us know that feeling. One of my friends, about Williams' age, told me if she ever gets too sick to take care of herself she wants to go out on a "sunset cruise" where she is sailed beyond U.S. waters, drinks poisoned champagne and her body tossed to the fishes. 

Some people just soldier on, like my father, until the end. Those who go to church trust in a happy hereafter for their souls. One of my friends smoked himself into an early grave and when he went it was sudden and he never saw it coming.
I'm not a church-goer and MH and I don't smoke or have children to care for us. At some point, one or the other of us won't be around to care for the other or this house and its considerable amount of stuff. I fear that day.
So do most Baby Boomers I know, the ones who believe the advertisers who tell us we can keep going (using their products) as though we are still 20-year-olds despite the increasing stiffness in the morning, the misplaced glasses, the names and dates we can't remember without notes.
Williams wasn't aging well, according to one news report. Neither am I.  As the joke goes, consider the alternative.
Many do.
I find it no coincidence that there is an increasing movement in many states for doctor-assisted suicide. After living a life of doing what we want and setting trends for generations to come (or so magazines like AARP's tell me), my generation is terrified of coming face to face with the inevitable.
"Hope I die before I get old," sang Roger Daltrey in 1965. Does he feel the same way now at 70? (Or does Pete Townsend, now 69, who wrote the song?)
When we didn't "die young and leave a beautiful corpse," we thought we'd live forever. Advertisers abet this -- like the guy in the vitamin ad I've seen who is told by the voiceover to "do what you've always done" and not let "age get in the way" of surfing that 50-foot wave despite being over 60.
But it's coming, whether you like it or not. I can't ignore the decay as I get closer to the age my mother was when she died, which is why I and others were shaken by Robin Williams' suicide. I own my comfortable, middle-class home thanks to my father, but I would not say I am financially secure. What is "secure" nowadays at our age when we are one medical catastrophe from financial disaster?
There are times when the dreariness of everyday life -- making the bed, folding the laundry, the prospect of shoveling the snow again and paying the bills on declining income - makes me want to end it. Like the man in the old song, "I'm tired of livin' and scared of dyin'."
But Ole Man River just keeps rollin' along.

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