Jessica de Soria Dalton
By Sarah Krouse
I was sitting on the deck at my parents’ house in Connecticut one summer night, listening to the distant sound of a high school marching band practicing when my father said he wanted to help people die.
He said he could to start a business. People would decide when they were in their sixties where they wanted to die – on a boat, in a desert, on a beach, in the woods— and he would help them get there when things took a turn for the worst.
It was the summer he started driving elderly people to day care. He had retired and wanted a small source of side income and with my sister and I old enough to drive ourselves, it was the only chance he had to fasten someone’s seatbelt and keep an eye on them in the rearview mirror.
Once or twice a week he would pick up a group of men and women in a handicapped-accessible van. He’d walk to their doorsteps and chat for a few moments with their nurses, children, spouses, whomever was charged with caring for them.
He liked the idea of giving these people a break for a few hours: the nurses with wet beds to change, the spouses who had not grown old as quickly as their partners and were charged with their care, the children who refused to put their parents in a home and instead offered them an extra bedroom.
This is not what my father wants.
“Gruel is gruel,” he would say, as in, mush is the same no matter who is feeding it to you.
Do parents say that because they fear you won’t have time or room for them?
I told my father he should keep his business idea to himself — it was a little bleak.
“I’m serious,” he said. “People don’t know how miserable it’s going to be to die until it’s too late.”
Earlier that week, Joe, an 80-year-old man who hobbled and couldn’t remember his wife’s name started running down his driveway.
He hadn’t walked without help for years, my father said, when he told me the story.
Joe started walking slowly at first, letting go of my father’s hand as he led him down his driveway. He then picked up speed and broke into a run.
He ran until his legs gave out and he fell flat on his face. My dad said his nose crunched as it hit the pavement and broke.
“Just like that,” my father said. “Running and then down.”
My father drove the rest of his passengers to day care that day. Joe was dead by the end of the week.
My father said that under his business plan, there would be a checklist, criteria that you have to meet before you are left to die. There’d be a failsafe, too. Each person would be left with a cell phone and if they decided they weren’t ready to die, they would be saved.
“The kicker is that no one will use it, no one at that point will be cognizant enough to save themselves,” he said.
My father’s criteria: diapers. He doesn’t want anyone to put a diaper on him.
I had just come home from college for the summer and already he had shown me where he had filed his and my mother’s wills.
He begrudgingly puts away $400 per month to make sure he is in permanent, not day care, he tells me.
“How ridiculous that dying is the most expensive thing you can do,” he said.
My mother, who has no interest in death, came out on the deck and I said, “Have you heard about Dad’s new business plan?”
She rolled her eyes. “He’s told me all about it.”
“But what will you do with the body once the person is dead? Just leave them there?”
“Why not? Animals can eat the body or it can just decompose – what is wrong with nature running its course?,” he said, pointing out that he wouldn’t reasonably have a way of knowing whether his clients had actually died — and he wouldn’t want to disturb the process.
He said he’d choose places so remote, it’d be unlikely that anyone would find them.
“Why don’t we talk about something else, my mother said, taking a sip of her wine.”
Since retirement she has been walking every day, swimming, doing Zumba and Yoga, Jazzercizing, doing anything she can to stay healthy.
“You don’t use it, you lose it,” she would say, joking that she needed to be alive as long as possible.
I escaped most of his elderly day care stories that summer. I taught swim lessons and spent nights drinking in parking lots, on beaches.
The college summers were a continuation of high school parties – gatherings in dark places where my friends and I drained cases of beer before driving home.
That summer whenever my mother forgot what she was doing, measured an ingredient wrong while baking or had trouble holding something with her arthritic hands he’d say, “There’s room on the bus for you.”
He showed her how to pay bills that summer, how to access financial records.
Does he plan to die first? Does he want to die before he is old to avoid a ride on the bus?
I ask him where he wants to die.
“Maine,” he said. “There are lots of woods and it’s cold enough that I’ll freeze to death.”
I see the image of him in the woods as I finish the last sip of my beer that night.
I get in my car, fasten my seatbelt and imagine someone like my father, fastening his seatbelt on a bus that will go to elderly day care.
I accelerate and picture my elderly father walking in the woods where he will die.
I see him break into a run.
My car winds over the yellow markings on the outside of the road leading to my parents’ house, toward a rock wall.
I see my father fall. I swerve and stop.
If a man falls in the woods and no one is around — does it make a sound?
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