On Being Alive
Dorothy’s kids warned their mother about going to Europe on her own, but she didn’t listen. As I watch Bea sleep, I cannot help but wonder whether it isn’t better to leave life at 83, while enjoying oneself, rather than waste away in a hospital bed, even a hospital bed installed in one’s own home. As more elderly people “benefit” from new drugs that prolong life, more baby boomers will find themselves in situations like ours, chained to a loved one whose life is slowly winding down, obligated to stay in what Sven has called a "beautiful prison" during the years which should be the prime of our own lives …
Bea is finally waking from her long sleep. It is normal for the elderly to sleep a lot, but these past few days, have been competition for Rip Van Winkle.
Today Dr. S. comes to call. Remember when doctors used to visit patients at home? Now it takes hospice to make this happen.
First the doctor interviews me about Bea’s condition. I explain the angioplasty in the mid 1990s, list her meds. Then we proceed into the next room where I do introductions, and my mother becomes the interviewer. Bea perks up at the sight of a new person, a lady doctor to boot. “When did you become a physician?”
“The same year you moved to Wellfleet,” I say.
“Where do you live?”
“Do you like it there?”
Dr. S. patiently answers these quick-fire questions. I watch as she listens to Bea’s heart.
Bea looks down at her chest, noticing for the first time how wasted her body has become. “I have no breasts,” she comments in a matter-of-fact voice.
Indeed, she is all shriveled up like a prune. I’m glad she cannot see her pelvis. The boniness is unnerving.
At that point, the doorbell rings, and I rush off to answer. Nurse Diane has arrived, since Jane is on vacation. Diane confers briefly with Dr. S. who pronounces Bea in amazing shape, all things considered. I usher Diane into Bea’s bedroom.
“This is Diane,” I say. “She’s a nurse.”
“Hello, Beatrice,” says Diane, remembering that Bea told her to use “Beatrice” on an earlier visit.
“When did you start being a nurse?” Bea asks and makes an effort to focus. “You look so young, but maybe I’m not seeing straight.”
“Thank you,” says Diane.
“Pas de quoi.”
“How old are you?” Diane asks.
“No, you’re 96!” I protest with laughter.
Diane is taking blood pressure, a routine task that is complicated by the gauntness of Bea’s arm and her distaste for cold metal on her skin. All of a sudden Diane's patient demands, “Why do you care about me?”
I recognize the theme: Bea has already asked me the same thing. She questioned Lisa, too, earlier in the day, about why she was here.
Diane pauses, then says slowly, “Anybody who gets to be 96 is special in my book.”
Bea closes her eyes again. I perceive a faint smile at the corners of her mouth. Apparently she appreciated this answer.
Diane asks what Bea has been eating.
“Cream of wheat, and especially ice cream. She loves ice cream.”
“What flavor?” Diane asks Bea.
“Any will do.”
I explain Bea ate none at all for dietary reasons from 1970 on, while serving it to my father every night for dessert. She worked so hard at staying alive, that now she is just that, alive.
“You used to like peach ice cream. There was this little old lady who used to come over the mountain, carrying ice cream in a box. When you were a girl? That’s what you told me. Remember?”
“At Green Pond,” Bea says softly. “Yes, I almost remember …”