choosing to die well

Arctic Dreaming

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Though we leave very early it is a long drive to the trailhead, and by the time we reach the open ridge it is one PM.  All his life Bob has refused to eat or drink when hiking; that does not change in his 90th year. But is he mistaken? The current dogma of hikers and physiologists is totally contrary;  yet all too often today’s immutable truth become tomorrow’s scorned superstition.

The day is cool and sunny with scattered rising cumulus. The North ridge trail starts high; from there it is a gentle up-climb, shaded until one reaches the tree line in view of glacial ice. Thinking it best to let Bob set the pace, we don’t push him, but follow at a considerate distance.

Yet he does amazingly well; slow, but steady, with that pursed lip exhalation; it gives him just a little more partial pressure of oxygen, helping his mine dust scarred lungs to keep up with his rock hard will.  He is in character, almost oblivious of those with him, preferring a private communion with the mountain to talk with companions. But Bill has for the past hour been suggesting we stop and eat.

Leaving the tree line, follow a long open ridge as the glacial ice draws us ever closer.  Just before snowline our trail turns to the right skirting around a small hill.  But Dad has always preferred the most difficult and upward path; without a glance back to us he moves upward, spurning the clearly marked trail. With Bob in sight we keep to the trail reaching an open area on the other side, and take out our lunch.

I greet him as he descends:

“Dad, let’s rest here; Bill and I will finish our lunch.”

“Alright!” with that familiar flat half inverted smile and pained look. He prefers not to argue, but to act. There is no discussion.

“Really” I say aside, “he’s very tired.  If we just continue here, he’ll join us.” But no. He turns and peers for a brief instant at the slope he just came down, and starts back up, unaware he was now headed home.  “Shit.”  I say. “Tell you what; you go back ’round the hill the way we came, I’ll go up after him; and we’ll meet you on that side.  It’s time we turn around anyway.”  And that is exactly what happens.

Bob is exhausted and moves slowly. That is the way of the mountain, as with life itself: going down is harder than climbing up. Dad begins to stop, lying down on his back closing his eyes, immediately asleep under his distressed woolen lumberman’s cap, heedless of the crazed mosquitoes. Each time, after about five minutes, I waken him, urge him to get up. It shocks me that he is so frail I can lift him to his feet.  On the long ride back, Bob sleeps, still refusing food or water, and wordlessly collapses as we arrive home.

That evening I am uneasy. Why was Dad so insistent on this hike? He has always loved to conquer the mountain. Was it to make  one more climb?  I reflect on Bob’s late ninth and early tenth decade: Unable hear without the cursed hearing aid; progressively more isolated; unable to hide his caseous mind even from himself and able to feign reading, but not to understand; Though he lived in an abandoned touring car during his first year of college, his disreputable old Plymouth has abandoned him; Shiela is the major new caregiver placed over him by power of attorney; she is strong, assertive, unflappable, tolerant, even fat, all he dislikes in a woman. She is. He is not.   

Late that night I am restless and mindlessly flip on a PBS program about Alaska.  Very aged Inuit people are said to walk alone into the arctic cold to a self determined non violent guiltless death. Of Course! Dad hoped to leave us all behind, without a word as always, find the snowline, or the highest spot he could reach, and stay there. His confusion and failed strength prevented him from taking that path out of his own life.  Would I have been so aggressive as to interfere? I’ll never know. Ahead of him  now are two angry difficult years, which will end only when he reaches the snow line of quiet unknowing .