Elisabeth talked about dying for years. “This is going to be my last trip to Europe, so I want to go all out.” She said this before the last three European trips, then drove herself all over the windy passes of Switzerland with my father-in-law, who is four years older.
Seven years ago when we had her 86th birthday party she whispered to me, “I really think this is my last birthday.”
My mother-in-law had been talking about dying for so long that for a while there we tried to ignore it, like you politely ignore the person who expounds about next month’s diet. Because, really, at a certain point what can you say? Yes, we knew her wishes. Yes, we visited as often as possible. Yes, we made every effort to find the hard-to-find German blood sausage she craved.
But eventually, mortality began its work in earnest. If health issues were “food groups” she had a full and balanced diet. Orthopedic issues. Bad circulation. Bad blood pressure. Spinal stenosis. Impaired breathing. A dash of cancer. An artificial knee. The list went on and on.
So last year when she announced, “I want to make it until my birthday”, we were all skeptical. If the topic were lighter my response might have been, Good luck with that.
There are some studies that show people have some control over their time of death. Especially women tend to be able to ‘hang on’ for a birthday or other significant event. Religious Jews want to live for Passover, Chinese people for Chinese New Year. My grandfather, in the hospital after a heart attack on Thanksgiving night kept asking what day it was and died three weeks later on the anniversary of my grandmother’s death.
Her pain was great, but so was her will to live, her interest in those around her desire to be a home.
Elisabeth’s birthday was April 24. She got lots of flowers, and visitors, and phone calls. Instead of cake she could manage just a taste of ice cream.