The only trouble I have with the film is that one pill will do Maude in and still give her time to say good-bye. Nobody has to place a plastic bag on her head.
Of course, I am making too much of Maude. The film was really about Harold, and his outrageous attempts to escape his mother. Call it The Adventures of Harold. There should have been a sequel. But that pill. That magic pill.
I have a lot of young friends. When I was eighty, one of them playfully pushed me, and I fell. She urged me to get up, but I couldn’t. She wept, she cried. She tore her hair. The ambulance came and carried me off. She followed me with flowers. Nothing helped. My pelvis was smashed. My health plan took two days to find a suitable surgeon for my geriatric plight and decided upon a first-year orthopedic resident, and my surgery was followed not by pneumonia but by blood clots. In my lungs. Emboli. Both lungs. And again it took several days for my health plan to figure it out. The staff at my HMO, the best in the West if they say so themselves in the heart-warming ads they throw at us, couldn’t determine why I couldn’t get enough oxygen into my system, They thought I had asthma, although nowhere in my medical files was there any hint of asthma.
Look, there are plenty of horror stories around about the golden years.
What’s the point? Another one is not going to make the HMOs or the private hospitals more cost-accountable or humane. The tales will supply fodder for the next In-House or Out Patient episode where the patient dies, and the doctor cries. But I did manage to shock all of my attendant staff by asking them to help me die to spare me further pain and grief, should I recover from their ministrations.
For what joy would await me? I knew that as soon as I could take three steps assisted by a walker, the rehab people would deem me sufficiently mobile to take care of myself, and provide me with a physical therapist who would see me twice a week for 15 minutes. My health plan, which takes unto its coffers my Medicare, guarantees me 100 days of skilled nursing, provided I never reach a plateau.
Everyone defines plateau differently. The occupational therapists and the physical therapists are encouraged, perhaps rewarded, for moving dead wood into the loving care of non-existent relatives and a few weary friends, because the patient has reached a plateau. Look: the patient can stand up on one and a half feet. When he grows another half foot, he can return.
Now I am ninety and walking on one foot. Walking? Well, I need a walker and a wheelchair and a helper three times a week. I am also in a retirement facility.
This is what I would suggest: that my HMO, an acclaimed leader in the field of innovation, create a wing, a small one – no beds, just a couch or two, a modest, homely place presided over by a member of the clergy and a social worker. Here a person on olden pond can receive appropriate counseling, and then ask to die. It requires only a skilled nurse practitioner. Look, it could save the HMOs and the rehab facilities money. Not to mention the agony of both the attending staff and relatives hearing the old folks cry out in dementia or pain for peace of mind and body. Who can dispute the logic? Only the Pro-Life lobby, because they uphold the sanctity of existence – forget the life. And I uphold the dignity. Just one pill. Or one shot and a fond farewell, and a check for The Sierra Club, KQED, Doctors Without Borders. They do it for murderers.
They could call it the Harold and Maude Wing.
Author’s Comment: Even at the best retirement facilities, we see our friends, we see ourselves, dying by inches. Some of us desire fervently to leave it to God. Others would be grateful for an option. I am afraid I will not be dignified when the time comes.