My two sisters and I are driving to a family reunion when he calls. It’s serendipitous. We’d been trading phone messages for two weeks, and now, at the moment he finally catches up with me, we are all three of us in the car.
“This is a theoretical conversation, right?” my physician friend says over the speakerphone. “You are doing research for a novel?”
“Yes,” I reply. And my sisters and I nod knowingly to one another. The subject is taboo, fraught with tension. None of us wants to leave fingerprints. We don’t want to explore websites, write away for information or hold discussions in a doctor’s office. Now, to be extra careful, I am lying to my friend. I’m not researching a novel. I’m gathering information, planning for a disaster that could befall any or all of us.
We three sisters have made a pact, and we are one another’s best shot at carrying it out. In our case, blood is thicker than other ties, or at least more committed. Blood will ensure it gets done right.
Sibling relationships come in all forms of function and dysfunction, and in that regard I am extremely lucky. For me, my sisters are my bones, my best friends and confidantes. We have the kind of rapport that enables us to finish one another’s sentences and speak in a shorthand that goes back to childhood. I know when one of them is lying or being brave for my benefit, and I can detect the whisper of a hesitation in a tone over the phone. With just a look or a stray expression, we can parse a hidden meaning or savor an inside joke.
But right now we aren’t laughing. For the past several years, the three of us have joined forces on our most daunting task yet: navigating our parents’ end-of-life issues. As witnesses to our father’s advancing Alzheimer’s and the weight of that burden on our mother’s fragile health, we’ve put our heads together in endless conversations. We’ve combined wisdom, divvied up duties. And while watching it all go down before our eyes like a slow-motion car accident, we’ve decided to formulate our own exit strategy.
Like the witches around the cauldron in Macbeth, my sisters and I plan to accomplish what our other loved ones may ultimately find impossible to do for us. If we are robbed of dignity, comfort and the will to live, we aim to deliver one another from a prolonged and tortured ending. This is a deed that will most likely be too weighty for our children, too clouded by love and nostalgic memories for our husbands. So we have vowed to be there for one another. We just hope we will have the fortitude, the wisdom and the benevolence to see it through.
If existence should someday become unbearable, how can we end our own, or our sister’s, suffering? The man on the phone is about to tell us.
As girls and then young women, Nancy, Megan and I spent long, lazy hours on our family’s Adirondack dock each summer, dipping our legs into the lake as we talked. We’d huddle over every subject, the way sisters do: boyfriends, crushes, the utter cluelessness of our parents, a friend’s little slight, the bigger heartbreaks. Now we talk about our menopausal selves and our husbands’ habits; celebrity scandals; and our semi-adult children. We trade stories on how to set limits with our teens, find second careers and deal with empty nests. The topic we return to most often, picking it over like the carcass of a rotisserie chicken, is our elderly mother and father.
Like most families, ours has a lot of skeletons in its genetic closet. Cancer, heart disease, depression. But most frightening by far is that my sisters and I are the fourth generation standing in line to lose our minds. Alzheimer’s, dementia, senility . . . whatever the exact diagnosis, the result is the same: the slow ebbing, the agonizing erasure of a human being.