Choosing When and How To Die
My mother moved up from New Jersey because she wanted to be close enough to me to visit frequently. This 87-pound Irish/German woman was the funniest person I have ever known. Her sense of humor could bring you back from the precipice and make you laugh at yourself no matter how bad the times were or how daunting life may have seemed in any particular moment. I always felt like the luckiest boy in Philadelphia prior to moving to Jersey. I would bring friends home with me just to see my mother interacting with them. They would tell me later how much fun they had. She teased in a way that made you want to be the center of that teasing. You could not bring your ego into any conversation with her. I grew up humble and happy despite our poverty and lack of material things.
Her name was Elsíe. She taught me how to live, and she showed me how to die. In 1980 I was at the Southeast Correctional Center in Bridgewater, Mass. On visiting day, mom did not show up. I knew something had to be going on, but had no idea the gravity that would befall me later in the afternoon when I was taken to the Brockton City Hospital. When I arrived at the hospital wrapped in chains and leg irons, I was met by a doctor who looked at me like I was something stuck to the bottom of his shoe. He was terse in his manner as he told me my mom nad pancreatic cancer and he had to remove the pancreas and put her on a regimen of shots.
I stood at the bottom of her bed and thought how frail she looked under the covers. The blanket was pulled up to her chin, and she appeared to be sleeping. I was not going to wake her nor was I going to give the guards the satisfaction of seeing my tears. Or, so I thought. So many thoughts ran through my mind. So many memories. So much love. There she laid, my invincible mother. Pancreatic cancer is a death sentence from which there is no cure. I saw movement under the blanket as her hand crossed under it and appeared from the side. She was giving me the finger, and she said so clearly: "Toughen up asshole!" Even the two stern-faced guards laughed. After that, it took a lot of begging in order to get her to to move back to Jersey where my sisters could take care of her. She relented eventually and left, never to be seen by me again in this life.
I called every day, and she cracked jokes and teased as only she could. She told me that she had decided to die on my birthday, the 25th of June, so that I would not forget the date. I told her not to even joke like that. I heard her cackling laughter on the other end of the line as she said: "Okay, I will die the next day so that you can enjoy your birthday."
At the beginning of June, she went into the hospital and fell into a coma. My sisters kept a vigil, and relatives from Philly and elsewhere showed up at the hospital to say their final prayers over her. When I got my youngest sister, Mary, on the phone, she told me mom had died, never having come out of the coma. It was the 26th of June. One day after my birthday, as she had predicted.