I HAVE wonderful friends. In this last year, one took me to Istanbul. One gave me a box of hand-crafted chocolates. Fifteen of them held two rousing, pre-posthumous wakes for me. Several wrote large checks. Two sent me a boxed set of all the Bach sacred cantatas. And one, from Texas, put a hand on my thinning shoulder, and appeared to study the ground where we were standing. He had flown in to see me.
“We need to go buy you a pistol, don’t we?” he asked quietly. He meant to shoot myself with.
“Yes, Sweet Thing,” I said, with a smile. “We do.”
I loved him for that.
I love them all. I am acutely lucky in my family and friends, and in my daughter, my work and my life. But I have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., more kindly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, for the great Yankee hitter and first baseman who was told he had it in 1939, accepted the verdict with such famous grace, and died less than two years later. He was almost 38.
I sometimes call it Lou, in his honor, and because the familiar feels less threatening. But it is not a kind disease. The nerves and muscles pulse and twitch, and progressively, they die. From the outside, it looks like the ripple of piano keys in the muscles under my skin. From the inside, it feels like anxious butterflies, trying to get out. It starts in the hands and feet and works its way up and in, or it begins in the muscles of the mouth and throat and chest and abdomen, and works its way down and out. The second way is called bulbar, and that’s the way it is with me. We don’t live as long, because it affects our ability to breathe early on, and it just gets worse.
At the moment, for 66, I look pretty good. I’ve lost 20 pounds. My face is thinner. I even get some “Hey, there, Big Boy,” looks, which I like. I think of it as my cosmetic phase. But it’s hard to smile, and chew. I’m short of breath. I choke a lot. I sound like a wheezy, lisping drunk. For a recovering alcoholic, it’s really annoying.
There is no meaningful treatment. No cure. There is one medication, Rilutek, which might make a few months’ difference. It retails for about $14,000 a year. That doesn’t seem worthwhile to me. If I let this run the whole course, with all the human, medical, technological and loving support I will start to need just months from now, it will leave me, in 5 or 8 or 12 or more years, a conscious but motionless, mute, withered, incontinent mummy of my former self. Maintained by feeding and waste tubes, breathing and suctioning machines.
No, thank you. I hate being a drag. I don’t think I’ll stick around for the back half of Lou.
I think it’s important to say that. We obsess in this country about how to eat and dress and drink, about finding a job and a mate. About having sex and children. About how to live. But we don’t talk about how to die. We act as if facing death weren’t one of life’s greatest, most absorbing thrills and challenges. Believe me, it is. This is not dull. But we have to be able to see doctors and machines, medical and insurance systems, family and friends and religions as informative — not governing — in order to be free.
And that’s the point. This is not about one particular disease or even about Death. It’s about Life, when you know there’s not much left. That is the weird blessing of Lou. There is no escape, and nothing much to do. It’s liberating.
I began to slur and mumble in May 2010. When the neurologist gave me the diagnosis that November, he shook my hand with a cracked smile and released me to the chill, empty gray parking lot below.
It was twilight. He had confirmed what I had suspected through six months of tests by other specialists looking for other explanations. But suspicion and certainty are two different things. Standing there, it suddenly hit me that I was going to die. “I’m not prepared for this,” I thought. “I don’t know whether to stand here, get in the car, sit in it, or drive. To where? Why?” The pall lasted about five minutes, and then I remembered that I did have a plan. I had a dinner scheduled in Washington that night with an old friend, a scholar and author who was feeling depressed. We’d been talking about him a lot. Fair enough. Tonight, I’d up the ante. We’d talk about Lou.
The next morning, I realized I did have a way of life. For 22 years, I have been going to therapists and 12-step meetings. They helped me deal with being alcoholic and gay. They taught me how to be sober and sane. They taught me that I could be myself, but that life wasn’t just about me. They taught me how to be a father. And perhaps most important, they taught me that I can do anything, one day at a time.
I am, in fact, prepared. This is not as hard for me as it is for others. Not nearly as hard as it is for Whitney, my 30-year-old daughter, and for my family and friends. I know. I have experience.
I was close to my old cousin, Florence, who was terminally ill. She wanted to die, not wait. I was legally responsible for two aunts, Bessie and Carolyn, and for Mother, all of whom would have died of natural causes years earlier if not for medical technology, well-meaning systems and loving, caring hands.
I spent hundreds of days at Mother’s side, holding her hand, trying to tell her funny stories. She was being bathed and diapered and dressed and fed, and for the last several years, she looked at me, her only son, as she might have at a passing cloud.
I don’t want that experience for Whitney — nor for anyone who loves me. Lingering would be a colossal waste of love and money.
If I choose to have the tracheotomy that I will need in the next several months to avoid choking and perhaps dying of aspiration pneumonia, the respirator and the staff and support system necessary to maintain me will easily cost half a million dollars a year. Whose half a million, I don’t know.
I’d rather die. I respect the wishes of people who want to live as long as they can. But I would like the same respect for those of us who decide — rationally — not to. I’ve done my homework. I have a plan. If I get pneumonia, I’ll let it snuff me out. If not, there are those other ways. I just have to act while my hands still work: the gun, narcotics, sharp blades, a plastic bag, a fast car, over-the-counter drugs, oleander tea (the polite Southern way), carbon monoxide, even helium. That would give me a really funny voice at the end.
I have found the way. Not a gun. A way that’s quiet and calm.
Knowing that comforts me. I don’t worry about fatty foods anymore. I don’t worry about having enough money to grow old. I’m not going to grow old.
I’m having a wonderful time.
I have a bright, beautiful, talented daughter who lives close by, the gift of my life. I don’t know if she approves. But she understands. Leaving her is the one thing I hate. But all I can do is to give her a daddy who was vital to the end, and knew when to leave. What else is there? I spend a lot of time writing letters and notes, and taping conversations about this time, which I think of as the Good Short Life (and Loving Exit), for WYPR-FM, the main NPR station in Baltimore. I want to take the sting out of it, to make it easier to talk about death. I am terribly behind in my notes, but people are incredibly patient and nice. And inviting. I have invitations galore.
Last month, an old friend brought me a recording of the greatest concert he’d ever heard, Leonard Cohen, live, in London, three years ago. It’s powerful, haunting music, by a poet, composer and singer whose life has been as tough and sinewy and loving as an old tree.
The song that transfixed me, words and music, was “Dance Me to the End of Love.” That’s the way I feel about this time. I’m dancing, spinning around, happy in the last rhythms of the life I love. When the music stops — when I can’t tie my bow tie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, talk with Whitney, kiss someone special, or tap out lines like this — I’ll know that Life is over.
It’s time to be gone.