To pull or not to pull the plug: That is the question!

Pain was his lot. He had to endure it constantly since . . .  Well, he could not even remember when it started, whether before or after surgery. Was it the cause of his malady or a consequence? Why is it that science, which they say had made tremendous progress during that century, was not capable of curing his illness or, at least, delivering him from so much distress? Science was as impotent as religion, or more, because faith, at least, was capable of miracles. He did not believe in a possible intervention of an improbable God, but in the inner strength that the fanaticism of hope can instill in some individuals.

His days went relatively quickly as a routine that was almost infallible. A very early wake-up call by the nurse. She would invariably find him deeply asleep, and wouldn’t believe his claims to have spent an interminable sleepless night. How could he make her understand that he did not want to be caught by death in the dark, abruptly? That he superstitiously or fearfully waited until dawn before closing his eyes and telling himself: “I survived one more night”?

The nurse would take his temperature and give him a blue pill, the first of a  dozen multicolored tablets he was obliged to ingest every day, weekends included: pink, yellow, many that were white — all of different shapes. They looked like candies. Yes, the nurse was like a mother, like the mother of his childhood that would bring him mint, lemon and orange candies to placate his restlessness when he had to stay in bed for a full day or more. But the nurse did not smile, was not affectionate, and was very matter-of-fact.

Then it was time for his bathroom routine. At first, they shaved him and washed him in bed, but he was very uncomfortable being touched by a human being other than his wife, and insisted that he could make an effort and get up to groom himself. The room was spacious because he was alone and he enjoyed his own private bathroom. The matter was debated by the family: could they afford paying a small supplement in exchange for comfort? They said “yes”,  (perhaps?) because they knew he would not last long.

Then it was time for breakfast, and, with it, more  medication. Coffee or tea were both undrinkable and were accompanied by unappetizing canned fruits swimming in a barrel of syrup, eggs that he hated, cereals immersed in milk (cream, for some reason, was not available). He hardly touched any of it.

After the ceremony it was time for therapy. He had to sit in a wheelchair and was pushed through a labyrinth of corridors to the “Blue Room”. Perhaps that was not the real name of the place, but he called it that because of the color of the lamp that had ultraviolet rays which would burn his stomach for exactly 60 minutes. At least, he had a tan, but the heat was worse than the hot August sun of his younger days partly spent lying on the beach.

When the session was over, he usually would run to the bathroom; his breakfast was then eliminated, one way or another.

After that came the massage session, which he hated because the big, muscled woman turned him around like a pawn and rubbed him energetically with her heavy, vulgar hands, trying to make jokes to which he did not laugh at all. Next came the “socializing” session. All the guests of the clinic were pushed into a big salon when they could play chess (everybody would beat him because he knew only one opening move or one defense strategy), cards (he had never learned that kind of game), sing (which he abhorred) or chat (nonsensical small talk about their state of health), TV programs or sad whisperings about fellow inmates (if that was not a prison, why couldn’t they go home?). It was even murmured that some were betting on who would die next. Everyone was spying on everyone else’s appearance, visible loss of weight or hair, hand trembling and anything else, including things that were imperceptible to the “normal” people (visitors, doctors, staff). The “happy hour” was not conducive to better humor on his part. Soon it was noon and time to return to bed for lunch, another excruciating moment: he expected a better choice of cooks in such an expensive private clinic, but no matter how hard they tried, the food was bland. There was a complete inversion of value: everything that needed to be well cooked was undercooked, while what was best eaten “al dente” was overcooked. The gravies were ugly and tasteless, the color of meat or poultry was always grayish. Happily, his son would occasionally bring him a Camembert with a baguette and a flask of Médoc. On those days, he could even take a nap. Otherwise he would try to watch some stupid program on TV, which had the effect of a soporific. He was amazed at the idiocy of television – an international phenomenon because even the more culturally ambitious countries did not fare better. He always thought that television would be visible only when it would work as a short-wave radio and one could zap for some specific country and channel. This was technically possible but against the interests of too many multinational companies.

That day, his son came and brought the usual presents. The giver was as happy as the receiver. The conversation was brief, as usual. His son could not stand the atmosphere of a hospital. Moreover, he always had an appointment, a telephone call, an urgent meeting. Such was his life, and he had to watch time nervously in order to be punctual for the imminent commitments. If he only had a little more time, he could listen to his father’s premeditated confession. He would be the only man left in the family, and the one in charge of taking care of all the details: the life insurance, the safety boxes, the personal library, the correspondence, the manuscripts. Perhaps they could have a talk during next weekend, but he didn’t want to postpone his decision too long. Why did he hesitate? His destiny was marked, it was only a question of months, perhaps less. Why shouldn’t he take charge of his own life himself? Why wait for the big event? Why not decide when to finish it?

He had already inquired, had written to Dr. K. who agreed to assist him during his last moments. Why remain attached to this vegetative, non-productive existence? Why not die with dignity, having made an independent and mature choice? There was nothing he could do anymore for anyone. At times, he regretted not seeing one more time his far away daughter, but, why? After all she shouldn’t see him in this condition. It was much better to lie to her as he had done so far: signing letters that had been typed by his son. She had called, occasionally, long-distance, but they were able to hide the truth: “no, your father is not home tonight, he is gambling until late”, or, if earlier in the day, “he just went to a concert”, or, in the morning, “he just left  to go to a dental appointment”. It was much better that she kept an image of her father like he was in their last photo together when he was still smiling. Suddenly,  he realized that his son was no longer there: had he fallen asleep? The TV was on but silent; only a succession of colored images, very indefinite, since he was not wearing his eyeglasses.

It’s amazing how his life, at the end, was so colorful! As a matter of fact, the best abstract paintings he ever saw was the projection of the slides containing a reproduction of his malignant cells. Seen with polarized light, they looked like paintings by Ginna, Kupka, Pollock or Mathieu. Had the electronic microscope been invented earlier, one would suspect that the artists were inspired by those cancerous images. The film on TV — which was it? — reminded him of the ten beautiful last minutes of the Rickasha Man, the Japanese movie showing the final visions of a perishing man. He was in the same state. He was dying. It could happen at any moment. He should send that letter to Dr. K., the one setting the ultimate appointment. Meanwhile, he thought of what would remain of him once gone. Very little, indeed: he didn’t change society as he had hoped to do when still an adolescent, he was unable to create a big, harmonious family, the trees he planted gave no fruits, the books he wrote went unsold or unnoticed, he was unable to give joy to his companion. Not even a decent failure: a banal, useless, sterile life!

And what would he carry with him to the grave? A lot of bitterness, frustration, anguish and a few flashes of happiness: the sweet voice of his mother, the strong hands of his father, a weekend in the Alps caressing his wife’s belly bearing their first child, the first cry of his son coming out of his mother’s womb, a choreography by Béjart, a short story by Borges, some shots of Antonioni, Kieslovski, Bergman, Vajda’s films, scattered notes from his wife’s piano playing: Corrette, Böhm, Bach; Rostropovitch cello music in a Menton square on a summer night; Clara Haskil curved on her piano in a Lutry’s church; Gades dancing Carmen; Liberation Day’s joy in April 1945; Felix Ayo playing Vivaldi; Cesco Baseggio as Sior Todaro Brontolon in the Goldoni play; Jean Vilar as Pirandello’s Henry IV; some of Botticelli’s women figures.

What else? Lust, applause, scenery, metropolises. . .all forgotten.

A new interruption by the nurse, more pills. Did they really cure him? No, he knew that no cure was possible. Did they alleviate his pains? He wouldn’t know, since he was always in pain, if pain would be even stronger without those drugs.

Time for phlebos. Why all those cables going up and down, those needles penetrating his veins? He could find no answer to all of that.

Another interminable hour.

His wife came unexpectedly, earlier than usual. There was no more conversation between them. Strangely enough, since she was very loquacious in the past. She had become pale and silent as she never was. They would hold hands and cry. Look into each other’s eyes for hours, or for what seemed like long hours. Silent, and crying. Perhaps each one regretted one’s sins, or was it a presentiment of a sudden definitive separation?

Dinner came, more abundant but even more obnoxious than lunch, if that was possible. He shared most of it with his wife, who could digest no matter what and would eat anything provided she didn’t have to cook it. More pills, but the pain was always there. It was as if someone dilacerated his skin, his stomach, his bowels, like pouring rubbing alcohol on an open wound. This was not life. He couldn’t endure that anymore. He hugged his wife more closely than usual and walked her to the elevator.

Yes, right now, it was time to write to Dr. K. The letter need not be long, nor flowery. A few essential words, an appointment, and that would be the end of it. He would not give it to the night guard, but would wait until the following day, at 11:27 a.m. when the carrier would arrive punctually to empty the yellow box at the main door of the clinic entrance. He had done this once after having timed the postman’s arrival for days. The mail delivery man came invariably at the same time, rain or shine, in the middle of his certainly complex but well chronographed itinerary. The letter would be placed in the large bag, right at the moment of his departure: no one would notice the fact, or they would not attach any importance to it. Anyway, a letter is a letter, as long as no one could read the name of the addressee, who is known and controversial enough to be easily recognized. So, tomorrow at 11:27, or a few seconds after, there would be no way back.

He compiled a short but dignified text, sealed the envelope. He would buy the stamp the day after, at the vending machine, in the foyer lounge.

He felt relived, sighed deeply and took the last pill, the sleeping pill that never worked, just to obey the doctor.

He started dreaming, or daydreaming, or dreaming of dreaming, whether asleep or partially awake or in a state of wake. First, he dreamt of being in a garden (his backyard?) with a cutting instrument in his hands. Was it a tree pruner? There was a long worm, like a snake, in the middle of his flowers. Instinctively, he cut the long worm into two shorter worms. Something strange happened: the front part (or what looked like the upper part of the worm’s body) first rose toward him as if it wanted to threaten him, then disappeared into a hole (to die? to lick its wounds? To hide from further aggressions?) while the lower part started a series of long convulsions. Was it agony or did worms have seven lives like cats? Perhaps it was only the miracle of life: animals didn’t have a conscience, didn’t have a soul, didn’t have metaphysical dilemmas — they just lived as long as they could. Their only essence in life was life itself.

The dream changed suddenly. In front of him was Dr. K., or someone who resembled the photograph he had seen of that controversial man in a magazine. Dr. K. was holding his arm and was pronouncing indistinct but reassuring words. But someone put a mask on Dr. K. and it was the face of the actor who plays the owner of the clinic in Frankenheimer’s Seconds. At this point, a dozen or so naked women started flying around him. No, they were not flying, they were floating around, as if gravitating into space in slow motion. He seemed to recognize some of them as women he had known or desired in his youth, but before he could see better, there came a monstrous gnome who chased them with a whip. “I can read your mind. You think I am the devil. How naïve can you be? The devil cannot look like the devil, otherwise how could he seduce his victims? Did it ever occur to you that the devil could disguise himself as a temptress woman or even as a Saint? The devil has to make believe he is someone else, and for sure trustworthy. Did you ever notice that serial killers are all handsome? Otherwise, how could they attract their victims so easily? The killer or the devil disguise themselves as priests, as policemen, as father figures, or even as Christ himself.”

Here, his dream returned to his garden, his flowers. The half worm was still there, debating whether or not to die. How long ago had he cut him? He looked for his watch, on the night stand. As light in a tunnel he saw some clarity. It was the torch of the nurse who, from the dark, murmured “time to sleep!”. Was it a nightmare? How long did that last? At some point, he awoke: he was all sweaty and his alarm clock marked 5:45 a.m. Soon they would wake him up anyway. Dream or not, nightmare or not, he had slept for many hours. Perhaps with some  interruptions, but longer than he could remember since he had been at the clinic. He felt no pain, or he thought that he had become abruptly insensitive to pain. Perhaps that was a sign of the end. Death was approaching and giving him some respite. He shaved himself with joy, took a full bath, indulged in spraying some cologne on his body.

He tore up the letter. He had decided that he wanted to confront death face to face. He was ready to die, but let it not be there, let it be in his garden, like a worm, cut down by destiny or by a superior force.

He left the “Blue Room” and the “Massage Parlor” and went straight to talk to his doctor who could not care less if he wanted to leave, empty rooms were rare in the clinic, and someone else would replace him the same day, chosen from the waiting list, as long as he signed a release form, that’s all they requested. Everything else would be taken care of by his son, later. After all, he was a lawyer. His son was surprised at his request, but not shocked. He couldn’t disapprove; after all, that might mean fewer expenses and a larger estate.

If you can pick me up before noon, we’ll leave today. Don’t tell your mother until it’s done!”

His wife, who didn’t want to remain alone in the large house, had retired to a hotel room where she could remain if she wanted to. He planned to be self-sufficient and didn’t want any witness to his agony.

At 12:30 they were already home. The house had not changed, only the garden had been neglected.

He did not feel like eating, but gave a shopping list to his son, telling him that there was no hurry. As for the medications prescribed for him by the doctor, he decided to buy none. “Let nature take its course!” He told his son that no matter how many days he clung to life, he wanted to live them in peace.

He found his favorite armchair and sat in it, not before surrounding himself with pounds of correspondence that had accumulated — mostly junk mail and some neglected bills. There were also lots of “Get Well” cards dating from his surgery. He would call his friends one by one, for a last farewell. Fell asleep again. He was awakened by the noise of the car entering the garage. It was his son with the items from shopping and a cellular phone. He was not opposed to new technologies, but cellular phones seemed a bit exaggerated for a house where there was a telephone in almost every room. But he understood that his son wanted to make sure that he could call at any time from anywhere. His mobile phone could be pre-programmed to call certain numbers for emergencies, so he and his son selected a dozen: hospital, doctors on call, police, fire, ambulance, taxi, family members and intimate friends.

Everything seemed functional in the house: water, electricity, radio, TV, doors, windows and heating. There was a walker, a pair of crutches, canes of all sizes, boots and slippers. He could wander around the house and even go outside to get the newspaper and the mail (eventually).

Because the house was empty, he could occupy any room he wanted to. He chose the bigger bedroom, in case his wife decided to leave the hotel room (but she had her own ailments) and to be more comfortable. He asked his son to bring in empty boxes — lots of them — so he could sort out his clothes (he had lost so much weight that all his shirts and pants were too big for him now) and get rid of all kinds of heteroclite objects, dusty, distasteful and useless.

He gave himself a task to do: clean, redecorate, refurbish and/or embellish one room every day. This would keep him busy and would improve the look of the house for whoever would come to rent or buy it when he was gone.

A month passed and nothing had changed. The doctor had given him from zero to four months to live. He felt the same amount and type of pains as at the clinic, but he was not taking any drugs. And at least one thing was better — his digestion.

His dwelling was now comfortable. He had filled two trucks (he counted 96 boxes) of “garbage”, replaced pieces of furniture and moved things around.

There was a music corner prepared for his wife’s always possible return. The grand piano in the living room with a shelf of books and another for sheet music and a table with several small instruments: piccolo, pan flute, recorder, small drums, metronome, etc. His absent daughter’s room had become a studio: file cabinets, shelves, desk, computer, index cards and an armchair for relaxation.

The corridor had been transformed into an art gallery with paintings hanging on the walls. His son’s former room had a TV with multi-system VCR, a collection of  cassettes representing all videographic standards (PAL, SECAM, NTSC, etc.), a turntable and piles of vinyl records and CDs.

The dining room was, at last, a dining room and no longer an office. The kitchen had all the necessary utensils and lots of vases and pots for spices and herbs. The family room had become a combination library-bar. He could venture into neither the attic nor the shack — but, who knows, maybe some day?

Meanwhile, he had started experimenting with all kinds of herbs, tree barks and bitter rots. Not that he had anything against allopathic medicines, but he could not abide most drugs. Besides, he could get along just fine with infusions and natural products.

The laboratory analyses to which he had been subjected earlier in the clinic indicated some improvement in his condition, and he had gained back some of the lost weight. But his doctor was not at all optimistic. In other words, the state of his health was not worsening but was not improving either. He spent hours looking outside the bay window from the living room. The snow had melted and the rain had tired of being incessant. He was looking at the apple tree that hadn’t produced fruits in years.

“There is too much foliage” he told himself, “it needs to be pruned. If I survive until spring, that will be my next chore.”

“Spring, yes, spring.” Until then, why not keep a diary?

“April 2. Spring is late, but it is on its way. Tomorrow I will prune the apple tree. Yes. Tomorrow. . .

Pietro Ferrua writes in several languages. He is based in Portland, Oregon.