The old woman looked deeply into her father’s eyes for any sign at all his spirit was still alive behind the now pale, blue eyes in the ancient head in front of her.
There was a time, she could still remember, when those eyes were as blue as the sky and full of a spirit that wanted to see everything, that was like a bird fluttering madly with curiosity against the living room window.
That very thing had happened one sunny, spring day when she and her father and mother were together. He had stood up suddenly in the middle of a sentence when the bird appeared and he actually cried out, “yes, my little friend, yes, I see you, yes I’m here. And I would fly away with you if I could.”
And then after the bird had just as suddenly flown away, up into the afternoon sky, he had dropped back into his chair, put his head in his hands and wept, saying over and over through his tears, “yes, yes, yes.”
She was still young, still just a child, really, and it had frightened her. And then her mother had walked angrily out of the room without a word, and that had frightened her too, to see how far apart they were. Why hadn’t she gone to him with love? Instead, she had left the room. She must have had enough by then, enough of not knowing how to respond to his . . . “madness,” she had called it with exasperation many times before that moment. But that time she couldn’t even say that; she just wanted to be gone. Yes, she had finally had enough. She couldn’t take it any more. She wanted some “stability” in her life. And so they had gone, the girl and her mother.
But in the years to come the girl who became a woman never forgot that moment of the little song-bird fluttering at the window, and her father’s hyper-emotional response, as if the spirit he longed to be, or to be with, had suddenly, and wonderfully found him. And she understood.
Now she was that bird, fluttering in front of him in her way, looking into his eyes, for any sign her father’s spirit was still there.
“Dad, I’m here. I’ve come to see you. I’ve come to take you out,” she said, leaning down, drawing closer to his face, so she could whisper, so the man in the white coat maybe wouldn’t hear, “let’s fly away.”
But there was nothing there. The old man’s cold blue eyes stared straight ahead into space, or nothing at all. He did not move, and barely seemed to be breathing. His heavily wrinkled, ancient face had become grey stone.
“As I said, he’s been like this for weeks now.”
The doctor, a middle-aged man in a white lab coat, was becoming increasingly impatient as he stood looking into the old man’s room from the doorway, while the old woman struggled to do what members of the nursing home staff had tried unsuccessfully many times in recent weeks – make contact with the mind of the old man, if, indeed, there was anything to make contact with.
As for the doctor, on that point, his mind was made up. He fidgeted with his name tag. It was crooked. He toyed momentarily with the idea of unpinning it and putting it back on straight, but decided against it. He made a mental note to deal with it later when he went to the can, or something. He had concluded there was nothing left of the old man’s cognitive abilities, no “quality of life” as it was fashionable at the time to say, and, therefore, no particular reason for him to go on living. It was all very logical. And it made him impatient and irritable when others couldn’t see it.
Since the government had enacted the new euthanasia law a few months ago, the doctor was anxious to use it – try it out, as it were, on the old man. A kind of “pilot project,” he thought.
In his private moments (some day, sooner than later, he hoped it might be socially acceptable to utter such thoughts in public) the good doctor would consider it only made perfect common sense to dispose of a life that no longer had any value, to itself or society. Indeed such a life, he reasoned, had one last opportunity to contribute to the betterment of others: by sacrificing itself so the limited resources of society could be spread less thinly. What good man, in the prime of his aware mind would not wish that, at the end of his days, he might be allowed to make this one last gesture of unselfishness, the doctor thought, as his impatience with the what he regarded as a wasteful situation grew.
And so, as the old woman looked in vain for some sign of spirit in her ancient father’s eyes, the man of science and of politics consoled himself with the thought that in time this important question of life or death would be taken out of the hands of those who approach it with mere sentiment, and little reason or even common sense.
The doctor was making a studied, but transparent effort not to let his irritation show. So while, maintaining the appearance of good behaviour, as befits a person of his rank and stature in the community, he was making it quite clear to anyone with any brains that he was indeed impatient and displeased by the delay. His mistake was in presuming, as he did with most people, that the old woman was not intelligent enough to see it. But she was, of course, as were most of the people he regarded as his intellectual inferiors.
And so, the doctor’s arrogance and ignorant behaviour was obvious to her. It had been making her increasingly angry. But she was determined not to let those feelings show. She sighed, and remarked inwardly how she in her younger years would not have taken it silently. But she was tired of self-important fools, and just tired generally. And she no longer saw the point in wasting energy on such people. Maybe the time would come again, in some final crescendo of personal outrage at the ways of the world; but for now, she also realized, she couldn’t afford to risk the possible consequences of rubbing this authority figure the wrong way. He had too much control, too much power over her very elderly father and his treatment. So she put her anger aside. The doctor, perhaps from the habit of insensitivity, picked up on none of this.
“Your father is actually in remarkably good good physical condition for a man his age,” he said, shuffling through the old man’s file, looking for the information he had looked up earlier but since forgotten. Then he found it, and read it aloud:
“‘Patient’s date of birth uncertain. But according to daughter, he was born shortly before the end of the 19th Century. Thought, therefore to be 100 years old or close to it on date of admission.'”
He noted the date on the admission document once more, “June 17, 1997,” and then turned his attention again to the old woman. She still was staring at her father as if willing him to move, to do something, anything.
This mysterious man who had been in her life for varying periods of time, had been like this before, long moments when he withdrew deeply inside himself and went silent. But sooner or later, he would sigh, shake his head as if to wake up, and act like nothing had happened. “So, what’s new?” he might ask. But this was different. This looked like he was not going to come back. And it made her feel very, very lonely.
She had long ago forgiven him for her troubled, impoverished childhood. Now she clung to her first, warm memory of him – indeed, her very first memory in life – of his warm, openly loving smile as she rubbed her baby faced against his cheek and his whiskers. Strange now to see him without that ever-present beard. It was hard to get used to.
But remembering those moments again brought a tear to her eye. Despite everything, no one had ever made her feel so obviously loved. He truly had a loving spirit, however troubled it was in other ways, and he had been able to express it in those precious moments with her. Later, she had come to understand how important that had been for her life, to have that example of love. She appreciated that he was not the ordinary man her mother would have preferred.
Surely, that special spirit of the man was still in him, at least for her. And again she searched his face and eyes. But there was nothing. Behind her the doctor, his impatience finally getting the better of him, cleared his throat.
“As I say, for a man who is by now well over 100 years old his physical condition is quite remarkable. Frankly, it’s amazing,” the doctor said, shaking his head vaguely in a moment of internal bewilderment. But he shook it off quickly.
“The latest tests show he has the heart and blood pressure of a young man,” he continued in a monotone. But mentally, there’s nothing. Your father appears to have no cognitive abilities left. By that I mean . . .
“I know what you mean, doctor,” she said, with a sigh and a hint of the displeasure she could no longer keep entirely hidden. With considerable difficulty after having been sitting and leaning toward her father so long, she rose and turned to face the doctor.
“In my opinion your father has no quality of life left. I’m sure if he were capable he would agree. I’m sure he would be humiliated by such things as not having any control over his bodily functions. The staff do their best here, I’m sure. But there must be times when he ends up lying or sitting in his own . . . ”
This is too much, she thought, flashing the doctor a look that stopped him in his search for words at that point. This is unnecessary. She fought to contain her anger.
“Yes, yes, I know,” she said. “It’s really not necessary to get into that kind of detail. I know what kind of needs my father has. That’s why he’s here.”
God knows, I did my best, she thought, about his last appearance when he showed up at her door a few years ago and admitted with obvious regret and discomfort that he had nowhere else to go, was too old to live on the street anymore and couldn’t bear the thought of going to a shelter.
So she, an elderly widow, had taken him in. But finally it was his decision. He said he didn’t want to be a burden, didn’t want me to waste my precious time taking care of him.
“So I really think your father is a candidate for the government’s new euthanasia law. But of course we need your permission to proceed.”
“Yes, I know . I’d rather we didn’t talk about that here, even if he can’t understand.”
“Quite right. Sorry,” said the doctor, burying his eyes for a moment in the old man’s file.
“Isn’t it possible that he’s just deeply withdrawn, like an autistic child. He had a tendency to get depressed,” she asked, mostly to herself.
God, the energy he used up fighting to keep it at bay.
And yet he could never bring himself to talk about the demons that haunted him. Even at the best of times he seemed weighed down by some deep sorrow, as if the cares of the world were on his shoulders.
“Oh, don’t mind me. That’s just my way. It’s just my nature. I’m sorry. But never doubt I love you,” he said to her once, when as a girl, she had asked, “Daddy, why are you unhappy?”
“I assure you. We’ve done tests – I can show you the results if you like,” the doctor said. But he didn’t give her time to take him up on the offer as he continued, “but there’s nothing, simply no cognitive ability indicated.”
“Well, I’ll have to think about it,” the old woman said. Then she turned and walked past him, down the hall, to the exit door. She didn’t look back.
Later, at the nurses’ station as he filled out a form, the doctor muttered loud enough for the nurses and aides nearby to hear that it was “too bad people haven’t got sense enough to know when it’s time to let them go. There’s virtually no difference between that old man and this counter top. Except the counter top is at least performing a function.”
“He’s still alive,” ventured one young nurse, who immediately regretted speaking out and tried to shrink out of sight. The staff didn’t normally didn’t say anything to the chief physician other than to agree with everything he said, with a nod, or a timid, “yes, sir.”
“That, my dear, is a mere technicality,” the doctor said firmly. “And someday hopefully the power to overcome it in these circumstances will be given to those who know what’s best,” he said, signing the form with a flourish and striding off to his office at the end of the corridor.
The nurses, and a male orderly avoided looking at each other. “Scary,” said a lone, unidentified voice.