The woman in the movie last night reminded me of the person I often wish I was – tall and lean, athletic and calm, beautiful in an untended, unnoticed way. She appeared to be completely at home in her own body even though it had let a deadly tumor grow on on her liver for a very long time without letting her know. Surgery and chemotherapy pushed it to the corners but only for a while. The cancer came roaring back. And when it did, it had decided to kill her.
Her name was Cody. She was in the movie, How to Die in Oregon, because she had decided that, at some point, soon she thought, she would drink the glassful of dissolved Seconal capsules that were prescribed for her by her doctor under Oregon’s Death with Dignity law.
Cody sets a date and creates a to-do list. The date comes and tasks are accomplished and she is still feeling good enough, she thinks, to continue living. She sorts this out on camera in a very serene way, joking that she had given away her jewelry already and had to go out and buy more. She negotiates out loud, looking for the one indicator that will tell her when is the right time, ratcheting down her standards to find the bottom line of staying alive. When is staying alive way more trouble than it’s worth? That’s the question I hear her asking. “They say I’ll just know when it’s time,” she says. By the time she decides, she is in great pain and having trouble breathing. Her abdomen is full of fluid and she walks very slowly. She leans her head back to have her hair washed at the salon and she savors it like the last piece of chocolate on earth. Then it occurs to me that she is saying goodbye to the woman washing her hair.
I don’t get this right away, that Cody is saying goodbye. By then, more than an hour into the movie, I’ve spent a while getting to know her and she always seems to move the bottom line lower, to tolerate more, wait longer. There is always something about staying alive that is more important to her than what is telling her to go.
But then she’s done. It’s Saturday when she decides to die on Monday.
The camera which has followed her to the doctor and the salon and on walks on the beach with her husband and grown children now stays outside, trained at the lighted window of her bedroom, where she asks her family to sing her out and they laugh about what to sing before they start “You are My Sunshine” and then, not knowing what to choose next, “Jingle Bells.” She thanks her family for coming. Her mother thanks her for coming so long ago. And then it is quiet.
“That’s what I want,” I said to my husband. I’ve never had the dread of dying that people seem to have. My dread was always about other people dying – my kids, my husband. He shrugged at me. His view is totally opposite mine. He would have us keep him alive by any means necessary for as long as possible. He’s probably already arranged to be frozen. So he shrugged. But I knew what he is thinking.
I dreamt about being Cody but in the dream I was myself. I was myself but the choices were Cody’s. When would I end it all? It was a succession of whens. At each juncture, when I reached a bottom line I’d drawn just a while before, I moved the line lower. I don’t remember much of the dream but I remember that the tiniest pleasure seemed sufficient reason to stay and not go, the thinnest of slivers.
In the half-awake when dream analysis is so fruitful, I realized that my dream had no pain. It only had the choice backed up against an inevitable death. But there was no pain. My dream question was missing the part of the equation that would have made living, at some point, more trouble than it was worth. I didn’t know where that point was even in a dream, can’t imagine that kind of pain, don’t know what it would mean, how pain would factor in and make a day not worth living. I have been protected from that equation so far. I am ignorant. Naive about the choices that people must sometimes make.
So much so that I can’t even conjure them in my dreams.