And Then She Fainted . . .
The End of Our Immortality
Susan and I have been together for forty-seven years — since I was 22. Now I’m about to turn 70.
Several years ago we made an informal pact that if we survive into our nineties in reasonably good health (she’s a year-plus older), we will take Ecstasy together, along with something that will kill us, and climb into bed . . .
There’s an obvious acknowledgment of mortality in this plan, but also an implicit sense of indestructibility. And why not? My mother made it to 92, her mother to 97. (My father died at 70, but from a cancer that was environmental, not genetic.) Susan’s father made it to 92, her mother to 96. We have longevity in our genes, so we felt entitled to fantasize about precision-timing our deaths.
Around the time that we made our pact, however, I had a disturbing dream, in which Susan told me she’d already swallowed her death-pill and was waiting for me to join her. Why now? We were only in our sixties! Had she really swallowed her pill? If so, why was she over there on the futon while I was at my desk shuffling papers? And where was my pill?
In thet dream, I asked myself over and over: Which would be worse, and which more loving — to have her die and leave me lonely, or to die first and leave her lonely?
Now, all of a sudden, we know that the answer will probably be dictated to us. It won’t be a choice.
All of a sudden! Two months ago, Susan was stung by mud wasps while we were walking Elsie Newfie on the bank of our local river. I pulled a stinger out of her hand, and that was that — until ten minutes later, when she felt woozy and then fainted dead away. I caught her, lowered her to the ground, and called 911. Susan had never before been allergic to venom, but this time it was clear that she was experiencing anaphylactic shock. Her heart was galloping and she could barely signal to me that she was alive.
I really did think I was about to lose her, for lack of an antihistamine.
She made it via ambulance to an emergency room, and now she’s got an Epipen and a mild vascular disease diagnosis that warrants her taking a statin. So much for immortality.
Still, in our own minds we remain committed to our nonagenerian love pact (and happily rehearse it whenever we climb into bed for la petite mort). We’re healthy, after all, with no particular diseases that we fear, based on this vulnerability or that. I take no meds, I’m not yet fast-crumbling, and all of my exotic surgeries are decades in the past (gall bladder, elbow, carotid gill slits, eyeball). Susan has been on a thyroid medicine for over ten years, and the statin so far has no side effects, and her surgeries have all been about injuries, not disease (back, knees, uterus).
In truth, though, I no longer feel truly confident that either or both of us will make it into our nineties. Together? Not if the mud wasps have anything to say about it. Or the super-viruses. Or the resistant bacteria. Or the fascists.
Two years into our relationship, we were sleeping on somebody’s floor in Philadelphia, where we’d gone to protest during the American Bicentennial, and we fell asleep with Susan’s head on my shoulder. When we awoke in the morning, her head was still there, and I thought: Wow, we really do fit.
For decades since, I’ve not only had Susan’s head perpetually on my shoulder, but I’ve been looking up and out the same bedroom window and watching the same trees grow, go dormant, grow, go dormant.
Sometimes, lying there in the morning, staring at the treetops, my arm around her shoulder, I imagine myself already lying in my coffin — like a vampire, a member of the undead, only one who loves the daylight and prefers kissing to biting.
Yes, I think, I’ll take another twenty-plus years of this if I can have them. But I’m also ready, if the gods say so, to smile and call it a day. Preferably together.
—Lawrence Bush for ALTE: Getting Old Together
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