An Essayby Pia Z. Ehrhardt
On Labor Day my husband, Malcolm, and I were out walking and talking about his mother, Jackie, who was ninety-four, barely eating, dropping weight. “Sometimes not eating is not a choice,” I said to him on the one-mile track we usually coursed three times around. His siblings were stopping by to see her with smoothies, Frosties, anything sweet and cold, hoping to feed their mother through the charm of a straw. The day before, we’d visited Jackie at home, brought her a vanilla shake from McDonald’s, but it was too tall, too thick. Malcolm, disappointed, had set it in her fridge next to the other melting ice cream drinks. “This may be the beginning of the end of life,” I said. “The prehospice hospice.” But Malcolm went silent. I’d witnessed my grandmother’s starvation at the end of her life, but had my own experience been dispensed with too tidily? Malcolm asked to go the last lap alone, and I’d left him in his private vessel of worry.
In my earbuds, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke walked me home; a dour, intoxicating environment of drum pulses and low vibrations, his wavering voice a plea: I’ll be ready. I’ll be ready. I’ll be ready. On my phone I watched a volleyball game with robust men and women setting up spikes at the net, diving and digging to keep the ball in play.
What were the unsafe things to say even in a thirty-year marriage? Did writers aim for the bull’s-eye when the outer rings were also on the target? The hardest thing to hear was what rang true, but when was it too soon for the truth?