Checking Out

KDBarn-210x300Last weekend my co-worker had to delete her dead mother.

On her answering machine, I mean. The one at home that stores messages forever, or until it gets full and you have to erase some so you can get new messages. Like us, she and her husband have a habit of listening to messages as they pass by on their way to the fridge after work, but not pausing to wipe them off the machine until they see the memory is almost maxed out.

Her mother lived in North Carolina, a fair distance from us here in Montana. She was diagnosed with stomach cancer a year and a half ago and passed away in August. The messages she left were all in her usual abrupt tone. “Just wanted to talk to you.” “Still trying to reach you.” “Waiting for you to call back.” Not exactly ripe with sentiment, but still…it was her mother’s voice. And now she’s gone. But short of buying a new answering machine and storing the old one in the closet, what do you do?

There is nothing pretty or convenient about terminal cancer. In a very real way, though, it allowed this strong-willed lady the option of making her exit on her terms. She was given the opportunity to reconnect with the daughter she’d held at arm’s length for decades. Her husband had left all of their monthly bills and household operations up to her, so she had plenty of time to train him and her daughter in how it should be done properly, because why let something as insignificant as dying stop her from running his life?

Then she set about making her remaining farewells. A bit disconcerting for those who hadn’t spoken with her for a while and didn’t know of her illness to suddenly have Mary Beth on the phone saying, “Well, it looks like I’ll be gone by the end of the week, just wanted to say good-bye.”

From her recliner in the living room she snapped out orders, marching her spouse and sole offspring through the process of ruthlessly culling the clothes in her closet and boxes of books in the basement, shuffling through reams of stored papers, until she was satisfied that her affairs were in order. Reduced to a diet of liquid nutrients, she was able to choose when she checked out simply by no longer enduring the agonizing pain caused by forcing anything into her ravaged digestive system. When she made to decision to stop eating, she called the funeral home and made necessary arrangements, though she was quite perturbed that the doctors weren’t able to tell her exactly how long she’d hang on so she didn’t know what day to tell the undertaker to pick her up.

For this woman a lingering farewell, though physically tortuous, was the perfect emotional closure. On the other extreme is my uncle. At the age of eighty, he spent the morning sorting cattle. Then he went into the house, kissed his wife, grabbed a cup of coffee, sat down at his desk in front of a picture window with a full view of the Rocky Mountains and quietly died of a heart attack. For him, though abrupt, also the perfect exit.

We’re all going to die. I figure the best we can hope for is to depart with some sort of grace and try not to leave a mess for everyone else to clean up. Which brings me back to my co-worker, who deleted those voice messages because she knew exactly what her ever-so-practical mother would say.

“Oh, for pity’s sake. Why would you want me cluttering up your answering machine?”


Kari Lynn Dell – Montana for Real