January 4, 2001
We were too late for the early bird special at the Swiss Chalet restaurant in Delray Beach, Fla., but there was a line anyway for the roast chicken that is widely acclaimed as being almost as good as my mother's.
In Delray Beach last week, as in the rest of south Florida, people were still talking about the presidential election. On movie lines or waiting for yogurt they were yet shaking their heads about chads, recounts and dimpled ballots, even though George W. Bush was already layering in the conservatives in his cabinet.
Mom, Dad and I read the menu and discussed our various options, both political and culinary.
As soon as we'd ordered, Dad slapped his hands on the table, like he always did to signal a change in the subject.
"Marlene, your mother and I want to talk about our arrangements," he said.
"Now?!" my mother said, crumpling her napkin.
"We bought our cemetery plots," he continued. "We'll be right near Murray and Roberta."
"You argued with them while they were alive," I said of my uncle and aunt. Then I fell quiet. The chicken came, and I was glad we'd ordered fried onion loaf. It would crackle and pop if I couldn't.
My parents have always thought ahead. When we were children, my mother had a freezer plan by which she ordered exactly three months' worth of meat and chicken and boxes of carrots and peas. By the 12th week, we were down to eating chicken fricassee made of neck bones.
The key was planning. Each week's menu was completely preordained and without variation: Monday and Thursday were fish; Wednesday, lamb chops; Friday, chicken or beef; Saturday, cold cuts; Sunday, Chinese eating out. My mother was an accountant of the mealtime portion.
Turns out that this penchant, which created in me a feeling of suffocation and rebellion, allowed them to breathe. My parents are adept at seeing a road long before it begins to curve.
First they took to snow birding, joining Jerry Seinfeld's parents half the year in Florida. Then, three years before retirement age, my mother and father arranged to sell the business. Five years before climbing stairs would become an issue, they sold the Long Island house and moved to a city condo. From their foresight I've learned that the best definition of a surprise is something you planned for that came out well anyway. Bless them for this. I picked up one of the two hefty chicken legs and bit into the flesh. Here they are, teaching me again.
Mom and Dad had done more than buy adjoining plots. They had their act together, providing me with a simple list of everyone I might need, in a single handwritten sheet of paper entitled "Just in Case." My parents, who had started talking to me about college when I was in seventh grade and who taught me to drive by scoping out places to parallel-park hours in advance of my driving lesson, were way ahead of the game once again. And when I asked for even more detailed information, my mother and father did not flinch.
We in the baby boomer generation these days have aging parents, if we're lucky. Yes, we talk politics, the stock market and careers, movies and the arts, and the pursuits of our children. Nevertheless, these days our parents lie heavy on our minds and in our hearts. About this topic, which the mortuaries horrifyingly call "pre-need," we say nothing.
The polite ones among us don't want to ask. The arrogant ones pretend we'll never have to know. Others have parents who want us to make up their minds.
Silence is no shield, ignorance no sword.
The hot political issue these days may be Death with Dignity, about providing a death that avoids endless agony.
But an equally potent topic, one more spiritual than legal, is Life with Dignity. That's the responsibility of the aging and their loved ones: to recognize what's what and what must be done. Life with Dignity means getting the damned conversation over with, so normal living can resume.
My husband, who had been so brave in some regards, couldn't do it. We'd talked about everything, I guess, over many years, about love and ethics and forging a fair society. But we'd never had a conversation like this. Though he had been ill for a while, he resolutely refused any talk about anything but today, or, at best, tomorrow.
"You think I'm going to die," he accused me when I brought up the inevitable.
So it came to me to bury him myself. If I can spare you the experience of making sudden arrangements, let me try.
The funny thing was, my mother had just reupholstered her kitchen chairs. The seats are bright red floral on a dusty beige background. The kitchen walls are newly wallpapered in a pleasing print to match. My parents are filled with plans: to buy a new car, to take college courses, to visit me. And plants: the house is filled with new and reflowering orchids. And I'd just bought them a new toaster oven!
The chicken and the onion loaf were still on my plate. OK, we've had the conversation. Now let's eat!