Jan/Feb 2023  •   Nonfiction

Who Will Watch You Die?

by Judith Day

Photo courtesy of NASA's image library

Photo courtesy of NASA's image library

"Sit on this side so I can hear you." Cassie, the oldest at 78, has pulled a chair close to the rickety wooden table. She motions you towards a spot on her left. Nora, five months younger than Cassie, edges stiffly into a third chair, holding her leg and wincing. Hannah, the youngest at 65, waits until you are situated, then takes the fourth seat.

Your three friends and you relax into the weathered wooden deck chairs overlooking the mouth of the Russian River as you spend the afternoon of your 76th birthday at your favorite coffee shop. The November California day is mild, the sun angled low but so warm you take off your sweater. Downstream to the right, half a mile through dunes, waves from Japan charge inward to smash the outflowing river in a wild tangle of natural destiny. You can hear the arrhythmic crashing.

"How's your hip?" Hannah asks Nora.

"It's not working right. I see the doctor next Tuesday." Nora turns to you. "You had that cataract surgery?"

You are enjoying the clear view of the river and the pelicans in stately flight heading upstream. "God, yes, it is so great! No shadow halfway across the left eye." You turn to Hannah. "But I've got rosacea." You lift your face in her direction. "Just like you!"

"Let me see." Cassie leans over and looks closely at you. "You look fine to me."

"I am fine," you say. "Just a little rosy."

And so goes the conversation, what another aging friend calls "the organ recital"—telling of the body problems that are more evident and intractable than they ever used to be. It's tedious but can't be avoided. Rosacea and osteoporosis, neuropathy and arthritis, Raynaud's syndrome, eye surgeries and hip replacements. Ice packs and heating pads, hearing aids. Hannah takes injections of Prolia to strengthen her little bones. Nora uses an anti-Parkinson's drug for restless legs. Cassie's asthma and allergies have worsened with age, and her hands don't work some days. You take four prescriptions plus a slew of supplements and Tylenol. Nobody can sleep without melatonin, trazodone, or beer. "We're all circling the drain," you say.

This is the human body, its foibles and deterioration borne by all people at all ages, now accelerated by aging. Some 50 years ago, you painted a little watercolor of a naked woman running down a beach, arms outstretched and terror on her face. You titled it "Judith Being Pursued by a Body."

Now that you're old, you've stopped running. "I met a woman the other day when I was in the waiting room at Valley Tire and Brake," you say. "She was about our age. She's a photographer who worked with Ansel Adams for years, lived with him and his wife. I asked her what she is working on these days, and get this: she's doing nude self-portraits."

You all cackle appreciatively.

It's interesting to look old age in the face, so you do. Hannah has abundant red-brown graying hair, blue eyes that sparkle with her smile, and blotchier skin than when you met her. Cassie is even more narrow and angular. Her skin is drooping slightly on her cheekbones, but her elfin smile and lively brown eyes are unchanged. Nora, five feet ten with the posture and walk of a dancer, would never be called cute, but her red-gold hair is impossibly cute in a new short, messy cut. Her skin is more wrinkled than it used to be. She takes a picture of you on her iPhone and holds it up for you to see. Your giant head is in profile against the river, trees, sky; your face and neck are like wrinkled paper. Lately you've noticed in the mirror that your eyes, always an arresting blue, are dull and have sunken into your face. You met these women 23 years ago at a workshop, and over time you've seen the changes. And you see the unchanged as well: all of you have ready laughs and care in your eyes when you look at each other.

You look out at the world. Yesterday it stormed, and today the air is wonderfully clean. The river is big, its light, muddy surface reflecting shifting streaks of cloud sailing along in a sweep of wind high above. From where you sit, you can see the speeding of the water as the river mouth purses into its ultimate passage, cutting through the beach to the Pacific. From above, it would appear as an hourglass—a short, narrow, flowing channel separating the swollen balloon of the estuary from the vast sea beyond.

Cradling a warm cup in both hands, you sip the milky latte froth. You sip again, the first welcome swallow of creamy coffee. "What's happening with you these days, Cassie?"

"I've been driving over to Sonoma a lot lately," she answers, arranging her shawl around her thin shoulders. "Madeleine is probably going to go on hospice soon, but for now there's a team of us staying with her. I made a fabulous black bean soup the other day. She hardly ate any, but the rest of us enjoyed it."

Hannah leans forward. Nora sits back, crosses her ankles. You sigh. You've all seen it happen with friends, and of course with your own parents: the broken hip, the stroke, or the unhappy slow fade of cancer. Old people need help—accessing medical care, keeping track of finances, making decisions. They need help to manage a move to a more suitable residence, one with no stairs and on a bus line. One with a spare room for a caregiver. Ultimately, they need help to eat and use the bathroom.

They, them—old people.

And of course, dementia looms. "I can't go from one room into another without wondering why I went in there," says Hannah. We all nod.

"My mother used to write little notes," you recall. "I was visiting once and she threw some on the floor. I went to pick them up, and she said, No! I throw them on the floor when they're really important."

More cackling. You continue, "The other day I had the word 'sixteen' stuck in my mind like a bone for a few hours. I knew I wanted to remember it but I had no idea why. Later I realized it was the amount of money I'd spent on gas and I wanted to write it down when I got home."

Clucks of understanding. "Sixteen dollars for gas?" says Nora. "What were you driving, a lawn mower? Gas is six dollars a gallon!"

"Putin's fault," notes Hannah. "His war has messed up the world worse than it was before."

"It has certainly messed up the Ukrainians' world," says Cassie.

A plastic disk on the table glows and buzzes loudly, nearly bouncing. "God help us," you say, startled until you realize it's the signal your food order is ready. Standing up, you stumble and nearly fall into the bushes. You look at your alarmed friends, make a face, and shrug. "Not walking so well these days."

It feels good to stretch your legs, but you do wobble as you accompany Hannah to the pickup window. Poached eggs on ciabatta for Hannah and Nora, a blackberry scone for Cassie, crabmeat and avocado for you. The perfect meal.


Back at the table you say, "I've been trying to figure out who will help me when I'm too decrepit to take care of myself. Doug, of course, but what about when he gets too decrepit? And you will all be decrepit, too."

"With no kids," Nora adds.

In theory and sometimes in practice, people who have children have someone to "take care of" them. Three of you are childless. The exception is Cassie, who 60 years ago at age 18 had a baby and gave him away for adoption at birth. Much later, she located him and developed a relationship with him, his wife, and his two young adult children. Still, Cassie is realistic: "Can I expect he will take care of me after I did not take care of him?"

Your sister, five years older than you, has outlived her firstborn and now has two sons and two daughters, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. She had three surgeries this year. Ibuprofen doesn't touch her pain, so she has moved on to Percocet and hydrocodone. She has a heart condition. With all this, she walks two miles a day, volunteers at a theater, a church, and with a nonprofit environmental group. She takes care of her five-year-old granddaughter several times a week and for the occasional weekend. And she is adamant she will never depend on her children because she doesn't want to be resented. You think she is unrealistic and ridiculous. They would help her in a heartbeat, and she's going to need it. Her oldest grandson said half-jokingly the other day, at a family gathering and in your sister's presence, "She needs to be watched." You noticed he also walked you back to your cabin that night.

"But having no children to help when you're old may not be as gloomy as it sounds," you say. "I have a friend who told me she would not want her life and wellbeing to be in the hands of her kids. They don't really know her very well. She said the television is always on at their house!"

Cassie adds, "She probably doesn't want to eat wings from Chili's and Pop-Tarts from Safeway."

"Right!" you say. "She cooks from scratch, homemade soup and fresh berry pie. She said, 'There won't be room for me in the kitchen.' She knows her kids aren't looking forward to those days, either."

Certainly not all older people can count on their kids pitching in. In Ukraine many parents are outliving their children, as they are in South Sudan and Afghanistan. As they are also in Uvalde, Newtown, Parkland, Minneapolis, Louisville.


You might have had a child, but instead you had an abortion. For some years after ending that pregnancy, you tried unsuccessfully to get pregnant again, with the same man, now your husband.

That child would now be 39 years old. You are unequivocally pro-choice, and you are also immensely sad about your decision, though you think, as you did then, that you would not have been a very good mother. You don't like taking care of people, and you have an impossible time making decisions. But a few years after the abortion, you stopped blocking your true feelings. That primal well of grief took years to move past.

You aborted a child because you wanted freedom. How has your costly freedom been spent? This past year or two, you find yourself lying in bed before sleep on many nights and watching a parade of memories of your life's worst moments. There are many. Night after night they come to you. When your oldest niece was 15 and you were 31, she left you a phone message saying her mother—your sister—was "acting strange." You never called her back. A few years before that, your father invited you to take a week-long trip with him one fall. He made travel arrangements and was excited about it, delighted you were going with him. You forgot about it and made other plans. You were often like that, selfish and thoughtless. In relationships with men, you were flippant, distrustful, and possessive. Other past actions and failures run like a movie through your mind. You were never malicious, but terribly misguided, dishonorable, and disrespectful. Your regret, guilt, and shame arise in appropriate measure.

When this happens, you wonder why your aged mind is touring this wasteland. You don't know. But you do know enough to greet these unsleeping nightmares with a good, loving heart. You view them honestly, understanding so much more than you did at the time. In one crystalline moment, you realized and accepted that was simply the person you were. Various traumas in childhood combined with some inherited biochemistry left you with serious anxiety, depression, and a distorted view of reality. Your actions and inactions were products of the way you learned to cope with the assaults and failures of life.

You mourn. You find compassion for the person who did these things, and for all others who do such things, and for all who have been hurt by them. You have compassion for the person remembering them now. Under the covers, you rest your hand over your heart.


"So what have we been doing all our lives without kids?" asks Hannah.

"Traveling," is the quick answer from Cassie.

"Yeah, you just bought that old Road Trek van," you say.

"But I'm afraid to drive it. It is so huge! I think I'm going to sell it."

Nora has spent time in exotic places all over the world, including Mongolia. "I would go back to India, but not these days. COVID keeps me at home." We all nod. "What have you done with your life, Hannah?"

"Oh, I've partied most of the time." Laughter. Fun for Hannah is a solitary walk in the Irish countryside. She turns to you. "What about you, Judith?"

"I've loved being free to move around," you say. "But mostly that's been going places to take care of my inner child. She had special needs in the emotional department." Laughter, but it's true. Your personal journey of therapy, meditation, religious practice, whole-hearted inner searching has seen the major expenditure of your time and money. It saved your life and has borne bountiful fruit. At some point you started sharing that work with other people. For 35 years you worked as a psychotherapist and meditation teacher.

Recently you read somewhere, "The opposite of depression is delight." Today on the deck by the river, you are delighting in the smell and movement of the air and water, the comfort of old friends, even the small joy of remembering to sit up straight though age wants you to sag.


What else have you spent your life doing? Loving your husband for 40 years. Quite a few bumps in that road have been navigated with repeated acceptance of hurt, misunderstanding, and differences that never change but do lessen in their conflictual impact. He is on his own path. You admire his good sense and his talent for making and fixing things. You like his body a lot. He's lively, curious, and easily moved, emotional. His humor has rubbed off and now you yourself are often funny. Every day in summer he brings roses to you from the shrubs someone planted in your yard long ago. Last night he played Neil Young "Unplugged," which pried you away from the computer and into unfettered, untutored dancing. Years ago someone watched you and your husband dancing together at a party and told you, "Everybody should see you two dancing."

Anything else good you've done? Another way of loving: writing, your lifelong call answered with at best half a heart for most of your life and now—since mostly retiring from therapy and teaching—racing into the vacuum of available time with no less energy than the river pours into the sea and the sea thrusts to meet it.

All the years, all the years. You've been insanely lucky to have your amazing marriage. Also insanely lucky to have a blood family, those kindly people who originated with your beloved sister, the matriarch. You are also insanely lucky to have dear, dear friends. Some of them are aging in far-away places, and some sit here today celebrating the start of your 77th year.


"Here we are basking in the California sunshine," says Cassie, "and Russia is knocking out power and heat in Ukraine, and millions are starving and freezing in Afghanistan."

You savor a bite of crabmeat. "I wonder if World Central Kitchen can get into Afghanistan. Probably not. But they're doing amazing work in Ukraine."

"Did you hear that WCK is feeding people hit by the hurricane in Florida?" Hannah adds. "In our own country! They're incredible."

You feed yourselves and talk about the pain wrenching the world. It wrenches all of you as well: the predictable acceleration of natural disasters, the refugees, and the exploding of lies and greed lying behind all those events and emerging in response to them. The fear. In those pre-sleep hours when you are recalling your life's sorriest moments, your view always expands into scenes of flood on top of famine in Somalia, captive and oppressed Uighurs in China, mass murders and murderous racism in the US. And those are just the tip of the iceberg.

Real icebergs are calving off disappearing glaciers. Can we stop climate catastrophe? From your cursory view of the evidence, you believe it is too late. The deal is done, the die is cast, certainly, for the human race. We are watching us all die.

Your friends try to help fix it. Every Sunday in summer Nora sits at a table at the farmer's market and tells people about the problems with fossil fuels. As the election approached, she drove in her electric car three hours every weekend to canvass in another district for a sane candidate for Congress. Cassie hosts events and serves on the board for local climate and conservation groups. Hannah supports environmental groups and has adopted some women in Indonesia to help them develop skills to feed their families and be independent.

You, you don't do much. You send money to good causes and try to keep your head on straight. You turn away from rage and despair, although those waves and tides arise in your heart ceaselessly. You open to the pain, love the people you encounter, and pray.


The four of you friends: three have no children, two have no partner, one (you) has no money. When they need it, the other three will easily pay for care from non-family members. Who that will be is their big question, but they can pay for it. For you, it's sell the house you and your husband can no longer take care of and spend down the savings. Social Security and your husband's small pension ultimately won't cut it. You'll be moving into smaller and smaller quarters, eating creamed corn and canned soup from Meals on Wheels, ending up on Medicaid and finally in the nursing home.

Nursing home?! Perish the thought. None of you wants what you have come to call the "baby bird" phase of dying, being fed (and more) by other people. It's not quite time for euthanasia, but you and your friends are all pro-choice in this. "It solves the problem of who will take care of you," says Nora.

"Doug and I were at the ocean the other day," you tell your friends. "We were up on the headlands. The waves were big, 30 or 40 feet below, smashing on the rocks in giant sprays. We decided we could jump into it some day. But I didn't really like the looks of it. So I said, 'What if we aren't able to get there when the time comes?' So, he said, 'Maybe we'll both just die in the same big fight.'"

Cackles all around.

How do you do it? How do you know when? You might decide to let nature take its course, but you really could make a plan. Cassie has researched veterinary anesthesia available in Mexico. Nora has bought a book called "The Peaceful Pill Handbook" and is enthusiastic about fentanyl and chloroquine. But even euthanasia might require some assistance.

"I will help you, Judith," your friend Hannah offers. She is ten years younger than you. She looks across the deck to you, her blue eyes direct. She wants to be sure you heard her.

You did, and you believe her. Hannah speaks carefully, and her words are trustworthy. "I don't know exactly what will be needed, or when," you say.

"If you want it, you can find a way. I'll help you figure it out."

She laughs.

"I won't kill you, though."


This day's sunlight is aging hazily out towards the horizon. Cassie looks at her watch and roots around in her purse, finds a tiny container, screws off the cap, and wiggles her narrow finger around in it until she comes up with a small pink pill, which she pops into her mouth and washes down with the water she always carries. She looks around at all of you. "So we're going to die, huh? Better get ready."

"I'm pretty ready," says Nora. "How about you, Judith?"

"Well, Doug and I bought a burial plan. We put the house and bank accounts into a trust a few years ago, so Probate won't get everything. I don't know what that means, but it seemed like a good thing to do. I understood it at the time, and I could look it up if somebody wants to know."

"What's left?" says Cassie.

"Tons and tons of stuff, that's what," you answer, and receive chuckles of understanding. The person who handles your trust, a sensible, simpatico niece, will dole out your goods as directed in the will. But there is so much stuff and nobody obvious to leave it to.

Even if there are children, considerate elders would weed out significantly before the time comes. But many people could imagine their kids, and then their kids, might like to have the tiny woolen sweater knitted by Aunt Edna when they were born. Also the windowpane afghan Edna crocheted, as common then as a fleece blanket nowadays, but far less warm and washable only by hand.

You've already given some of these ancestral objects to nieces and nephews. But what about the remnants of just your life?—photographs, old documents, various certificates of achievement. Without kids to take custody of these oh-so-precious items, you're starting to give things away. A great-niece who made one parachute jump now has your parachute logbooks and a typed summary of her great-aunt's skydiving escapades in the early '60s. Over 500 jumps! In the trash can? No!

But what about trinkets, those magic items, found objects that have real meaning and beauty to you? The plastic prayer beads you picked up on the ground outside the Sabancı Mosque in Adana. That was the hot July day you watched half a dozen heavily draped women drive three cows out to tether in pasture by the beach and then wade happily into the Mediterranean and sit down to splash and laugh in the shallows. What about the tiny ceramic dish you put your pills in before each meal, its intricate design etched into the Okinawan clay by a dignified old man who sat in a folding chair selling his pottery outside his collapsing wooden shed?

What about your pieces of fantastic driftwood, gorgeous rocks, two strangely shaped harbor seal bones? At least all of those could go back to the earth or ocean. Those other little gathered bits of things: well, nobody cares about those except you. They'll end up in the trashcan or the thrift shop if it's up to someone else. You'd like to find your own good way to let them go.


Your parents divorced when you were ten. Years later you watched each of them die, many years apart. As in everything parents do, they set an example for you. Your father's last hours, in ICU after his fifth heart attack, were mostly spent with his clandestine lover of his last few years, a married woman who sparked in your unmarried 64-year-old dad a greatly enhanced sense of delight and beauty and style. He set an example of aging as if life were not over but carving new and forbidden channels. You trust his last hours with her were deep, rich, heartfelt. You were 28 then, and you did have time in the room alone with him. You fed him jello: the baby bird. He could speak only haltingly, but he wanted to be sure to tell you some things: "I saw death, and it's not frightening," and "I love you."

Thirty years after that, your mother showed you a different example. Long demented, she was with great difficulty moved by your sister and you to a care facility and then a nursing home. She spent six years there in diminishing health, much of that time in the baby-bird stage. During that long, long dying, a miracle unfolded: this chronically and viciously angry woman forgot to be mad, forgot to blame anyone for anything, and discovered you were a friendly, somehow familiar person. Her eyes lit up when she saw you, and there occurred between you and her the loving gazing that binds infants and mothers. You like to think you two had done the same thing 57 years earlier and were now recognizing it and starting again.

The parental example: connection. We are parent and child.

None of that for you, now. No child to watch you die and take to heart whatever example you set. Who will see you are taken care of? Who will want the strange harbor seal bones? Who will seek your last words, your last gaze? Who will watch you die?


The deck is getting chilly. Sighing and stretching, bones cracking, you four old ladies wrap yourselves in wool and down, scarves and hats, and stay a while longer, not speaking much. The land and water, wind and sky, are unbearably beautiful.