Sitting across from my daughter at a tiny Starbucks table entirely taken up with two laptops, I’m wondering if I really want to write about anything, but in order to have her limited company this evening, I have to do something. My options are few: with a companion whose ears are plugged and whose attention is on her own blog post, I need to look like I’m busy and productive, not pining for conversation. It’s my second sojourn here today, two hours of the morning having been spent sketching out a story scene that I’ve been thinking about for a while.
One morning late last year I awoke from a dream about writing a book, and the storyline was detailed: an older woman, recently diagnosed with dementia, had enlisted the help of a younger man, perhaps her son, to guide her on a hike into the mountains, where she intended to let herself die by exposure to the elements. They had to hide the reason for their mission from her family, but were both convinced of the rightness of what they were doing.
It wasn’t a bad dream, on the contrary, I was quite intrigued about such a story because it linked two things that have long interested me – the right to die, and the looming pandemic of Alzheimer’s. In fact, it seemed like a clear message to get the lead out and write about it. And as if the message needed reinforcing, later that same day I had an experience that seemed coincidental at the time, and made the dream eerily prophetic in hindsight.
That afternoon, while driving to an appointment, my favourite Belgian spotted our neighbour Sophie walking along the road to the next village, a book tucked under her arm. Although we hadn’t seen much of her in recent months, we knew she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and he was surprised to see her out alone. When he stopped to ask if she was all right, she said she was on her way to meet her husband. Unconvinced of her explanation, FB called me to ask if I could come and pick her up.
Sophie didn’t blink an eye when I turned up. Just in case she had the story right, I drove her around for a little while looking for her husband. She chatted easily and issued a constant stream of almost expressionless directives, every short phrase with the same arc of inflection and always ending with my name. Be careful at this corner, Deborah. Watch your speed, Deborah. Turn left at this intersection, Deborah. You drive smoothly, Deborah. Finally it seemed like the best thing to do was leave a phone message for her husband and go back to my house to wait for his call.
It was a cool afternoon: while the kettle boiled, I built up the fire. Sophie commented on how well it caught: You make a good fire, Deborah. Oh that’s funny, I laughed, because my FB and I once had a ridiculous argument about the way I had laid the fire, not bothering with the small bits, and of course it didn’t take properly. He wanted to teach me how to do it in Boy Scout fashion and didn’t believe me when I said I knew all about the proper way to set a fire. I’ll tell him on Wednesday that you know how to make a good fire, Deborah. (Sophie played boules every other week with a group that included FB, and if her dementia had robbed her of her ability to calculate the score, her enthusiasm for the game was unaffected).
When I set the tea tray down, she eyed the oatmeal cookies sceptically: They don’t look like anything a French person would eat, Deborah. I wasn’t offended: Sophie had a fine reputation as a sophisticated cook, and did not suffer inferior food with diplomacy. The back of the kitchen cupboard yielded a box of iconic French biscuits, but when I returned with them, Sophie was already into the second cookie. These are superb, Deborah. I’d like the recipe, Deborah. All told, she ate fifteen of them.
We talked a bit: about her sons, playing boules, cooking. She tried to remember her husband’s cell phone number but was missing the last two digits. Now and then she picked up her book, tracing the words with her index finger but never turning the page. I wondered if she grasped what she was reading, and showed her a collection of political cartoons that poked satirical fun at the burqa, thinking that the visual humour might appeal to her. She got almost all of them, and asked if she could borrow the book. The afternoon lengthened. I think I’ll go home now, Deborah. It was awkward telling her that she really shouldn’t leave, and I wondered what I could do, other than accompany her, if she insisted. She didn’t.
When her husband knocked at the door a few hours later, he was upset and apologetic. Very unusually, he had left Sophie at home alone when he couldn’t persuade her to change out of her nightgown and go with him to take their grandson to his weekly sports practice. After he left, locking the front gate for security, she had obviously dressed herself – something she hadn’t done for some time – and climbed over the garden wall. No one with experience looking after a person with dementia would have blamed him for the sharpness with which he addressed his wife: he couldn’t contain his frustration and worry over the fact that she couldn’t safely be left alone for even a few hours. At the end of his ability to cope with a situation that had worsened significantly over the last six months, he told me that he felt like he was going mad himself, and that the only alternative was to put Sophie in a nursing home, an option the family supported but which she had vehemently rejected. They left for home, Sophie confused and defensive, her husband tired and despairing.
Nineteen hours later she vanished without a trace. After having lunch in a little hilltop village near Grasse, she headed out the door while her husband was paying the bill. She knew the place well and couldn’t go far, he reasoned, never imagining that the few minutes it took to complete the transaction and have a brief conversation with the chef would mean the difference between life and death for his companion of fifty years. Despite extensive searches by police, tracking dogs, friends and strangers, she wasn’t found until ten days later, by a boy hunting for mushrooms on his family’s holiday property. She had succumbed to exposure after falling from a large retaining wall, only 300 metres from the restaurant.
Did Sophie, in brief lucidity, set out to put an end to her misery? The morning of her disappearance she had told her husband that she felt she was good for nothing, unable to read, cook, or even use the telephone. She certainly knew, at breakfast, what kind of hell had her in its grip, and perhaps during lunch, she determined to find a way out of it.
Apart from the agony of the family, who alternately hoped and despaired during the ten long days of unknowing, and the terrible loneliness of Sophie’s death, I don’t think the end of this story is awful. Having watched her own mother die by increments from Alzheimer’s, Sophie had already said many times that she would never let herself go the same way. Whether she planned her end – it seems unlikely she was capable of it – or if by some beneficent inadvertence she found a way out will never be known, but I’m relieved for her that she did.
As a coincidence, the dream I had on the day before Sophie died is striking, but what both events have served to do is reinforce my view that the Damoclian threat of Alzheimer’s must be urgently addressed, and that the discussion of and concern about elder suicide should take into account that for some, death is preferable to a vastly-reduced quality of life. To act definitively against the inexorable grinding down of disease and infirmity should not always be viewed in a tragic context. Sophie’s family will probably never get over their anguish about the manner of her death, but they have found some comfort knowing that she was spared the emotional trauma and confusion of being put in a nursing home, and the further decline of her faculties.
And the book? It’s taking perceptible shape, and if I keep on paying for coffee, and finding some motivational, if antisocial company, there’s a chance it’ll continue to evolve.