When I was growing up, I heard many stories that made me believe our deaths are events we can choose and design.
Some were stories of relatives who, when they reached a certain age or state of declining health, went to bed one night with the deliberate intention to never awake. They were successful at this. Others were described as ‘dying of a broken heart.’ I was told that my great-grandmother willed herself to die due to despair over a tragic event that happened to a neighbor’s daughter. It took a couple of days, but she too was successful.
When my grandfather died I was told his heart had given out. “He was done,” my father said, “just done. There was no pain.” His funeral was a week long celebration.
From these stories I came to believe that when it was time to be done with life, a person found a way to be done with life. They had this option and ability.
Many of my great-uncles walked into the local river, the Ashuelot, after their wives died. They didn’t want to live without them. “They were very dependent on their wives,” my mother explained.
“Found Pete’s hat today downstream,” came my dad’s hushed voice from the kitchen as I sat coloring in the dining room. “Only a matter of time til they find his body.” A few days later the conversation changed to where they found him and where they guessed he had walked in.
Then funeral plans would be discussed. Though it was obviously suicide, the church buried these men like all the other congregants. “He slipped,” the funeral attendees rationalized, shaking their heads. “Got too close, of course. Don’t know what he was doing out there like that.”
The mile long walk to my local Catholic grammar school traversed the Ashuelot River twice. I had an odd fascination with those waters. As I stared over the green steel bridge railing into its brown murky depths, I often scared myself with the thought of suddenly seeing one of my great-uncles looking up at me. I imagined they would be all bloated and dead like a fish among the shopping carts lying on their sides, the old rusted tire rims and tall river weeds. When the river reached low points at certain times of the year, I never allowed myself to look down at it.
I wondered what it felt like to walk into cold river water with all your clothes on and continue walking as the water filled your lungs. I thought about how they walked in even after they could no longer breathe. It seemed very brave to me that they did not turn around and run away as I was so sure I would have done.
Reflecting on these stories makes me wonder now, is it indeed possible to choose when we are done and will it to be so? In this age of “medicalized death” I wonder, did my ancestors understand something important about the end of life that we have forgotten?
~Theresa C. Dintino