John Barth, who was known for all kinds of literary shenanigans back in the late 60s (Lost in the Funhouse), has a story in the 2007 Best American Short Stories collection, an amazingly linear, even traditional piece of fiction for him, something titled "Toga Party." My students won't get it--I know that already. I do, regretfully.
The story belongs to an aging couple, maybe 75 years old, who live in some kind of gated community, where the social life consists mostly of the get-togethers those communities engender, wine-y parties replete with the latest in hors' d'oeuvres. The relationship between these two old folks is strong and loving. They appreciate each other and would do anything for each other. But they're aging, and they're falling to the ills flesh is heir to. What they fear, more than anything, is becoming a burden--mostly to each other, the next and inevitable step in the human pilgrimage.
They're invited to a community "toga party," an event about which they know little, but into which they pour themselves as responsible community members. The party itself descends into some degradations, including a garish suicide attempt by an intoxicated senior citizen who recently lost a spouse. It's ugly. Most of the party seems to slide by them in slow motion. It's clear even to them that their heart and soul isn't in it, even though it seems they may once have loved such gatherings.
You can guess where it ends: in the garage of their retirement home, the engine running.
To my mind, Barth telegraphed the climax something awful. I beat him there. But then, I think I know the world he's opening before us.
Last night I slept alone because my wife stayed with her mother, who's in hospice care. My wife had taken her father to the local hospital mid-afternoon, because of continuing nausea and the need of some plain old vigilance, since his bladder hasn't been functioning worth a darn for six months already. Her mother needed someone there in the apartment.
It's scary--not just the bladder problem, but the thoughts that come inevitably to mind in such situations. What on earth would happen to Mom if Dad would, incredibly, leave before her? It's something I never considered. And that's only one of the questions.
My wife and I have spent hours in old folks homes in the last month alone, and, even though each of our parents appreciate their digs, the whole situation just ain't pretty. Long, long before that couple in Barth's story drove their car into that garage, opened the windows, and let the engine run, I knew where he was going.
I can't imagine my own generation--the Sixties generation--standing still to die. Not a rapscallion group who've so proudly done our own thing since adolescence, not the Beatles generation, not the folks who prompted LBJ not to want a second term. Nope. If anyone has controlled their own fate--or thought they did--it's us. And I just can't imagine this generation taking the punches old age throws, week after week after week. I can't imagine Boomers not wanting to control their own fate.
We had better be ready for a new look at something we call "euthanasia" because somebody soon is going to do a whole volley of studies on the what's going on in the Netherlands, where assisted suicide has been legal for generations.
I'm not saying I'm for it. But I will say this--those who oppose it had better come up with arguments that are other than simply than theoretical. Right now I have three parents who would just as soon go, and I can't blame them. All three look forward to eternity with their Lord. They're just waiting.
And the waiting isn't pretty. Barth knows it too--and well; this year he'll turn 78.
Won't be long--once the hoard of Boomers gets another a five years or so on them--and the discussion will be wide open, I'm sure.
Barth knows it. His story brings it up close and personal, as good stories do.