…the best ending would be a sudden heart stoppage when a trio of rooster pheasants or a covey of prairie grouse explodes at my feet as I step in front of my dog Abbey who is locked on point, frozen and on fire at the same time, a brisk wind blowing and a dome of blue sky streaked with cirrus clouds stretching to the distant horizons.
Without tubes and wires
The Over the Hill Gang have reached that “certain age,” a time when we take note of the high mileage on our life odometers and ruminate about our preferred exit ramp from this highway that has taken us on a winding journey through the wilderness of sunlight and shadow, the city of tears and laughter. Our campfire conversations about a fitting and appropriate end to the 70-year ragtag adventure story we each made up as we went along (with occasional chapters that were neither fitting nor appropriate) are never maudlin and grim, but they are shaded by dark humor and a touch of noir pragmatism.
No man gets out of this lifelong vision quest alive. As we near the mountaintop we accept, in fact we welcome, our end of days. But grant us the grace to go out in style, or at least in a manner that is apropos to our character.
One Old Coot (name withheld to protect the reputation of the guilty party) has long proclaimed that his preferred leap across the chasm should be memorably dramatic. It is his goal, he declares, to be shot to death at age 85 by the jealous boyfriend of a beautiful 30-year-old woman. Every man is entitled to flights of fantasy when planning his Final Exit, but not when they soar into clouds so dense that he loses all perception of earthly reality. No woman could possibly be interested in romantic dalliance with any of us in our current condition, unless we won the Powerball lottery, I suppose. The most likely scenario for being shot to death in our senior years is a road rage incident caused by letting our right turn signal light blink on and on and on as we poke along at 55 miles per hour in the left lane of the interstate highway, hardly the tale of bravado a man would choose for his obituary.
Most of the Coots have more modest plans for escape. One would prefer going to sleep in his deer blind, a quick nap just before dawn on opening day of the season, and never waking up, a brilliant (although terminal) display of savoir faire in the hunting fraternity, especially if the blind is accessible by motor vehicle so that his hunting companions do not have to drag his body uphill or through heavy brush. There is always the risk of ruining final memories, however: every subsequent opening day might not be remembered by the Over the Hill Gang as “the day Howard went to his reward” but as “the day that Howard ruined the whole muzzle-loader season for everyone.”
Taking leave of worldly cares while on a fishing trip is an increasingly common proposition, and a hypothesis that is also increasingly plausible given the diminishing ability of the OTH Gang to stay upright in fast-flowing, boulder-studded streams and the ever-greater likelihood we will fall out of a boat or canoe in deep water and sink to the mucky lake bottom, bubbling like a moss-covered rock. A poor fisherman and a worse swimmer, I find this method has little appeal, especially since the Coots who take me fishing would tell and retell the story of their prowess in locating and retrieving my body with their damned fishfinders. There could be a measure of mystery and romance if the fishing day Final Exit story included a “sailed off one stormy morning and was never seen again” addendum, but let’s face it: the panfish lakes of Minnesota are not exactly the Bermuda Triangle.
For me, the best ending would be a sudden heart stoppage when a trio of rooster pheasants or a covey of prairie grouse explodes at my feet as I step in front of my dog Abbey who is locked on point, frozen and on fire at the same time, a brisk wind blowing and a dome of blue sky streaked with cirrus clouds stretching to the distant horizons. That’s eminently possible; I’m on the verge of cardiac arrest a few times every bird season.
In this age when medical science has extended the span of our dotage, our aged years of perishing physical and mental proficiencies, what a blessing it would be to end our lives on a day of gladness. To experience that final moment not in a hospice bed, trailing tubes and wires, gasping for breath, but atop a windswept ridge in the shortgrass prairie, heart giving out from excitement and overexertion while a hawk soars overhead and the world is a wild burst of gamebirds and dogs and beautiful country.
If I could choose my Final Exit day (but none of us can really choose, can we?), that would be my stepping off place, my departure time. A perfect end to a wonder-filled life.
More stories about life in the North Country are published in my five collections of essays and two novels, all available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page
I’ve given it some thought myself. But I have a feeling I’ll just slump over in the shower and it’ll all be embarrassing to whoever walks in.
But a family story that will be told over and over through the generations. Especially the part about you singing “Blue Suede Shoes” in the shower and suddenly going quiet after a vibrato “drink my liquor from an old fruit jar.”
There are a lots of memorable ways to go; some good, other not so. One of my professors went in flagrante delicto in his office with a student. I am sure that the poor, traumatized student will remember that forever, as will his wife, and, well, the rest of us dwellers of Fantasyland, though as we age, the visits to that place become less and less frequent. Thank God. No, sadly most of us, will die as a shell, not remembering who it is that comes to visit us in the home. My father, as you know, went away like that. He would look at you with some recognition, like he knew that he should know you, but somehow the connection was just lost. This was a horrible end for a man whose final wish, in one final moment of lucidity, was that we scatter his ashes over a nudist colony.
Those of us who go through the years of a parent’s mental and physical decline desperately want a different exit for ourselves. Maybe there will be greater acceptance of the Kevorkian pill. The ashes plan ain’t bad, though.
I think you should put this one out on Medium.com. I’m not sure about rights—whether it could appear here simultaneously—but I think it presents what I often read there: perspective from the vantage point of unique and articulate authority. If nothing else, publishing there may get more folks reading here. Hope you’re well and wireless. 😊
Thanks, Kristine. I will try pitching this piece to medium.com
Jerry, this is terrific, as always. I enjoy your writing. I’m going to finally take your advice, create my own site and get more regular with this, this fall. Say hi to your sweet wife — hope y’all are having a wonderful summer! If you come to Texas, we’ve got a place for you to stay…
Bob – we are tentatively planning a southwest trip in February. Hopefully we’ll make connections. Looking forward to reading your blog posts. And the book they will inspire.