Pat MacEnulty

Pat MacEnulty
Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
December 31
Writer and teacher. My most recent book, Wait Until Tomorrow: A Daughter's Memoir, is about taking care of my elderly mom. Published by The Feminist Press in 2011. I also give writing workshops on transformative writing.


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SEPTEMBER 21, 2011 9:06AM

How Do You Know When It's Time to Go?

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This is an excerpt from my memoir "Wait Until Tomorrow":

Ever since Mom got back to the Sanctuary, she’s shakier than ever before. On Monday I go to visit her after my class. We sit outside to absorb some vitamin D, and then she says the inevitable: “I have to go to the bathroom.” 

I grumble a bit because she’d been upstairs only fifteen minutes earlier, but I push her up to her third floor room, then wheel her into the bathroom, lift her cast off the leg lift, and move both leg lifts out of the way.

“One, two, three,” and I hoist her up. “This way, Mom. Pivot this way.”

I lift her dress, move the wheelchair, support her body and guide her around, pulling down the pull-ups, trying to get them down before she collapses onto the elevated toilet seat. Lord have mercy. 

After the bathroom ordeal, we go downstairs for a game. She’s lost a lot of ground in the past few weeks. She has the Q, a blank for a U and an I. I show her where there is an available T, but she can’t put those letters together. She cannot figure out the word, “quit.” Until finally, exasperated, I just tell her what the word is and where to put it.

Then it’s time for dinner. When I wheel her up to the table and give her a hug good-bye, she clasps my arm and begins to kiss it. 

That night my old friend Theo from Tallahassee calls me. His mother is in the hospital. She’s got a touch of pneumonia. She’s only 84. That seems so young to me now! But she’s lost the will to live. She tells Theo, “Just kill me, please.” 

I can tell that he feels like he’s been run over by a truck. He’s confounded by her hallucinations. “Those are common,” I tell him. “It’s called hospital dementia.”

“There’s a name for it?” he asks.  

We engage in a dialogue I seem to have with all the friends and acquaintances in my age range: how are we going to avoid this? One of my friends plans to take a boat out into the ocean along with a bottle of vodka and sleeping pills. A nice couple I know has their suicide pact all figured out. Theo is hoping he’ll get hit by a bus. My strategy is this: no doctors and no medications after the age of 84. 

“You have to start indoctrinating your children. My mom thought it was good to say ‘no extreme measures,’ but what you have to say is ‘no measures at all.’ They can keep you alive forever. They just keep patching you up. You’ll never die.” 

Theo’s mother is on an IV for fluid, but if she doesn’t want to live, should they take her off the IV and let nature do what it does? He doesn’t know. Who wants to be responsible for letting a parent fade out, especially a good, beloved parent? 

My mother, on the other hand, clings to life no matter how awful she feels. I think she’s afraid of death. Hell, she’s afraid of sleep. I told her once when she was really miserable and expressed a wish for her life to end that she could stop taking her medicines anytime she wanted. It was her choice. She answered, “I know, but when it gets close it doesn’t look so attractive.” Meaning death. So perhaps I’ll feel differently when I’m very old and maybe I’ll want to suck every bit of juice out of my life, suck it till its dry as salt. 

“You know, we’re conditioned to believe that life must be preserved at all costs,” Theo says. “If your mother is depressed and wants to die, well you give her  antidepressants. Even though it’s never going to get any better.”

But where is that line? Where is the line at which you say, “You’re right. Better to leave the party now before the police come and throw everyone in jail.” This is what we need to figure out and we only have two or three decades to do it. Not much time. Not much time at all before you’re there, before it’s you. 



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old age, death, dying, memoir

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Yeah. My dad used to say his dad would tell everybody that when he got "too old" for somebody to get the pistol out of his dresser drawer, take him out back and shoot him. He never did get "too old" for that. Neither did my dad, altho he'd would joke about his dad and suggest that we should do the same with him. I used to imagine myself floating out to sea on a boat carrying me, a bottle of Wild Turkey and a crate of dynamite rigged up with a fuse for sort of a Viking style last blast. I'm pushing 70 now, and no longer think about getting "too old." You know, there's always a chance of some new miracle drug or process...

I like your writing. Don't understand why it's taken me so long to find you.
Matt, It's hard for me to keep up with OS writers, too. Between working fulltime and writing and promoting books and doing workshops, I sometimes go long stretches without reading what other people are writing. When I do I'm so often enchanted. Glad to meet you! I look forward to reading your posts as well.
You bring up many wrenching details and truths. Real, honest, nitty gritty stuff. Thanks.
I've only read this piece of yours, Pat, but it seems you and I have some things in common. I'm an English instructor, or at least I was. Last December, I moved in with my father. He's 84 with all sorts of health complications: end-stage COPD, anemia, some other blood disorder. He had been living with my sister in Colorado, but the cold, snow, and altitude proved too hard on his lungs. Those things along with my sister deciding to completely change the household dynamic forced my pops to move back to his little condo in the foothills of the Sandia mountains in Albuquerque.

I was living in Las Vegas and adjuncting at UNLV and the College of Southern Nevada when we decided that he'd need full-time assistance. So I packed a bag and here I am.

As I write this comment, I realize I need to create my own blog and vent through writing the frustrations of care-taking for a guy who can be charming, witty, difficult, sour, and incredibly generous.

Thank you for the inspiration! I can't believe how I've overlooked this glaringly obvious opportunity for the last year. Thank you thank you thank you!
So, because my eyes are "never going to get better", I guess I shouldn't bother wearing my glasses, even though it improves my quality of life...? The antidepressant is doing the same, and shouldn't be compared to extraordinary measures.
Wow. Did you miss the point or what?
Thanks, Brian! Writing about this was cathartic. You will find it to be so, as well, I'm sure.