I think my siblings and I all imagine the scene: Ellie making her way to the car that morning slowly, unsteadily, joking with a neighbor about her destination: “Going to see the vampires!” before adding, “Unless you want to take me?”
That was it, the moment when she put the acknowledgment of her frailty and looming loss of independence out into the ether. At 92, the past few years had been tough: eye problems, AFib, lymphoma and other health issues, all on top of the toll years of playing tennis and golf had taken on her joints.
Off they went, to the vampires, the neighbor coincidentally having to have blood drawn, too.
On their way home, Ellie pointed to the funeral home they passed and said, “They’re the ones who have all of my arrangements.” The neighbor thought nothing of the statement, but noticed that afternoon that the drapes at Ellie’s were still uncharacteristically drawn and called another neighbor to ask if he’d seen her.
He hadn’t, so he went to check on her as he did every day. He called throughout the house and finally opened the door to the garage, where he found her on the floor, car running, a “Do not resuscitate” order tucked onto the car windshield. Another note instructed that he should take the men’s golf clubs she had in the garage.
And so my Aunt Ellie took charge of her exit in much the way she’d taken charge of things in her life — leaving nothing to chance.
Ellie’s Christmas letters always began with a recounting of tending to her acre of land (everything she grew was planted from seed), and were either brimming with invective or praise for the Missouri springs and summers, depending on the year. In recent years, those mentions had tapered off. She’d always taken activity seriously, as evidenced in her self-penned obituary that stated she “never met a sport she didn’t like.”
We knew her inability to remain active and increasing dependence on others weighed heavily. She played golf and tennis well into her 80s, maintaining vibrant social connections within both groups. She loved cats, the opera, the Peanuts and Garfield comic strips and performed much of her car maintenance herself.
Early on, she was a second lieutenant in the Air Force, serving at Dover AFB. Upon retiring from her microbiology research job with the VA (a biology major in college, she was a STEM girl before it was cool), she became the morning lifeguard for the “AM Lappers” at her local YMCA and was much loved by that group. When her companion of many decades died several years ago, as bereft as she must have been, Ellie carried on.
Ellie was the older of my mother’s two sisters. While her death was a shock in the way that every death is, none of us were shocked that she took her life.
We understood that her world was becoming smaller, that the simplest of daily tasks were challenging her. Soon, it would have been winter in Missouri. Driving likely would have become next to impossible for Ellie, and although the topic had been delicately, broached she was not interested in moving to be closer to her brother or remaining sister and nieces and nephews; she wanted to stay where she was, in her house, near her remaining friends.
There are statistics on suicide among the elderly that show the rate increases significantly for those older than 85. The medical examiner told my sister that he’d had another case similar to Ellie’s recently. When I spoke to several people after Ellie’s death, they remarked that they either knew people who pondered making the same decision or they understood her decision. Those comments came from people older than 80.
Being non-judgmental of the elderly and the very great challenges associated with living to old age, of understanding that those challenges await many of us, is important. We see it in my parents: After fracturing her neck twice in one year and undergoing two major surgeries, my 89-year-old mother isn’t quite who she was. My father has a form of dementia that seems to grow more pronounced by the week now, 15 years on.
Ellie lived a good life, cultivating friends and the Earth alike, tending both lovingly. She was a funny and fun aunt and never missed a birthday. The day she died, I gathered the mail from my mailbox and on top was a birthday card to me from her.
This line in her obituary sums up her attitude about life, and I want to believe it is how she arrived at her final destination: "Life's journey is not to arrive in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out shouting ‘Holy cow, what a ride!’ ”
Smith, lives in James City County, is a mother of three and works in the athletic department at the College of William and Mary.