A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
This would be my last visit.
Philip, my friend of more than 40 years, was about to leave the country and then leave this world.
We first met at the post office when we both lived in the same Vermont village. He was charming, friendly, lively and good looking with curly light brown hair, lovely kind eyes and a delightful laugh. He was a poet with a PhD, and had taught English literature at a southern college. I was impressed by his vocabulary, along with his excitement over movies, books, travel, and history.
We dated for just seven months. I remember going to his waterfront house on an island off the Maine coast, taking snowy walks with him in New York City, playing golf and cross-country skiing.
When I ended our dating relationship, he replied, "Damn, I'm your transition guy!" But we kept in touch, mostly due to my persistence.
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As he aged, Philip began to have serious health issues. There was a heart attack, followed by a stroke. He made a good recovery after extensive speech, physical and occupational therapy, but he wasn’t able to write poetry any more.
Then, after I had moved to Ohio, he experienced a new set of problems. On an airplane flight, he forgot how to get out of the bathroom, and later at a supermarket, he forgot how to use his credit card. He knew something was very wrong.
Philip was diagnosed with vascular dementia. Not enough blood was reaching his brain, causing confusion and organization difficulties. For Philip, the condition would be progressive and deadly as other parts of his brain were affected.
When we spoke by phone, he told me that he'd had to move into an apartment close to shopping, that he’d asked a friend to bring him groceries, and that he’d hired an advocate, Victoria, to handle his bills and personal affairs.
He was able to live alone for a few more years, with help from some kind people including his landlord, who started to do Philip's laundry for him. Victoria hired someone to deliver dinners when Philip found it hard to use a microwave.
Although he was unable to read any more, he had his treasured books surrounding him in beautiful, old bookcases passed down from his father, a lawyer. He couldn’t part with those or a fabulous movie collection, including his favorite classics and historical documentaries.
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I started making trips from Ohio to Vermont a few times a year to see friends, including Philip. When he no longer could drive, I took him to familiar places in the countryside, restaurants he liked, and especially a "creamie stand" to get our favorite black raspberry soft-serve.
When I returned to Vermont this week for my last visit to Philip, I saw how much more he was affected by dementia. He couldn't even operate his TV. He also was unsteady and incontinent.
Years earlier, when first diagnosed, Philip made a plan for the future to travel to Switzerland where a nonprofit organization was offering end-of-life services to people needing them. I supported his decision to go ahead with his plan. In fact, I was proud of him for having the courage to do it.
He had asked Victoria to arrange things soon, fearful that if he put it off too long, he might be unable to fly any more and to satisfy the organization in Zurich that he’d made this decision on his own. If he couldn’t do those two things, he’d be sent to a nursing home, unable to communicate and deteriorating.
For now, though, Philip still had a lot he wanted to say. He'd always been a talker, full of insights, information, memories and curiosity. So it was difficult to witness his frequent moments of rage as he struggled to find even simple words.
“That’s why..! I can’t stand this!” he’d yell, through gritted teeth, pounding on the table.
Having a “conversation” with him was easier with “props” –- a computer and family photos. With YouTube on his computer screen, I asked him to show me which videos he’d been watching.
As always, he was excited about the ones related to history, archeology and lately, some old “Ozzie and Harriet” programs.
In turn, I shared my favorites. He was cheering and teary-eyed watching Susan Boyle auditioning and triumphing on “America’s Got Talent.” There was that sweet, soft side to Philip.
In the living room, there was a trunk-shaped box full of family photos. He gave me looks of grateful affection when he saw that I wanted to explore his family’s past. As we looked at the pictures, I recognized people and places because I had been to his hometown, Little Falls, in upstate New York, and met his mother and brother. I made some educated guesses about what he wanted to say as he looked through the photos.
And so, we continued that week, my bringing his favorite fast food, and his yelling “YES!” when I would guess which grandparent, or location was in a picture. Philip had suffered under the critical eye of his father in the past, but his hurt seemed to lessen as he studied photographs of his father hugging him as a toddler. I appreciated learning more about Philip's youth, family get-togethers, grandparents, trips, and parties.
We came upon a picture of his first birthday party. Philip pointed to a little girl. “I told her!...Now she’s…” he said, waving to a window as his eyes went from elation to disappointment. He had told me a while back about a friend in Montana and I asked if she was the little girl in the picture. I let him know I’d be happy to send it to her.
I found his address book and went through names, so he could say yes or no. When I hit on “Sissy” he threw his arms up yelling a joyful “YES!” He pointed to a picture on his dresser of him with two women. One was Sissy, who remained his friend through the years, still calling him weekly.
Sissy was delighted to tell me about the Philip she’d known, and said Laurie, another friend, wanted to talk to me. We formed a quick bond over our shared affection and concern.
Sissy and Laurie were shocked to hear of Philip’s plan for Switzerland. Laurie called and urged him to return to Little Falls, where she still lived. “High school friends will visit you in the nursing home and take you out,” she said.
”That will get old,” he replied.
On the last day of my visit, Philip wouldn’t hear of any goodbyes. Because he was a male friend, I had never said “I love you.” But there was no reason to hold back now, so I told him.
“Funny, we wait til now…” he said.
“I think you’ve known,” I replied.
Philip nodded assent.
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A few weeks later, Victoria let me know that she and an aide were about to escort Philip to Switzerland. Sissy suggested that he see the Matterhorn. It seemed like a wild idea to me!
After the trip, Victoria kindly called to tell me how it went.
They arrived a few days before the appointment in Zurich, and Philip did ask if he could see the Matterhorn. Fortunately, they were able to arrange a helicopter ride for the next day. The pilot told them visibility over the mountains is good only 15 days a year, and this day, by chance, was one of them..
Victoria sent me a picture of the still good-looking man nestled in the helicopter, and one photo of people toasting him with wine in a lovely restaurant. Philip, according to Victoria, was cheerful and engaging with people on the plane, their driver, the helicopter pilot, and the staff of the center in Zurich.
Victoria was able to stay with Philip at the center as he drank the clear liquid containing a barbiturate. He chatted with her for about 15 minutes as he relaxed. After he was given an injection, his heart stopped.
What would’ve happened if Philip’s money had run out before that trip to Switzerland? When I asked Victoria, she said she would’ve made arrangements for him at a nursing home. I thought of all the people who wanted to end their lives as Philip did, but couldn’t afford that trip.
I shared this news with Sissy and Laurie, and we have kept a phone connection, helping us grieve together.
I drove back to Vermont recently, stopping along the way in Little Falls, searching the old cemetery for the family mausoleum.
There it was, on a slight rise, between some pines. Through decorative wrought iron covering the windows, I saw what appeared to be room for six coffins under the marble, and on top was a new stone urn.
Carol Fritz is a retired speech and language pathologist .