I was volunteering at Town Hall. The event was Diane Rehm onstage, in interview about her recent book, On My Own, a memoir of her husband’s dying. Because for her – for them – the dying transmogrified into a preventable ordeal, she’d become an advocate of choice, the choice, if faced with chronic disease and subsequent dissolution, to end one’s life.
The small space teemed and emptied, teemed and emptied as the crowd found its way to the reception or the stairways up to The Great Hall. The process, in spite of my oh-so-not-an-Apple-product was going smoothly, when into my frame – the upper right quadrant – appeared the crooked face of a very old man-cum-stork – bent and beseeching. The teeth contributed to the crooked aspect of his face, the lower jaw, thrust forward as if off its hinge, revealing a line of teeth, unsymmetrical and some were missing.
I recoiled, sad to say.
He was not badly put together – navy blue London Fog; clean shirt and a properly knotted tie. At the same time, mental dishevelment had landed in his body.
“May I scan your ticket?” I asked.
Confused, he said, “Where can I get the hand-outs?”
“Hand-outs?” I replied.
“They said so in the paper. And then I heard on the radio today that I could get the information here, tonight, about . . . something, oh, I can’t remember – compassion and . . . I think there was an and . . . compassion and, well, about choosing to die, I think.”
“Diane Rehm will probably address that, but I don’t know about the hand-outs,” I said. “You can get a copy of her book over there, on that table,” I pointed across the lobby.
“Oh, books, I don’t need more books,” he waved an imagined cloud of gnats away from between our faces, now disconcertingly close. He did not smell, and, sad to say, this I had expected. “I could write as many books about that,” he said.
I put down my scanner. “Would it be Compassion and Choices you mean?” I asked.
“Why, yes, I think so.”
“Death with Dignity?” I continued, and his face brightened.
I indicated the table, festooned with piles of information about Town Hall membership, programs and the like. “Let’s go see if there is more of a description of what she’ll be discussing,” I said. “And if there will be hand-outs.”
“Diane Rehm.” I took his elbow and we shuffled to the table. He was very old. I wondered that he was unaccompanied. Still agitated, he pointed to the picture that appeared in Town Hall’s calendar.
“Yes, that’s her,” he said accusingly. “That was the picture in the paper, damned paper. It said there would be hand-outs and flyers about Compassion . . . with . . . Compassion . . . .”
“And, “ I said, “and choices.”
It struck me that we were having some kind of significant moment, about which what to do remained unclear. I reached for a piece of paper, that I might write down the names of those various organizations I was familiar with in the area of death and dying, and instructing how to do the latter with intention.
“Do you have a computer?” I asked.
“No,” he said, fumbling with a flyer.
I paused, defeated. “Do you have access to a computer?” I asked, knowing better.
Well, here it was – his need confronting the event that would talk about the need but not fulfill it.
He had no computer. And no companion. But he had the need of a flyer, a hand-out on how to execute a choice, the choice for what remained inferred, and unspoken.
“Is there an elevator?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, and re-claimed his elbow and we shuffled back across the lobby.
That he did not have a ticket ceased to matter. I pressed the button, summoning his ride. He turned, then, his stork-tall stoop straightened, “Thank you,” he said, “thank you for your help.”
Touched, because I had given so little – a bit of attention; the effort my words made to enter his lowered ear – and because his need had propelled him out on this late-February evening, alone, confused, in search of hand-outs. Would he find, in this onstage interview, anything of use?
I hoped so.
I wondered how further I could have helped him. His Thank you settled in my heart for a little while. I returned to my station.