After that initial encounter, I often stopped and chatted with, or rather, listened to Ilana offload whatever she had stored up during her lonely silent hours, an ensnarement impossible to avoid now whenever she spied me going to and fro on missions more important. Because of her afflictions, Momo had become too much for her, and I started coming over to look after him so she wouldn’t have to give him up. He was an old cat and wouldn’t have survived any changes. I didn’t mind. I missed having kittens underfoot, afraid to have one or two share our house due to the constant comings and goings and the killer road. Momo, though not much more than a furry lump, filled the void for now. It was during one of these visits that Ilana told me her plan.
Her husband, Martin, died about three years ago, and when a progressively debilitating array of old-age ailments was added to the one-two punch of rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, Ilana made her decision. A decision to take only a portion of the medication prescribed for her, thereby slowly, excruciatingly building up her own private cache of drugs; a decision to suffer greater pain for longer periods of time in order to scratch together a large enough dose of painkillers to be able to kill herself when she felt the time had come.
I didn’t believe her at first, so she made me bring out the grey lockbox she kept in the front hall coat closet (no one would ever look there, she said) and put it on the coffee table. She laboriously unlocked it, her fingers red and swollen, the skin over the knuckles shiny, and had me look inside. When the pain became just too much or when she grew too crippled to take care of herself, she said, she would take her own life. With her own drugs. She’d know the time was getting near when she could no longer lock the box.
I stared at the bottles and jars, at the tiny flat envelopes, neatly folded, taped, and dated. I looked at Ilana, then back into the box. “Don’t look so shocked,” she snorted. “They’re prescription; it’s not like I bought them on the street.”
“Well, that’s hardly the point, is it?” I shot back.
“Yes it is,” she went on. That was the entire point. It was all a matter of control and who possessed that control. Ilana stared at the wall as she said this, her cache now securely held on her lap, her body quite still—free of the shakes for the moment—her head barely moving as the words came flowing out faster and faster as her anger rose. The effect was creepy.
Ilana’s eyes remain fixed, her mouth kept moving. Did I have any idea of what it was like to lose one’s range of motion, the arcs and angles getting smaller, smaller, finally grinding to a halt in constant debilitating pain? Constant quiet agony. Did I watch my husband deteriorate before my eyes, watch him turned into an object of contention among incompetents and busybodies, all claiming they alone had the right to determine the manner in which his soul left this world? No, no, her Marty would agree with her, he was waiting patiently for her, he would not disapprove, she said emphatically, slapping down the lid of her box, no longer transfixed, and relocking it. No money-sucking nursing home away from home for her. No hallway encampments of the wheelchaired and witless. You were a fool if you didn’t fight back when people tried to wrest your reality from you. That belief, and that belief alone, was what got her through her attacks with some of her pills still left in the bottle.
Ilana frightened me; she was not behaving within the normal range of expectations. Her world had always seemed on superficial glance so typically an old woman’s world: dreary, doily-splattered, decrepit; the very air of the house old and stale. The vigor of her defiance was unseemly, and I resented her laying this burden of knowledge on me. What was I supposed to do now? Watch Ilana medicate herself into oblivion? Ah, there’s the ambulance now, taking the body away. Turn her in for her own good? Oh no, there she goes, driven away from her house—Marty and Ilana’s house—for the last time by her put-upon son, her belongings rendered to an exile’s suitcase or two. I struggled with it, but slowly, steadily, a grudging admiration for the scheme began gathering gravitational pull amid the swirling confusion. I’d always been a coward, but I loved outlaw dreams. I had to assume Ilana, having lived for some eighty years on the planet, knew exactly what her own good was. I would not betray her to appease any sense of orderliness. I decided to keep mum.
But Ilana’s secret poisoned my peace of mind and corrupted my relationship with Ross. I never told him what I’d found out that day because I was uncertain of his reaction. We dealt every day with people miraculously holding on to the barest threads of life under unimaginable conditions. Straining the last ounce of energy, thought, to keep that scared heartbeat pounding. He knew better than me the seductiveness the death siren at times must float out across the void. I knew he hated it. I knew he could be frozen in his tracks by the sudden dulcet sound of it. Would he see things the way I did, or would he go over to Ilana and browbeat her out of her stash?
We had always stood together. This was the first time I questioned Ross’ judgment—and I trusted his judgment above all else in this world—the first time I took it upon myself to decide for him the right thing to do. There were many times when I wanted to confess, but the withholding of this information took on the dynamics, not so much of a lie, as of a disloyal tearing of our seamless cover, and I was caught in my deceit, not wanting to admit that I had kept the thing from him.
That secret was the first stone in the wall between Ross and myself that my own illness several months later would raise to insurmountable heights. But, now, tonight, I was going to tear it down—forever. Not by finally exposing Ilana Dent. No. This was not a citizen’s raid I was conducting as I labored up her front walk, shaky and sweaty, but rather an actual crossing over to the other side. I was planning to turn Ilana’s arguments back on herself and ask her to open up her medicine box to me.