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Lao 1

We Linger At the Exit

No one tells you that one day you’ll have to write your parent’s obituary. They
don’t tell you about the smell of death and illness and how it hangs on your clothes long
after you leave their hospital bedside. I suppose they don’t tell you a lot of things. They
don’t tell you because whoever “they” are went through it too and no one wants to
remember that. Now, here I am, in a Swiss apartment, staring out the window as the
sharp lines of the Swiss Alps cut into the sky. I’m also writing my father’s obituary,
making arrangements, and settling any outstanding debts with friends or family—my
dad is not making any of this easier.
“Young Jonathan Clark was a bright and beautiful boy with talent unending…”
“Dad, I am not writing that!”
“Just hear me out, son. This is going to work if you just listen.”
Dad pats down his untidy gray strands of hair and leans over the end of his bed
reaching down for papers in his briefcase. I reach down to give him the whole briefcase
and he slaps my hand away.
“I don’t need the whole damn thing,” he says. “I just need a few papers. One in
particular should help you with my obituary.” He spreads a stack of papers across his
lap and leans over the bed again to reach for his briefcase. The white bed sheet over his

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legs stretches taut and the papers on his lap scatter to the ground. “Dammit! Why are
you not helping me?”
“Dad, you’re not the easiest person to help,” I say, as I pick up his papers from
the ground. “You want people to help you your way and not the best way they know
“Don’t be dramatic. It does something ugly to your face.”
I toss the papers on his lap and sit down on the chair by his bed. I look out the
window and watch small white specks float to the ground. The heavy November rain
has stopped and soon December will spread its snowy white blanket over Switzerland.
“Ok, I found it. I wrote it when I was 24, but it should still apply.”
Dad hands me a warn article clipping titled, “Song of Myself,” from his college
newspaper. “Are you serious, Dad?”
“Of course! It’s appropriate,” he says. He’s pointing at the article in my hand,
his index finger almost brushing my nose. I just want to slap his hand down, but I don’t.
“The editors wanted me to write about myself, so I did. You’ll find some great material
there. I wrote it when I was at my best.” Dad leans his head against the headboard and
closes his eyes. I imagine he’s thinking about his best moments at Cornell: Delivering
the valedictorian speech, marrying Mom during his senior year, and the attention he had
received from selling his first novel while still in college. Actually, I don’t think he
remembers most of his college experience anymore.

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“Dad, you wrote it when you were at your most egocentric. I wish you would
just let me write this on my own, the way it’s traditionally done. Why won’t you let me
write it?”
His head is still against the head board and his eyes are closed. I can see his eyes
dart back and forth under his veiny eyelids. He says, “Flourish, son, flourish. You can’t
create it like I can.”
Flourish is what makes my father a bestselling science fiction author. He creates
elaborate fantasies that weave into the imagination of his readers. After thirty years and
fifty novels he’s gained money, awards, media attention, and the love and respect of
fans. Critics and scholars admire his controlled, tight lines, which retain Dad’s
grandiose and dramatic flair. He could be the love child of Lord Byron and Hemingway.
If Hemingway only revealed one-eighth of the iceberg, my dad held the whole damn
iceberg above his head. Dad’s right. I have no flourish. I rather leave part of my iceberg
We differ on the way we write, on our beliefs, and now on the best way to die.
“Ok, so continuing, “Young Jonathan Clark was a bright and beautiful boy with
talent unending…”
“Dad, that just sounds so ostentatious,” I say.
“This is my last opportunity to sound ostentatious. Please, let me do a good job
of it.”

Lao 4

“Dad, I have to pick up Uncle James from the airport. We’ll have to finish this
ridiculous conversation later.”
“Fine, while you do that I’ll call your mother and tell her how you’re bullying
your father on his death bed.” Dad leans up from the headboard and pats down his
ruffled hair. He picks up his cell phone and grins.
“Dad, you’re not dead yet.” I smile back and walk out the door. For a moment, I
think of dialing the number for him, but I don’t and walk out into the cold air. Mom
could use a break too.
At the Zurich airport pick up, I pull up in front of a tall, heavyset man. He looks
about 6’5. His small head sinks into the broad shoulders of his black leather trench coat.
He has gray hair like Dad, slicked back into greasy straight strands. I’ve never met him
in person. I’ve only see his comments on the margins of Dad’s drafts or seen his face in
family pictures.
Two years ago, when I found myself taking milk cartons out of my father’s
oven, I found errors in his manuscripts. My father is strict about who proofreads his
work and only allows three people to look at a first draft manuscript; his wife who
happens to be his assistant, me, and his brother. Uncle James is an editor from New
York and next to Mom, he’s the only one Dad will consult with over the phone about
his work. He doesn’t even talk to his paid editor that much.
I’m only allowed to touch “a first draft Clark” because I’m a published writer-It
has nothing to do with being his son. A “first draft” manuscript for Jonathan Clark is a

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nearly polished and complete work of art that has been proofread by him and retyped
more than once. The manuscript he gave me two years ago had so many errors I
thought he was playing a trick on me. I noticed his name was missing from the title
page, as if he didn’t have the letters in his mind to make something up and I then I knew
he wasn’t joking.
Uncle James leans into my window and the green peppery smell of Clive
Christian cologne enters my nose and eyes. I turn away and cough and he leans back out
of the car. “I apologize,” he says. “I forgot how strong this stuff is in enclosed spaces.
For $300 you can buy a battering ram in a bottle. You must be Michael. Nice to finally
meet you.” He reaches his gloved hand inside the car and we shake.
Before I have a chance to step out and help him with his bag he puts his small
black suitcase in the back seat and hops in the front seat.
I open the windows a little, despite the cold air. Uncle James turns to me and
smiles. “So, Michael, how are you? I haven’t seen you since you were pooping in your
“I know it sounds bad, but don’t really remember you.”
Uncle James looks out the window. Green hills and mountains roll by in a blur.
“Well, I don’t exactly come by for family gatherings. Jonathan and I have more of a
professional relationship.” He flips open the visor mirror and pats his hair down. “I will
tell you this; I am completely against this whole thing. I know he wants his way. I’m
stubborn too. I respect his wishes, but I just think he’s insane.”

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It takes him a moment to register what he’s said. When he realizes, he shakes his
head and smiles.
“Well I think we’ve established that,” I say.
We pass the Limmat River, flanked by wooded hills and drive through idyllic
towns. Tall Romanesque church towers jut from between pastel guild houses every few
blocks. The apartment is in an industrial area away from residential homes and
A nurse opens the door for us and she holds back a cough as Uncle James walks
past her.
We walk into my Dad’s room and find him on the phone. The volume is up all
the way and I can hear Mom’s voice. He smiles, pats his hair down, and waves us away.
“Did you dial the number for him?” I ask the nurse. She nods.
James and I settle in the living and play checkers.
I wish Mom was here. I know why she can’t be. I don’t think I would be able to
watch my soul mate die either.
We knew Dad was sick. For two years we all tried to ignore it, tried to piece
together the fragments of Dad that made sense, but it didn’t make him whole again. One
night I took a late flight from Switzerland and came back home to our New York
brownstone. The door was open. Inside apples and potatoes were scattered on the
kitchen floor. The back porch door was open and I could hear mumbling in the yard.

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The motion sensor light came on and I could see Dad sitting on the ground, writing in
his yellow notepad.
“I couldn’t find my office,” he said. He looked up at me and back down at the
scribbling in his notepad. “I don’t actually think this says anything. I thought it did.”
What I remember most was that his shoes were on backwards and he had his
good suit on.
A few days later, Mom saw him wandering around the neighborhood. She
installed a complicated lock on the door so his wandering was contained to the
backyard. “I found him sitting in the begonias, Michael,” she said.
“What was he doing?” I asked.
“Nothing, I told you, he was just sitting in the begonias.” A smile started to peak out of
the corner of her mouth.
“Well, you know he always did hate begonias.” With that we both looked at
each other and laughed. My mother took my hand and squeezed it as if telling me it
would all be alright.
I really wanted to believe her.
The doctor confirmed Alzheimer's. His symptoms began to rapidly progress
after two more years. It’s hard to place people with Alzheimer’s into a particular stage.
Symptoms overlap and sometimes there are long stretches of time when symptoms
seem to disappear, but they always come back. After four years, Dad could no longer

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type or write but my father’s mind still swirled with stories and characters, so he would
dictate entire manuscripts to my mother who would type them.
Three months ago in the office of his New York high rise he stared out of the
window and watched snowflakes flutter on the wind. I sat on his couch proofreading,
occasionally raising my red pen but eventually lowering it. I loved to watch his eyes
follow the red pen and his head cock to the side in curious distress at the thought that
mother may have typed an error.
“Could you have found anything more garish than a red pen?” he said.
“No, I don’t think so. I did try though.” I smiled as I continued to threaten his clean
crisp pages.
My father turned back to the window to watch the snow fall. “You know, it’s
not even the thousand little indignities that scare me. I want it all to end when my
stories end.”
“What?” I looked up from the manuscript not sure I had heard him correctly.
“I write, therefore I am,” father said, not looking away from the window.
“What are you talking about, Dad?”
“Nothing. Finish your work son, I don’t have all day.”
My father didn’t say a word after that and neither did I. I finished proofreading
his last few chapters. He had one chapter left to revise. Together we watched the snow
cover the city in a white blanket, the smell of my mother’s hot chocolate and cookies
filling the house with warmth and color.

Lao 9

After an hour, Dad yells from the bedroom, “JAMES! Get in here.” Uncle James
and I end our game of checkers.
“Here, Your Highness. I have the final edits of your final chapter.” Uncle James
hands a manuscript to Dad. Dad glances at the manuscript and throws it at the end of the
“Laura just made some great changes. I went over them with her but I really
need her here to get this all settled.”
“Well, don’t thank me all at once, Jonathan. I don’t think my modesty can take
it,” Uncle James says. He looks annoyed and pats his hair down while he watches a
young Swedish nurse prepare medication for my father.
“Dad, Mom didn’t want to come. She specifically said she didn’t want to watch
you die,” I said.
“Your mother really knows how to come through when I need her.” The nurse
hands dad aspirin and small cup of water. Uncle James watches her exit the room.
“Dad, you may have control over when and how you die but you have no right to make
Mom go through this if she said she didn’t want to.”
“Son, I didn’t convince her to do something she was already planning on doing.
She was calling me from her flight. She should be here in a few hours. Those in-flight
calls are dammed expensive.”
“Dad, I don’t—”

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“Oh, I told you your mother was coming right?” “Yeah, Dad,” I say. “That’s
really nice. At least she can be here with you when it happens.” Mom is stubborn
herself; maybe she does want to be here.
My father and mother have known each other since high school and were in fact
high school sweethearts. They both went to Cornell and as campus tradition dictates
they kissed on the North Campus suspension bridge, assuring themselves a long future
together. After fifteen years, my father would say they were still a “delightful cliché of
domestic delight” as he looked at my mother’s eyes like a teenager in love. She became
his assistant, writing back to fans, setting up interviews and meetings, and organizing
his work. She would tell fans she had to become his assistant because they realized
they couldn’t spend a moment apart; one was useless without the other. She would tell
friends she had to become his assistant because she wanted to keep all the literary
groupies or “lit lizards” away, as she called them. I believed both reasons even though
my father never gave my mother reason to think he would ever do something as
undignified as cheat on the love of his life.
My mother is an amazing poet in her own right with a list of awards and body of
work to rival my father’s. She never made it seem like she was compromising her own
work for his, instead she would say his work complemented hers.
In the morning, a light knock on the door wakes me and I jump off the couch.
“I’m sorry to wake you, honey,” Mom says. Behind her, the asphalt is slick with dirty
snow and rain. Her brown hair hangs in wet strings around her face. “Stupid me for not

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thinking I needed my umbrella. I thought the rain was over now.” “Mom, it’s so good to
see you again.” I hug her and feel the bones under her skin. I’m afraid to squeeze too
tight because she feels so delicate.
She walks into Dad’s room and sits by him. Together we watch his belly move
up and down under the crisp white blanket. His breathing is steady but shallow. I watch
the lines of Mom’s forehead crease and the deep pools of brown in her eye glisten. She
looks so sad.
“Mom, why are you here? You said you couldn’t handle this. You fought with
Dad so much before he left. I really thought you wouldn’t come.”
Mom takes Dad’s hand and traces each finger with her thumb. “You remember when I
became sick with cancer five years ago and “beat it”? Of course you remember, how
dumb of me. It left me so weak. I felt empty and hungry as if I could eat a whole planet
and not be fulfilled.” Mom tucks the sheet under Dad and pats his unruly strands of hair
down. “He was there when I needed him. He may be a little domineering but I still love
“Mom, he’s more than “a little domineering.” You’re here so you can help him
finish the damn book.”
“His work is a good distraction for the both of us. That’s my choice. The rest of
this decision is his.” She looked away from Dad and out the window.
“For most people, this isn’t a choice they even think about,” I say.
“Your father isn’t “most people.”

Lao 12

On my visit several weeks ago I found envelopes and brochures on the hallway
table from a company called Dignitas in Sweden. I knew things were bad, but I never
thought they would consider a nursing home. They had never mentioned moving to
Switzerland to me but since I was a working there I assumed it made sense for both of
them to be closer to me. I grew angry at them for not telling me their plans as if this was
a pain only they shared.
I went into the kitchen as she was putting her last batch of cookies in the oven.
“A good line takes time to bake, but smells so sweet once it rises” she said. My mother
loved baking as much as she loved poetry. They were the same to her. “What’s wrong
“Mom, why didn’t you tell me you were going to put dad in a nursing home?
And why so far away from home? I can come back to New York and write here.”
“Dear, I would never put your father in a nursing home. Why do you think
“I saw brochures for some clinic in Switzerland called ‘Dignitas’ and I just
thought…” My mother’s eyes began to glaze and she looked down and then to the
kitchen where my father sat at the table inspecting the paper, no longer able to make
sense of the jumble of words that melted into themselves.
“Michael, he’s not going to a nursing home. I, or rather we wanted to wait to tell
you, at least until there were no more options left.”

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“No more options?” I looked down at the Dignitas brochure and read the tagline:
“To Live with Dignity, To Die with Dignity.” The brochure described the process of
legal assisted suicide in Switzerland for those with a terminal or progressive illness that
will end in death. For three thousand dollars and after a mountain of legal paperwork
and medical appointments, Dignitas will assist with suicide but not the final act itself.
My father would die in a Swedish flat in some industrial town so someone could hand
him a cup of poison. “You can’t be serious?” I said.
Dad began to rustle and his eyes opened.
“Laura, your hair is wet,” he said. He ran his fingers through her damp hair.
“Son, get your mother a towel. Laura, read the last lines of the chapter again. I can’t
remember how the line goes. ” Mom reaches into her bag and unclips one sheet from a
large manuscript.
Mom does not look at the sheet as she recites the last line, “When all our limbs
vanish and we linger at the exit, I will stop and turn to wish you well, my friend, and a
happy journey.”
“I know you think I’m selfish,” Dad said. “I’m doing this for you and your
mother.” Dad sits up and the rising sun filters through the rain drops on the window,
casting a small spectrum of color on Dad’s cheek. “I have the right to say goodbye to
this world how I want.”

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“Dad, you don’t have the right to make us go through this, dragging Mom and
Uncle James out here to watch you showboat to your own death. This is not dying with
dignity, Dad. I hate you for doing this to us!”
“You don’t mean that, son.”
“No, he doesn’t,” Mom says. “We all need to calm down, we’ll wake James.”
“He needs to wake up. Where is that nurse? She should be here now.” Father
pats his hair down and leans out of bed to look around mom who is blocking the view of
the living room. “I can’t even remember your name sometimes. I hate the stink of this
disease. My stories are gone. Son, once the story is over, it’s time to close the book.
Remember that. Never linger longer than you have to, it’s undignified.”
“Dad, you can’t order your way to a dignified death. I love you, but I’m sorry,
you don’t know anything about dignity. An element of modesty and selflessness comes
with dignity. You need to care more about others and what you do to them than
“Well, I’m sorry you feel that way. I love you and your mother. I love your
mother so much, that I don’t want her to suffer here alone. That’s why I asked her to
come with me.” Dad looks at mother and smiles.
Uncle James is standing in the doorway, shaking his head.
“You are insane,” he said. “Laura, I know it’s none of my business but I
seriously hope you’re not considering this.”
“Mom?” I say.

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Mom looks at me and back at Dad, “I’ve been feeling worse every day. I know
my cancer will return. I just think with your father, it may be a good time—”
A knock on the door cuts Mom off. James opens the door and two nurses enter.
“Hello, God Morgon! I see many family members. This is good, ja? Mr. Clark
today is the day. Are you ready?” The older nurse looks at Dad who nods back. “Well, I
must ask again if you are sure you want to do this.”
Dad nods “Yes, I’m ready,” he says. He grabs Mom’s hand and squeezes.
The nurse explains everything that will happen. My father must lift a cup full of
a lethal dose of barbiturate to his mouth and drink it in one gulp. He will fall asleep
within ten minutes, and then move into coma, and finally he will simply stop breathing.
Before he drinks the barbiturate they ask him several times if he is sure he wants to die.
After he drinks, they give him orange juice and chocolate to naturalize the bitter taste.
They also have a camera and several witnesses present. It’s all very formal. He will not
rage, rage, against the dying of his light, instead he gets a cup of orange juice and a
quiet room full of gentle Swiss assistants.
My father confirms his choice one more time and the nurse walks to the kitchen
to prepare the barbiturate. She returns and hands him a plastic cup full of a milky drink.
She touches his shoulders and asks again, “You know if you drink this you will die, ja?”
Dad nods. “I love you James,” he says. James leans in and gives Dad a kiss on the
cheek. “Michael, I hope one day you’ll understand. I love you too.”
I give Dad a hug, kiss him on the cheek and look away.

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“I can’t come with you,” Mom says.
“I know. I love you. Will you read me a poem while I sleep?”
“Of course, I wrote a new one called, “The Bitter Taste of Farewell.”
“How appropriate,” he says. As Mom reads, Dad drinks down the barbiturate in
one gulp. He takes a piece of chocolate from the nurse and drinks down the cup of
orange juice she gives him. He pats his hair down one last time, straightens his pajama
shirt and leans against the headboard. His eyes are closed. Outside a thin coating of
snow covers the slick black asphalt.