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When Is Life Too Long?

Some hope to make a graceful exit. Others are in no hurry to leave

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Whatever happens in health care policy, no matter how many agonized cris de coeur we write or read, there is no way to answer absolutely for someone else what kind of life is worth living and when it's okay to stop trying to save that life and focus on comfort and peace. My adult son, who witnessed every step I took with my parents, is now the primary decision maker for his 101-year-old grandmother, my former mother-in-law. Although frail and in a 24-hour-care facility, she's in full possession of her marbles and a Netflix subscription (French films, no subtitles). Will he help keep me around until I'm 101, too? Will I want that? Or (my worst fear) will he, my husband, and our grandson do battle in the hallway about it? No way to know. We can only keep the conversation open, using real words, real scenarios and the value of the real experience we've already shared.

For me, the fundamental question keeps being answered with laughter. It's the one dependable legacy my siblings and I inherited from our parents and from Aunt Ruthie, who laughed on the darkest days and loved the sound of laughter around her. Humor runs as deep through my family tree as music does, and it works in the same way - healing, familiar, even spine building.

When my father couldn't laugh anymore, when my mother couldn't laugh anymore, I knew their ties to the earth and the family they loved were frayed like old rope. Yet still they lived, in pain and confusion, unable to sever the rope and none of us able to do it for them.

When I can't laugh, when nobody can make me laugh, I'm with my friend Dave: outta here. I think.

Larkin Warren has coauthored seven memoirs, most recently Carissa Phelps's Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time. She's working on a memoir of her own.

Also of interest: Creating a living will.

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Video Extra

Dr. Ira Byock, author of The Best Care Possible and Dying Well, discusses separating the medical aspects of end-of-life care from the individual’s personal experience.

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