Quality of Life

Chapter 1: The Weight of a Nitrogen Tank

Lamar huddled in the janitor’s closet between the fifth and sixth floor for two hours and thirty minutes. The wind howled outside, whipping across Lake Michigan and rattling the small window above the metal shelves. The closet reminded him of a jail cell, though he’d only been in one once, to visit a client.

In the corner was a rolling cart stacked with folding chairs, and when he got tired of standing, Lamar unfolded a chair and sat. A month earlier, when he did his reconnaissance, the closet had been bulging with Christmas decorations. Ornaments for the trees, stockings, wreaths, tree stands, strings of lights. Now they were on display at the nurses’ stations, in the bingo room, by the elevators, and in the first floor lobby. Even on the fifth and sixth floor, where the clients might never notice.

The small room had a pleasant smell of lemon verbena, from a plastic tub of all-purpose cleaner and degreaser, but under that was the moldy odor of damp rug.

He had picked the lock of the closet. Easy even for an amateur like him. No one would guess that was something he could do.

At 1:30 am, he walked up seventeen steps. Didn’t make a sound. Nudged open the door with his shoulder. Two hours and thirty minutes earlier, he had slipped a folded postcard between the strike plate and the latch bolt. The photo on the card was of the lakefront and the Chicago skyline gleaming in the summer sun.

Lamar had charted out half an hour to take care of business, but it was not going to take that long.

He peeked into the corridor. It was so quiet in the middle of the night. No wailing or cackling or wheezing or crazy ranting. So quiet he could hear his father snoring, two rooms down from the stairwell.

As he slipped inside the room, he stepped on something that crunched, like a potato chip. He froze. It didn’t appear to disturb anyone. He shuffled past the roommate, who was also snoring, then stood in the shadows behind the curtain separating the two beds. Standing ramrod still, he felt the weight of his shoulder bag, heavy with the nitrogen tank. He could see the light of the corridor through the curtain, but knew that no one passing could see him. Not that there were likely to be any passersby in the middle of this cold night.

Robert Rose lay on his back, his hands open and crossing his chest. Peaceful. Lamar aspired to be peaceful, and may have appeared so on the outside. That was not what he was experiencing on the inside.

Raymond Trapp, his father’s roommate, was a wizened 90-year-old with a shock of white hair that fell over his forehead. He had advanced Alzheimer’s, and Lamar had never seen him lucid. He seemed to always be asleep.

Lamar waited, his breaths quiet and slow, until his eyes adjusted to the darkness. Some light drifted in from the streetlights on the Outer Drive many floors below. The exit sign above the stairwell door created a glow that seemed to leak around the corner. He couldn’t see color in his father’s cheeks, but was able to make out the bulge of his father’s wrist, and his right hand nestled under his chin.

Robert’s face was clean-shaven. He didn’t shave himself anymore. The past dozen or so times he did, he got distracted before he finished and then later when he snapped back into lucidity, he cursed himself, cursed his dementia. The staff gave him a shave twice a week and he had had one just that afternoon, after his shower. Lamar had seen him earlier, before visitor hours ended at eleven. They hadn’t talked.

Lamar’s father had been resolute that he did not want to continue to live as his dementia took over. The talk was that people like him, who were occasionally lucid, had it worse because they understood their condition. Robert knew, for example, about some of his angry and crude outbursts at his daughter Andrea, Lamar’s sister, and Alice, who had been Lamar and his sister Andrea, and at Alice, who had been his wife Celeste’s best friend and then became his lover. Robert hated himself for those rages, even though everyone reassured him that it was the disease talking, not him.

Robert Rose was born on February 2, 1930, and would be eighty-four in a month. He was adamant that he would be dead before his birthday. Ten times he had said so, at least ten. Lamar had recorded those ten times in his journal, but there had been more. Robert had lived a full life and much of it was good, and he didn’t want to ruin it with a prolonged bout of dementia, which was advancing rapidly. Some days were better than others, but it wasn’t the kind of disease you recovered from. He had bile duct cancer too, but it was taking its sweet time killing him.

Robert lived in a century-old sixteen-story brick apartment building overlooking Lake Michigan that had been retrofitted into a senior residence ten years earlier. In 2007, he and Lamar’s mother moved there, into a spacious apartments on the 15th floor, with a spectacular view of the lake and the downtown skyline. The top eight floors of the tower were for people who lived independently, though they could avail themselves of services if they wanted to. Some people had live-in caretakers, others had regular visits from nurses and physical therapists. For their first several years in the building, Robert and Celeste didn’t need any assistance.

The lower floors were more like a nursing home, and the fifth and sixth floor were reserved for people with dementia or other maladies that required more attention and more security. The security was mostly aimed at keeping people like Robert from wandering off, not preventing someone like Lamar from sneaking around in the stairwells at midnight, waiting for the opportunity to slip back in.

When they converted the building, formerly called Edgewater Tower, now Edgewater Care, they replaced the four main elevators with the sleek new Otis Gen2s, and almost everyone moved from floor to floor in these still-gleaming mirrored cars. But there were six freight elevators and eight stairwells, one or two in each wing, which went from the basement garage to the top floor. Lamar had many hours to explore them during his visits with his father, who was the one who suggested he learn his way around.

“It might come in handy one day.”

This was what made this whole experience so wrenching for Lamar. His dad was losing his mind, but he was capable, now and then, of sharp and focused thinking, and what he thought about most during those increasingly rare moments was how he might end his life.

Lamar had told his father about his work in hospice and how he had become an advocate of what was now called “aid in dying”—a rebranding of doctor-assisted suicide and euthanasia. Mostly Lamar was promoting a public dialog about “dying with dignity”—with a wide range of options. Even that was not an easy position to take, and he was hammered regularly for the things he said—by friends, family, and strangers, one of whom walked up to him on the street and spit in his face. Well, it only happened once.

Lamar imagined a future where conversations about end-of-life decisions might take place openly among family members and doctors and spiritual leaders. He never imagined that he might be the one who ended someone’s life.

After his eyes got used to the dark, he pulled the nitrogen tank from his shoulder bag and then the plastic mask. He had explored many ways to end his father’s life, and this seemed the most humane, though it did require lugging a tank of nitrogen around. Fifteen pounds.

He had learned about the nitrogen method from the web page of a man known as the Australian Dr. Death, and after sleuthing around industrial supply companies, learned that he could buy a tank of nitrogen online. It was marketed as a craft beer brewing kit. That didn’t fool the right-to-life folks, who had been working to shut down the company.

Robert opened his eyes. “Please,” he said.

Lamar considered for a moment abandoning his plan, doing the deed now. He might not have the courage to do it when the time came. He might decide he didn’t have to do his father’s bidding. He might decide he was his own man.

“Dry run,” Lamar said. “Next time for real.”

“You’ll chicken out later. Do it now.”

His father’s breath was sour. Lamar hated the smells at Edgewater, at least the floor his dad was on. Body odor, disinfectant, liniments. The smell of old people. The smell of decay.

But this was the father he had known most of his life. Direct. Unflinching. Not the angry, confused, demented man he had become.

Down the hall, a TV droned. There was a rule about quiet time after eleven, but the staff gave the patients plenty of slack. Few of them had private rooms, except when someone died or went to the hospital. Rarely would someone move back home. Recently, a man’s nephew showed up from Lithuania and flew him back to the old country. But this was the last home for almost everyone.

“Always sweet-talking me, Dad. A sure-fire way to get me to do your bidding.”

“I get how hard it is. That’s why I’m begging.”

“I need to practice my escape. We talked about that, remember? I don’t want any surprises.”

“Remember? I don’t even know who you are.”

But he did. He wouldn’t be joking otherwise.

“When I come back,” whispered Lamar, leaning in close to his father’s face, “I’m going to bring a copy of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and prop it up in—”

Then, with no warning, Robert’s eyes, the little Lamar could see of them, went blank. Like someone yanked a plug from its socket. The father he knew was replaced by a heavy breathing manikin, the kind Lamar learned CPR on. Robert was as far gone as his roommate Raymond.

But not dead. Not yet. Lamar would have to come back, and his father’s fear that he would lose his resolve was not unfounded. Brave was not Lamar’s brand.

Then Robert’s eyes closed. More like they fell closed than that Robert closed them of his own volition.

Lamar cringed from the sharp pang that ripped through him. For the brief conspiratorial connection with his father as much as for the loss of it. It was as if he and Robert were embarking on a caper together, like a bank heist in the movies with the gauzy camaraderie of thieves. He never felt closer to his father than in these clandestine moments.

Andrea hated when Lamar and his father whispered to each other. “You two are up to no good,” she would say. Which was true. She knew Robert wanted to die, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Couldn’t bear it.

It was going to be so hard on her. Robert wanted this. Andrea didn’t. Lamar didn’t either.

When the time came, he wasn’t going to be able to do it.

He took a breath. One step at a time, he told himself. Tonight was rehearsal. He could manage that.

He mimed placing the mask over his father’s face and turning the knob on the cylinder of nitrogen. The tank was cold on his arms, even through the layers of clothing. He waited by the bedside for fifteen minutes cradling the heavy tank. His arms tired quickly, but he gritted his teeth.

Maybe he could just drop the tank on his father’s head. That might work faster. Suffocating him with a pillow would work too, but he could never do that. The nitrogen was allegedly painless. Allegedly. And left no trace.

He waited another ten minutes in silence, just to be sure. By now, it was after two. Time to leave.

He returned the way he arrived, removing the postcard from the door and leaving the building by the exit near the pool.

First he walked down Sheridan Road to the Dominick’s and opened the dumpster in the back. He reached into his shoulder bag as if he were going to toss in the nitrogen tank, which was wrapped in a plastic bag inside an old jacket. The tank would go from the dumpster to the garbage truck to the landfill. No one would even see it.

After he picked up his suitcase from the apartment on Winthrop, he took the L to Midway. At Roosevelt, he shivered on the platform for twenty minutes waiting for the first Orange Line of the morning to Midway. He was in the air before dawn broke.

When he called from the Albuquerque airport, his father growled at him.

“We paid all our premiums, and now you greedy bastards want to stick a hose up my ass and suck out my insides. Don’t you dare call me again.”

“Dad, it’s me. Lamar. Your son. I wanted to let you know I got home safely. I’m in Albuquerque. At home. It was great to see you. Everything worked out the way it was supposed to.”

His father wouldn’t understand that, or maybe he would. Lamar had to assume someone was listening. Someone had to bring the phone to Robert. He didn’t have one by his bedside.

“I paid my fucking bill. You killed my wife. Now you want to kill me too.”

Lamar didn’t say anything, waited for his father to run out of steam.

“That goddamn witch Allie won’t leave me alone. She’s circling my bed like a vulture. Wants to sink her claws into me. She had a thing for Celeste too. Never trusted her. Good thing she’s gone now too.”

“Dad, you saw Alice yesterday. We were there together. She loves you, Dad. If we let her, she’d probably steal you out of there, and take care of you at home as if you were an infant.”

“That’s how you treat me, like a fucking baby.”

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