Waiting calmly to die

Polly Berger, 86, of Westwood says her greatest joy is to spend time with her four children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
(Christina House / For The Times)

The email from a reader in Westwood was short, to the point and disturbing.

“My life has been very full,” wrote Polly Berger. “But now it is getting very bad, and I want to go to that other world.”

Berger also said she wished there were more Dr. Jack Kevorkians around. I responded immediately, worried it was a cry for help.

“If you are concerned I will do harm to myself, rest assured that is not where I am going,” she said, but she took me up on my offer to visit.

Berger was waiting for me at the end of a long hallway in her apartment building. She was nicely coiffed, wore an apron and opened her door to the smell of fresh-baked cookies.

I wasn’t exactly expecting to find half-completed suicide notes and hemlock potions scattered about a neglected hovel. But neither had I expected an impeccably maintained apartment, filled with color and light and dozens of family photos. There was nothing to suggest that the 86-year-old Berger was alone in the world or ready to leave.

We began to talk.

Berger said she had read my July column about my father’s deteriorating health and about our national obsession with fighting the inevitable, no matter the cost, and no matter how diminished the quality of life.

“I just bawled like a baby when I read that,” said Berger, who lives alone. “I went straight into my room and wrote to you.”

But while there’s nothing pleasant about the subject, she said, death is not something anyone can avoid.

“I don’t live in denial. I live in the here and now.” And, she says, when her time comes, she doesn’t want to prolong life with medical interventions. “I’m full of aches and pains.”

Berger then backed up to tell the story of a Chicago girl who married a jewelry dealer at 17 and moved to Florida and later California. Early in his life, she said, her husband fell into depression after a business failed, and he never recovered. They separated in the year 2000, after 58 years together, and he later died.

At 75 and glamorous still, Berger found herself dating men she met at temple and getting advice from her overprotective daughter. The daughter insisted that Berger drive her own car to meet her first date, in case he was a beast and she wanted to flee. Ridiculous, said Berger, telling her daughter that on a proper date, the gentleman picks up the lady.

“My daughter told me to take my cellphone,” Berger said, “and if I didn’t like him, to go to the bathroom and call, and she’d come pick me up.”

Berger enjoyed reliving her 20s in her 70s, and loved impressing dates with her touch in the kitchen. One fawning suitor quoted Shakespeare to her and told Berger she was “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

She still zips around town in a red Volkswagen bug, keeps a journal and takes a current events class. Her greatest joy, though, is to spend time with her four children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Her eyes are young when she talks about them, how good they’ve been to her, and how lucky a life she’s led.

But wouldn’t she want to hold on to that for as long as possible, then?

“You can’t dance at every wedding,” Berger said. She wants to be with her family in full form, not some diminished state. And never as a burden.

These kinds of thoughts began a few years ago, when physical problems first threatened the independence she so values. Berger saw several doctors for lower back pain that at times is still so severe she can barely walk. Two years ago, a surgeon told her she was too old to handle an operation.

“So I’m stuck with it,” Berger said, and she refuses to pop heavy-duty painkillers.

The meds would cost $700 a month, she said, and she considers that an outrage. Plus, she’s already forgetting things, and doesn’t want to be further addled by drugs.

So what’s she going to do about all of this?

Berger said she has no exit plan. She often goes to sleep telling herself it’s OK if she “drifts into the twilight,” and if she knew of a way to help things along, she’s ready.

“I would like to leave. I just think it’s enough. I mean, you don’t live forever, and to live life like this is not fun.”

I told Berger I admired her courage, but she scoffed.

“What frightens me most is not being able to do things for myself.”

Berger told me she doesn’t know what to expect in death.

“I hope to see my mother and father, because I miss them terribly.”

But what if there’s nothing?

“What difference will it make at that point?” she asked.

I sat there smiling, drinking coffee and admiring this woman who bakes a great chocolate cookie.

“You think I’m wacko, don’t you?” she said.

Not at all. I hope to have as healthy an attitude about death when I feel it closing in.

“I have my entire funeral planned out,” Berger said, describing a small, family ceremony. “I even have the music picked out.”

She led me into another room and retrieved a stack of CDs she’d set aside, “so my family doesn’t have to go looking for them.”

When Polly Berger finally shuffles off this mortal coil, and her family celebrates her life and spirit, the entertainment will be provided by Tony Bennett, Perry Como, Judy Garland, Bette Midler, Carly Simon, Melissa Etheridge and Sister Sledge, who will sing “We Are Family.”

Don’t feel sorry for her, Berger said, because life has been good.

“Oh, please, no. I’m so way ahead of this game.”