The Last of His Mind

The Last of His Mind by John Thorndike documents one year of the author’s life with his father, Joe Thorndike.  Joe Thorndike was “managing editor of Life [magazine] as the height of its popularity immediately following World War II.  He was the founder of American Heritage and Horizon magazines, the author of three books, and the editor of a dozen more.  But at age ninety-one, in the space of six months he stopped reading or writing or carrying on detailed conversations.”

. . . “The Last of His Mind is the bittersweet account of a son’s final year with his father, and a candid portrait of an implacable disease.”

Excerpt from the book:

Last summer when we moved Dad down to the TV room, I went through his upstairs medicine cabinet and dresser drawers, gathering up his old medications.  I threw most of them out, but this afternoon, on the shelf in his downstairs closet, I found an old cloth bag with a surprise inside: a dozen yellow pharmacy bottles, all holding capsules of the sedative Nembutal.  Three different doctors had prescribed the medication, and many bottles were labeled “30 capsules” and contained all thirty.

Marilyn Monroe took Nembutal on the day she died.  As few as two grams can kill you, and alcohol adds to the efficiency.  Dad’s capsules are labeled 100 mg, so ten caps would be a gram.  Thirty or forty caps would do in anyone, and he has more than three hundred.

More than once Dad has voiced an aversion to the travails of old age, and at one point was a member of the Hemlock Society.  The pills date from 1997 to 2001, when he was entirely lucid, and he must have brought them down to his current bedroom sometime after we moved him: before that he wouldn’t have kept them in the TV room, where his grandkids often lay around on the couch.  The cloth bag has been in plain view at least since Christmas, and his hand passes within a foot of it every time he reaches in for a shirt or sweater.  But I think he’s forgotten whatever plans he had for the drug.  Suicide is a project for someone younger–or someone with a better memory.  I take the bag full of pills upstairs.  I feel the same as my father about debilitating old age, and I’ll be holding on to the Nembutals.

Later, with the pills tucked in my dresser drawer, I have to ask myself why I didn’t leave them where they were.  I can’t be sure he doesn’t remember them, and I don’t want to ask him about them, because that would remind him that they exist.  In principle, I don’t believe in stopping him from taking his own life, but in practice that belief has fallen before a more primitive desire: I don’t want him to die.

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