Fall 2014



Cruel Things

Moira Crone

         I didn’t know the woman very well. It was at a party, one June in New Orleans. We were taking a walk on the lawn, under live oaks. A sudden intimacy arose partly from the gin and tonics in our hands. She confessed she had put her elderly mother “down.” The mother was quite ill, and, because they were in a foreign country, certain care could be withheld, the doctors mentioned. She claimed, insisted:  “Before we took the cruise, she said she was tired of living.”

         I was silent. Was she asking me to tell her it was the right choice? 

         Over the past year, Anna, a very dear friend of mine, reported a change in her relationship with her mother. 

         Stella, ninety-three this year, was, as I knew her, a sensualist. In a spectacularly lapsed-Catholic way, she despised religion and even regarded charity with suspicion. Mink coats, high heels, and five star hotels, were her style.

         Now Stella is confined to a wheelchair in an assisted living complex with pink walls and a few scraps from her former home, a lavish house in the New Orleans Garden District—good chintz drapes, a nice marquetry cabinet for the TV. She has a dull view of the wide, gray-brown Mississippi. Her meals are prepared. Her husband died a year after Katrina. Her eldest son and almost all her friends are dead.  She has survived several life-threatening illnesses thanks to the best medical care money can buy. 

         Good Irish mother that she was, Stella used to manipulate her children by bringing up her impending death at every parting. 

         “Now when she mentions it, she means she wants it,” Anna tells me.

         Stella seems genuinely sorry her remaining wealth is not going to help her grandchildren. Instead, it must pay for her maintenance in a diminished existence. Her descendants are struggling—student loans, jobs without benefits. At one time, she had promised much. They had counted on it. 

         She’s on a routine she finds empty, and painful—her aching body is no longer able to reward her with sensual delight. In her dreams, which are increasingly vivid, she sees the generations that came before her. They chide her for her selfish life and invite her, she says. She is a little astonished by this turn of events. So is Anna. 

         I wrote a novel in which the wealthy manage to extend life hundreds of years. This has drained all of society’s resources. In the book, there is a doctor who must confront the fact that her ancient charges eventually want something more— something invisible, interior. She explores banned books—mysticism, philosophy, and religion, for answers. But life extensionists are radical materialists. Indeed, possibly, nihilists. For them, there is no interior experience, no satisfaction or “good,” that can be quantified, evidenced—therefore, it can’t exist. Living on and on is the only value.  

         My friend Anna was once the rebellious daughter—dark, moody, and angry: it’s a role in that family that meant she sometimes got the hard jobs. She can shock me.

         Last night she called to tell how her conversations were going with her mother.

         “She says her life was always about things. She was very shallow. I agree with her.”

         “Why don’t you give her a break?”

         “Because this is the right topic, I think. It is the one she keeps going back to. She is looking at her life from the point of view of the end. It’s a place the soul knows.”


         “We are talking about what's important. It’s good. It is finally real. At least I think so. But then she throws me.”


         “This has all been so she can pop the question, turns out. She wants the exit.”

         There is a sense to it: Anna was the tough-minded one. For long periods in her life she couldn’t stand her mother. The task would require some rage or heretical mercy, which in this case might be the same thing.

         Anna continues: “I told her don’t ask. But she does ask me. Then, she begs.”

         “What was your answer?” I say, full of dread.

         “The cruelest things I can think of. ” 

         “Such as?”


         Anna sighs: “Stay here where I can still see you, touch you, hear you."

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