Jack and Joe Reacher live in the US. Their French mother returned to Paris after her husband's death. They see each other infrequently. In The Enemy, her sons are shocked to learn she has cancer and is refusing treatment. She doesn't have long to live, and she's fine with that. She explains:
“I’m French,” she said. “You’re American. There’s a world of difference. An American gets sick, she’s outraged. How dare that happen to her? She must have the fault corrected immediately, at once. But French people understand that first you live, and then you die. It’s not an outrage. It’s something that’s been happening since the dawn of time. It has to happen, don’t you see? If people didn’t die, the world would be an awfully crowded place by now.”
“It’s about when you die,” Joe said.
My mother nodded.
“Yes, it is,” she said. “You die when it’s your time.”
“That’s too passive.”
“No, it’s realistic, Joe. It’s about picking your battles. Sure, of course you cure the little things. If you’re in an accident, you get yourself patched up. But some battles can’t be won. Don’t think I didn’t consider this whole thing very carefully. I read books. I spoke to friends. The success rates after the symptoms have already shown themselves are very poor. Five-year survival, ten percent, twenty percent, who needs it? And that’s after truly horrible treatments.”
It’s about when you die. We spent the morning going back and forth on Joe’s central question. We talked it through, from one direction, then from another. But the conclusion was always the same. Some battles can’t be won. And it was a moot point, anyway. It was a discussion that should have happened twelve months ago. It was no longer appropriate.
Joe and I ate lunch. My mother didn’t. I waited for Joe to ask the next obvious question. It was just hanging there. Eventually, he got to it. Joe Reacher, thirty-two years of age, six feet six inches tall, two hundred and twenty pounds, a West Point graduate, some kind of a Treasury Department big shot, placed his palms flat on the table and looked into his mother’s eyes.
“Won’t you miss us, Mom?” he asked.
“Wrong question,” she said. “I’ll be dead. I won’t be missing anything. It’s you that will be missing me. Like you miss your father. Like I miss him. Like I miss my father, and my mother, and my grandparents. It’s a part of life, missing the dead.”
We said nothing.
“You’re really asking me a different question,” she said. “You’re asking, how can I abandon you? You’re asking, aren’t I concerned with your affairs anymore? Don’t I want to see what happens with your lives? Have I lost interest in you?”
We said nothing.
“I understand,” she said. “Truly, I do. I asked myself the same questions. It’s like walking out of a movie. Being made to walk out of a movie that you’re really enjoying. That’s what worried me about it. I would never know how it turned out. I would never know what happened to you boys in the end, with your lives. I hated that part. But then I realized, obviously I’ll walk out of the movie sooner or later. I mean, nobody lives forever. I’ll never know how it turns out for you. I’ll never know what happens with your lives. Not in the end. Not even under the best of circumstances. I realized that. Then it didn’t seem to matter so much. It will always be an arbitrary date. It will always leave me wanting more.”
We sat quiet for a spell.
“How long?” Joe asked.
“Not long,” she said.
We said nothing.
“You don’t need me anymore,” she told us. “You’re all grown up. My job is done. That’s natural, and that’s good. That’s life. So let me go.”
“Why didn’t you tell us a year ago?” Joe asked.
“You know why,” she said.
“Because we would have argued,” I said.
She nodded. “It was a decision that belonged to me,” she said.
I'll die someday, and I'm fine with that. I have a Do Not Resuscitate tattoo on my chest. Decades ago, after reading a couple of news stories about people who were terribly injured or ill, who were near death yet fought back, I wondered what I would do if I were in that situation. Would I fight to live, or would I think, "Eh, I'm going to die sometime anyway. This is sooner than I would have liked, but..." Now that I'm 63 instead of 23 I wouldn't complain that my life was too short.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not looking to die. But if I see it coming I won't fight it. Just make me comfortable. As my tattoo says, drug me and unplug me. But maybe some champagne first. C'est la vie.