blackbirdonline journalSpring 2011  Vol. 10  No. 1
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Death Panel

We named the play about our family Death Panel and composed it on trips between the hospital, the lawyer’s office, the grocery store, and our parents’ house, where the business of living was winding down. We did not need to commit a single line to paper; we were off-book before it was even finished. It was a one-act play that took place in their living room. The set was an armchair and an artificial Christmas tree. Tied near the top of the Christmas tree was a partially deflated Mylar Easter balloon. Seated in the armchair was our mother.

“My shit-o-meter is going off,” said my sister, snapping her cell phone shut. “Ding ding ding.”

“I think it’s pronounced shitometer,” I said. We were talking about our surfer brother, who had left a message about why he was not here yet, something to do with the weather, which was warm and cloudless where we were, a mere hour from where he was. These lines went into the play, too. That was the thing about writing a play about your family: every ugly thing was welcome, an aesthetic not unlike our father’s approach to making Bloody Marys or scrambled eggs.

“Too much stuff in these eggs,” Mom could still struggle out at Christmas, when the horrid tree made its debut. These days every part of her shook as she struggled to bring a forkful of paprika-dusted eggs to her mouth while Dad chugged milk from the carton, trying to recreate the heart palpitations that, at the emergency room, had unsatisfactorily checked out as normal. It turned out that the anxiety of living and dying was expressed, as it had always been, through food: a whole Virginia ham left on the breakfront day after alarming day, three grapes trapped under cling wrap and refrigerated, spoons gone missing with no one to ask after them until the drawer was nearly empty.

“That’s good,” my sister said. “Shitometer.” Our father had given up driving for an ironman routine of walking and bicycling, so these trips, for powers of attorney or packages of Depends, were largely up to us. On the radio, the media was entertaining an idea from the lunatic fringe: death panels to decide who would live and who would die, based on a calculation of usefulness and cost.

It wasn’t such a bad idea, we reasoned. You can’t live forever, though you could eke out a semblance of life with pills, walkers, and 911 on speed dial. Mom, who’d once been a teacher, a lover of opera and the theater, had no memory for names or dates but could sit by the window, endlessly waiting for our brother to pull up in the circular drive. We kept the tree and the balloon up for festiveness.

The problem was her monologue. Every good play we’d ever seen had a monologue or two, and we wanted her to have one, a long scolding rant at the absent relatives we’d march by her armchair—but the truth was this was impossible. Her vocabulary had been whittled down to the most basic expressions of need, appreciation, and protest: Yum, she said when she liked the taste of something; My, she said when something impressed her; No, she said when something was unacceptable.

Arriving home, we relieved her nurse and stacked the things we’d bought on the kitchen counter: paper pharmacy bags, sanitary wipes, cans of air freshener, and bags of food we hoped would be eaten. The thing was to keep the play moving, to establish a moment that would bring everyone—shiftless cousins, ne’er-do-well brothers, uncooperative pastors—into the same room. My sister thought the answer was an actual death panel. Who would miss something like that?

“You know,” she said, hunkering down in front of the fridge to toss the things that needed tossing. “Like on the radio.”

“I thought it should be more of a metaphor,” I said as the trash can filled to overflowing with old dairy, antique meat, and vegetables shrouded in mold. “Like, just in the title of the play.”

“No,” she said, delicately sniffing a carton of cottage cheese. “I want the play to have a real one.”

“But isn’t the point,” I said, “that it isn’t real? That it’s all fear-mongering?”

She looked at me with our father’s blue, disappointed eyes. “I think you are misunderstanding the magic of the stage.”

“Okay,” I said.


To get ideas, I called the radio station we listened to in the car, the one that had been going on about the death panels. I explained, as best I could, about my parents, both on Medicare, and their many pills and surgeries and hospital stays—all expensive beyond the return on quality of life, and deteriorating the quality of our own lives, too. Our father, for example, had just this spring had knee replacement surgery—not of his own natural knees, but of the artificial knees he’d had installed eight years ago. They’d been replaced with titanium, and we feared he might live forever.

“So, what I’m wondering,” I said, “is how one of these death panels would rule on my family. How it would work.”

After more explaining, the woman became surprisingly enthusiastic. I was careful not to state a preference—pro- or anti-death panel—but she seemed to assume that I was against them, probably because I’d been listening to the radio programs. I did not tell her that we were borrowing our mother’s car, which she could no longer drive, and that we were reluctant to change anything, even to turn the dial to something less histrionic and depressing. I didn’t mention that she’d once listened to that station just to argue with it.

“What if we showed you what it was like?” the woman offered. “What if we held a mock panel?”

“Yes,” I agreed. “That’s actually what I was looking for.”

“We could broadcast it,” she suggested.

“Wonderful,” I said, and we went about scheduling the death panel.


The radio station convened a doctor, a counselor, a D.J., and an accountant. At the front door, the woman I’d spoken to introduced herself and reminded me, somewhat nervously, that the panel was only to prove a point, that they had no actual power.

They all looked surprised to see the Christmas tree.

Seated around the room were our assembled relatives and friends: Mom, her nurse, my sister’s husband, the pastor, and two texting cousins who occasionally did yard-work for a fee. Dad had bicycled to the pharmacy to use the free blood pressure cuff at the back of the store.

“It cheers her up,” my sister explained, and took her seat on the sofa.

“We’ll be recording this,” said the D.J. “Is that okay?”

“Absolutely,” said my sister, gesturing to the dining room chairs she’d set up for the members of the panel.

“And taking calls,” said the organizer, crawling under the piano to plug in an extension cord. She was already wearing her headset.

“Where is he?” said our mother thickly. She was talking about our brother.

“Surfing,” said my sister.

“You don’t know that,” said her husband. He was the type to always take up for his own kind.

“Don’t I?”

“How about prayer?” suggested the pastor. We all ignored her.

“Where else is he, then?” my sister asked. “I can’t believe he would miss this.” She was the type to hold everyone to her own high expectations, the type that was continually disappointed.

“It’s supposed to be a hurricane,” said one of the cousins. “Big swells.” He made the “hang loose” sign with his free hand.

“My,” said our mother.

The death panel was taking notes.

“Don’t you want to ask some questions?” I asked.

“No,” said the doctor, propping a yellow legal pad on his knee. “We’ll just watch.”

Because this was an exercise in creative research, I was both there and not there, memorizing lines that would work, cutting the lines that wouldn’t. The D.J. said some things into a microphone while the organizing woman pressed buttons on her recording device. I thought there were too many people on stage: one too many cousins, one too many members of the death panel. And how to represent our father, alone at the pharmacy, squeezing his hand again and again into a fist? It was a complicated business, writing a play about your family.

“I have some questions,” suggested the D.J, turning to our mother. “How useful would you say your life is, in terms of value to the community?”

“Not very,” admitted one of the cousins.


It was a while before we realized that the whole thing was on the radio, live. Had we been on television instead, you could have seen each of us straightening up, adjusting our collars, smoothing our hair.

“We have a caller from Newport News,” said the D.J. “Hello, you’re on the air.”

The speaker crackled, and a female voice said a tentative hello. “I was wondering,” it began, “about the cost of skilled nursing, which is a significant part of the expense of your mother’s care. Couldn’t some of that be done by her children?”

My sister, who had trained as a geriatric nurse, shifted uncomfortably next to me. It had long been her policy that she would not change the diapers of our parents. Mom’s nurse, who sometimes made more in a week than any of us and had her own considerable financial needs, frowned.

I leaned into the microphone set up on the coffee table. “No,” I said. “Not really.”

The next caller asked about Dad. Couldn’t he provide more of the care?

“He has his own health issues,” my sister said.

And what were those? the caller wanted to know.

“Basically, he is afraid of dying?” I said. “And he spends a lot of time at the hospital?”

“He might be there right now,” muttered Mom’s nurse. She had never gotten along with Dad.

“He’s sick, too?” asked the D.J. Both the doctor and the accountant scribbled furiously on their pads.

“No,” said my sister. “She said he’s afraid of dying.”

“Aren’t we all,” said one of the cousins.

The pastor suggested prayer again, and the D.J. bowed his head before we could object. We mumbled our way through the Lord’s Prayer.

And what about the church? the next caller wanted to know. Couldn’t they pitch in?

We looked at the pastor, and she said something about casseroles, a sunshine committee, and visits to Dad when he was in the hospital.

“Those visits just agitate him,” my sister said, not into the microphone.

The D.J. asked her to repeat herself.

“They agitate him,” she said. “They raise his blood pressure. He doesn’t think women should be pastors.”

“Wait, he’s Catholic?” interjected the organizer, as if we’d played some kind of trick on her.

“No,” my sister said. “He’s just old.”

A new caller wanted to know about Mom’s prognosis. Would she recover her memory, her ability to communicate?

We all looked hopefully at the doctor, who seemed surprised at the question. He shook his head, which was not a response that could be transmitted over the radio. The D.J. gestured at his microphone, and the doctor leaned forward. “No,” he said. “We don’t expect that to happen.”

Mom slumped a little more in her chair, and my sister wiped at her eyes.

There were more questions, and from the accountant, a long list of expenses—prescriptions and doctors’ visits and physical therapy and hospital stays. Recovery centers and wheelchairs and walkers. Bed rails and cases and cases of Ensure. Near the end of the accountant’s litany, the house phone rang, and everyone on the death panel looked alarmed.

“Hello,” I said quietly, cupping my hand over the receiver.

“Hey, Sissy!” said my brother, in a voice that sounded like sunshine and surf. “Somebody said you were on the radio.”


It took a few days to get the report from the death panel. It was very simple, suggesting that all of us should go. Some of the decisions were quite difficult, read the accompanying letter from the radio station, and the deliberation took the better half of the morning. However, the radio station’s letter reminded us, the findings were completely hypothetical and non-binding, a test of the terrible new rules we could all be subject to soon.

“Well, I guess that settles it,” said my sister, as if that settled it.

The solstice had passed just a few days before, and the days were now getting shorter. From the armchair where our mother sat, she could see the crooked Douglas fir that had been planted some Christmas years ago, when we all lived in the house and used to buy real trees from the nursery across from church. It tilted precariously and had to be staked with a heavy rope. Every year Dad suggested they should cut it down, and every year Mom said no.

We’d lost interest in the play, had nothing much to say to each other anymore on grocery runs and trips to the bank, but we knew that if she lost that word, her one word of protest, we would speak it for her. No, we would pronounce, enunciating that single syllable with the eloquence of Shakespearean players, no no no no no. It made a good monologue, in its way.

The next week, the D.J., his voice almost hysterically indignant, read the death panel’s report aloud over the radio. We turned it off when they started taking callers.

The Mylar balloon, attached to the artificial tree, was nearly flat, and just yesterday someone had thrown away the last of the spoons. It was the hottest summer anyone could remember, and on the breakfront was a fresh ham, brought by a neighbor, which might just kill us all.  end

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