They could eat and not care about bad cholesterol, heart disease, or cancer. They could forget about those colonoscopies they’d been putting off and those impending cataract surgeries. They could smoke cigarettes and drink the hard stuff again. No more wearing a mouth guard at night to keep the teeth from grinding. No more worrying how to stretch the money ’til the end of the month. Knowing the finite contour of their future—the very word that had taken on such weight and dread—freed them from all that. It would be like a vacation, only instead of having to go back to the coupon clipping, not knowing for how long or how bad it would get, they could relax and meet the end together, on their own terms.
They walked past the Perfect Finish Expo, the gold pyramid of the Pharaoh’s Rest Haven. Fred and Sylvia exchanged a glance. “Do they mummify you?” he whispered as they walked into the little Swiss chalet, where a Nordic-looking gentleman welcomed them. Alpine Haven, located in the Rockies, overlooked a river and, depending on the season, offered hiking and canoe trips or sleigh rides and skiing, the diversions of nearby Aspen, and a variety of lavish spa treatments.
Françoise, in the quaint French provincial booth next door, encouraged them to consider that they could meander down country lanes, wander the very fields and hillsides immortalized by the Impressionists, do all the painting or sightseeing they wanted, or do nothing but enjoy the best wine and cuisine in the world. Fred had spent a summer in Paris many years ago and had always wanted to go back and visit the South of France, but could they afford it? Thinking of how long it had been since she’d picked up a brush, Sylvia sighed and shook her head. Politely, they thanked her and moved on.
Suspended over the long aisles that stretched across the cavernous convention center, a rippling banner promised, The Best End of Life Experience. Many of the booths had little fountains, the sound of gently pouring water or soft New Age music playing, scenes of forests and palm trees. Cruise the Caribbean. Run Naked in Brazil. Find It in the Himalayas.
The Mariposa Haven in Costa Rica had walls made of plants and rooms full of butterflies. The sales representatives, a former Miss Universe, graciously assured them that they would have an unforgettable experience, then hesitated and quickly called their attention to the video showing laughing guests zipping across the lush green canopy, perhaps having realized she had slipped into the old spiel; these guests would not be having memories. Sylvia accepted a brochure, and they continued on, past the booth done up Mediterranean-style with a backdrop of whitewashed houses, past the Eco-Luxe booths with sites in the Maldives and the Philippines. International travel was not in their budget.
Michigan’s Angler’s Haven claimed to be trout fishing heaven. At the Extreme Sports Haven the physically adventurous could sign up for skydiving, bungee jumping, mountain climbing, or wind surfing. Other sorts of adventures could be had at Plato’s Retreat Haven or the less pretentious Gals and Guys Ranch in Nevada, boasting “the hospitality of an old time bordello.” On the back wall an elderly man in a cowboy hat soaked in a hot tub with three of the “hostesses.”
Aging hippies or button-down types who missed out on the sixties could go to Peace and Love Haven, where recreational drugs and Grateful Dead jams would let you “rock out on a high note.” The spiritually inclined could spend their days at the Taos Sagebrush Haven taking nature walks and meditating; their evenings in ecstatic dance. A consult with the resident shaman was complimentary.
In the Upper Pasture Haven’s sand-colored tent, a rose-tinted light bathed the wide face of the blonde representative, giving her hair a pinkish hue. The ranch had been in her family for generations, since her sheep-herding great-grandfather came from the Basque Country to the rugged terrain of southern Oregon. Tired from all the walking, Fred and Sylvia were happy to sit and watch the virtual tour of the farmhouse with the handsome sheepdog relaxing on the porch, the barn with a hayloft, the horses in the meadow. Due to their dwindling funds, they didn’t get out much, and stayed chatting with Lou and Marie from Cincinnati who wandered in, the four of them momentarily forgetting their reason for being there.
From the Club Med getaways to the renovated Catskill resorts, everyone in the hospitality industry was eager to get in on End of Life Havens. Fred imagined the marketing must have been a challenge for the industry which had grown quickly after statutes passed, first in Florida, and then across the country, that amended the laws allowing assisted suicide for those with terminal illnesses to include people with severe financial hardship. But a startling number of elderly couples who could no longer pay their property taxes and other bills were turning on the gas. A widower who had jumped off the roof of the insurance building where he used to work left a note apologizing for the mess, as did the couple who drove the old Dodge into a quarry. Federal hearings were held, and legislators decided there had to be more humane, less hazardous options made available that put no burden on already strapped cities and towns.
Like casino gambling, End of Life Havens had made it into the general comfort zone and now received tax breaks and ads on state websites. “Come to the Land of Lakes, where each of those last days can be magical.” “In Vermont, naturally.” “Montana, Your Last Best Place.” Fred might have considered investing if he hadn’t lost his pension.
“Look at that,” he said, pointing at the small cabin perched in a simulated tree branch up near the ceiling. They could use the wood slat steps to climb up the trunk or have the two men standing beneath hoist them up. Fred helped his wife into the sling and watched as she ascended, then climbed up himself, into a replica of one of Higher Up Haven’s tree houses. “We try to keep it all low-tech,” said a slightly stooped, rail-thin man, inviting them in.
Sylvia was not aware of it at first, paging through the Mylar booklet of photographs, but she could hear distant birdcalls and the soft hush of wind-blown leaves gently rustling. They sat on the rustic wicker couch listening to Jacob explain how the villas were placed in such a way that the only views were of trees and countryside. Each had a camp-style shower, a butane cook stove, cute druid-like details in the carpentry with bark showing on the edges. A motorized lift came optional. Fred picked up a pricelist—here they were readily available—and murmured appreciatively.
They were no spa treatments; instead they featured a state-of-the-art sound system and an extensive choice of musical programming: African, Bebop, Classical, Doo-wop, Folk, Irish Traditional; the list, cross-indexed by performers and composers, went on and on. Guests could request a customized playlist.
“You folks just relax, see how it feels,” said Jacob, climbing out the door. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Fred sat cupping one of his knees in both hands, his head tilted back as if he were listening.
“Instrumental or vocal?” said Sylvia.
“You know, I was just thinking of Sarah Vaughan singing ‘Lullaby of Birdland.’”
“Oh, that would be nice,” she said. “That and ‘September Song.’”