Author /essayist Dudley Clendinen (The Prevailing South, Out for Good) watched and waited while his mother died. It took years. Through the process, Clendinen came closer and closer to his mother, to the machinations of dying, and to the ambience of the old in America
- or at least in one quirky, rather aristocratic corner of it, a nursing home on Tampa Bay called Canterbury.
At Canterbury, we learn, there is a residential tower for the respectable elderly who want life to seem to be like it always was. Dressing for dinner, getting one's hair done, having cocktails with one's social peers – all this is part of the Canterbury culture. But beyond the geriatric gentility, there is the nursing wing, the probable destination for all tower residents, unless they manage to cheat the system and die suddenly in their luxurious apartments overlooking the Bay.
To reinforce the divide between the two areas of Canterbury there are rules, some written, some merely tacit. Wheelchairs are not allowed in the dining room at the tower. If someone has become too ill to ambulate, he or she will be quietly moved to the nursing facility. When a body has to be removed, everyone stays in their apartments, the lobby is cleared; no one has to look at their friend's last journey. In the meantime, there is to be no reminder for the residents that life has changed in any way. They have given up considerable fortunes and contribute large monthly sums to be surrounded by vital, life-affirming activity and healthy memories. The staff is well-paid and highly professional. No one needs to talk about death. It is the unspoken rumor that runs through all of life, for all of us, but more so at places like Canterbury.
Clendinen believes that had his mother been placed in a county nursing home, an ordinary hospital environment, she would have died soon after. At Canterbury, with a rare high standard of medical care and true loving concern, she lingers. At every juncture she beats death at its own sly game. The author has resolved that he will not preserve his mother's life if she can't eat, or if other pervasive symptoms predominate. The book shows just how complicated and morally confounding such apparently straightforward resolutions can become, as the old lady survives bouts of pneumonia and other life-threatening episodes. At one point all medicines are curtailed and remarkably, this causes her to rally, to live on for several more years. But when it's clear that she no longer recognizes her loved ones, that she has voluntarily ceased to eat, that it may have been several years since she had prepared herself for death and yet been unable to leave, Clendinen makes the hard choices and allows her the dignity of a peaceful passing.
In the years that his mother resides at Canterbury, the author is a frequent visitor, becoming fascinated as only a writer can at the strange structured subculture of a thanatopolis. He interviews staff and other residents, several of whom are lifelong friends, acquaintances of his parents. He finds that, yes, sex still happens to people in their eighties at least, and that it is possible for someone to work, drive and dance well into their hundreds. The droll aspects catch our attention and divert away from the irrevocable sadness of the book and its inevitable conclusion. Yet A Place Called Canterbury has its important place in our thinking, for how can we contemplate a long life, seen as patently desirable, without wondering how and where we will end up?
This book is not grim though it deals with grim realities. It is a book we would do well to read and consider. A big life issue for all of us must be how long is too long, and how much is just enough? Will we see a final sunset from our cozy home among our loved ones, or out the window of an institution where death is the most frequent visitor, the only one that many residents can expect?