birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

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The Party's Over

I almost went to see Ruth many times last year.

Ruth was 92, and I knew this period of indecisiveness would likely end because Ruth would be dead, and going to see her would no longer be an option.

Spending half a day with Ruth had been both a pleasure and a personal challenge, and I had kept doing it, on my own time, long after the book project she and I had been working on together had finished. I took pastries from the fancy French pastry shop, or cookies; she told me that one of, if not the only upside to Parkinson's was that the constant tremors in her body burned a ridiculous number of calories and she could eat anything she liked.

She showed me films she had made with her first husband, a ranger in parks including Death Valley, Rainier, and Olympic National Park. She had climbed Rainier five times and thought little of it; she told me there wasn't much else to do when you lived at Longmire, the administrative settlement of the park. She was losing her second husband when I met her, to Alzheimer's. He was in a phase of sweetness I've heard is common, if brief, where he delighted in chocolate ice cream and kept referring to Ruth as "darling." One of the films, "The Professor and the Tribe," features Ruth, the filmmaker, and her future second husband, the archaeologist and professor, walking along the beach adjacent to an important excavation from the 1970s of a pre-contact Makah whaling village buried in a mudslide. She's striding alongside him with a look of intense concentration as he speaks.

There were some complications about continuing to go see her. I had left my job, and she was a donor to the nonprofit where I had worked, and I worried about how to be honest with her about my reasons for leaving (she was someone I never wanted to lie to, or even tell a partial truth) without seeming to be acting in a way that might damage her relationship with the organization. I was immersed in a career change that was consuming every particle of energy I had, and not only was it a long drive to see Ruth, but it sometimes involved uncomfortable conversations as she stood at the door of death and talked about hating to linger. "The party's over and I'm ready to leave," she said, railing about the limited scope of assisted suicide. My grandfathers died before I was born, and both my grandmothers died when I was sixteen, and I felt educated and expanded by spending time with someone who had lived so many years with such zest, who could speak to me of the wonders she had seen (lava glowing in Hawai'i at night, and the wildflowers in Death Valley in spring) and also of her weariness with her losses, and her frustration with her own decline. She was in a support group for Parkinson's that may or may not have been helpful -- she told me that people would stop coming, and she knew that likely their "brains had turned to mush," and she had no desire to persist long enough to experience that stage of her disease. I felt educated by it and exhausted also.

Often she made me lunch when I came -- soup and a salad with some slight connotation of another decade, and a pot of cinnamon tea afterwards. The last time I went I drove her to lunch at a nearby Thai restaurant. She paid the check, her hand shaking enormously as she signed the credit card slip. I hadn't really anticipated having her in my car and I apologized for the dirt on the dashboard and the general funkiness of the interior -- I'd been camping out of it much of the summer, traveling up Vancouver Island (where Ruth had made several films once upon a time) and up to Yoho National Park to see the Precambrian fossils of the Burgess Shale. She looked at my poorly kept vehicle and worn upholstery and smiled and said energetically, "Just like old times!"

Me 'n MB

Baby I'll be There to Shake Your Hand