A choice I never had to make
March 28, 2014 by Thomas Wictor
As Mom and Dad got more enfeebled, I became obsessed with a scenario that haunted me day and night. First I bought guns to protect my parents, since they were the victims of a home invasion, Mom could barely walk, and Dad kept getting into fights with strangers. But the guns wouldn’t have prevented what the author Frederick Forsyth wrote about in his great novel The Devil’s Alternative. The title refers to a decision that will result in someone’s death regardless. Luckily it was a choice I never had to make.
Before I talk about my own devil’s alternative, I’d like to highly recommend Forsyth’s book. It’s extremely relevant, since it deals with conflict between Russia and the Ukraine. I liked it because of the scenes with the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod and the SR-71 Blackbird. Both are amazing aircraft.
The Nimrod was fitted with cameras, a gigantic searchlight, and loads of electronic-warfare goodies. It could carry sonobuoys, missiles, mines, bombs, torpedoes, and nuclear depth charges. And it looked like origami.
The SR-71 was incredible. First flown in 1964, it had a cruising speed of 2200 miles per hour at 80,000 feet. A Winchester .270 rifle bullet has a top speed of 1900 miles per hour.
Made mostly of titanium, the SR-71 flew so fast that the air friction caused the entire aircraft to become red hot. Heated metal expands, which required that gaps be built between the parts and panels. These gaps sealed when the aircraft flew. On the ground, fuel spilled like rain out of the gaps. When flying, the reconnaissance systems officer (RSO) sitting behind the pilot could heat his lunch by holding it against the window.
The Blackbird was fitted with an analog instrument panel. If the pilot took his eyes off the dials and gauges, he’d instantly lose control of the aircraft. It was a spy plane that flew faster and higher than any missile, so it didn’t need weapons. The RSO operated the cameras, radar, electronic intelligence gathering equipment, and electronic countermeasures.
On its last flight, March 6, 1990, the SR-71 set four new speed records, including Los Angeles to Washington, DC, in sixty-four minutes.
My own devil’s alternative
As I wrote this, we had six earthquakes, one being the most violent I’ve experienced in California. The timing couldn’t have been better.
During the last ten years of my parents’ lives, my greatest fear was that there would be some kind of disaster, and Mom and Dad wouldn’t be able to escape. They’d be too weak. Tim and I would then have to decide which of us would stay and die with them.
Both of us couldn’t leave them, because we couldn’t survive that kind of guilt. But if one of us stayed and died with them, how would the other feel? Yet it wouldn’t make sense for all four of us to die.
I’m pretty sure that’s what would happen. Knowing Tim, he wouldn’t want to leave us, and I certainly wouldn’t want him to stay behind and die. So I think we’d all just die together.
Mom and Dad would fight us too. I goddamn well know it. They’d be ordering us to leave, and we’d be telling them to forget it. What I hoped was that the tsunami or opening of the San Andreas Fault or nuke or zombie apocalypse would hit as we were all yelling at each other, so we wouldn’t even know it.
Though Mom and Dad are gone, I apparently still have my fear of that devil’s alternative, because in the last month I’ve had terrible nightmares about my parents being swept away in a mudslide, falling into a crevasse, drowning, and being caught in an avalanche. In each dream they refused to listen to me, and I had to watch them die. They were expressionless and silent, as if they weren’t engaged in what was happening.
These dreams could also be my final acceptance that they’re gone. My Meniere’s doctor told me that it would take at least a year for me to physically recover from 2013. It’s going to be longer.
Mom and Dad’s deaths were the most traumatic experiences I’ve endured. They were worse than almost being murdered. But now I’ll never be faced with a devil’s alternative. For that I’m extremely grateful.
Thank you, Mom.
And thank you, Dad.
You may not appreciate being thanked for dying. If we could do it all over again, I’m sure we’d all make different choices. But you saved me from a choice that would’ve been impossible.
Just imagine what it would’ve been like for the four of us on the other side if Tim and I had died with you. Guilt, resentment, and pretending that none of us felt any such thing.
It would’ve been like those godawful car trips from Texas to California in the yellow station wagon that always smelled like vomit when it rained because your son Paul loaded up on cream-cheese sandwiches and champagne at Leah May’s wedding in Kerrville.
Look! The Vomitmobile! And there on the right is the boy who made it so.
Remember how he gave us no warning at all? Suddenly there was the sound of a bucket of water being dumped into the middle-right footwell, and then Dad howled his battle cry of, “Awsh SHYIT!” and we pulled over and everyone bailed because it was like being on the receiving end of some horrifying Soviet chemical weapon?
I imagine, Mom and Dad, that you’re grateful you didn’t have to go through all of that again, but this time with two children in their fifties, one who’s already got an incurable projectile-vomiting problem. Adult men can hold a lot more than thirteen-year-old boys.
You have to admit that under the circumstances, things worked out the best they could’ve.
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