02/03/2012 08:38 am ET | Updated May 14, 2012

Death and Dying: Let's Change The Subject

Aunt Sylvia is 96 years old and if you asked her, would tell you she would like to die. My family's answer to that one is just not to ask her. Sylvia lives in a nursing home in Connecticut, a place she moved into two years ago when her doctors said she would likely live, at most, a few more weeks.

Sylvia is a feisty one. She was a divorcee long before it became fashionable to unload the louts, and she raised her daughter as a single working mom in an era where she was the only one doing that. My cousin was the original latch-key kid, letting herself in to their small Far Rockaway apartment every day after school, fixing herself a snack and starting her homework by herself.

Sylvia sacrificed everything so that her daughter was denied nothing. My cousin, when the need arose, helped support Sylvia in retirement. She rented Sylvia apartments in Florida to escape the Connecticut winters and for as long as I can remember, has called Sylvia faithfully every day at 4:30 EST -- from wherever she is in the world at the moment.

My cousin travels to see her mom once a week and spends a few hours with her in the nursing home. When the weather is nice, she bundles Sylvia up and wheels her outside so she can again feel the sun shine on her face. Sylvia reminds her daughter to put sunscreen on herself but pushes the bottle away when it comes her turn. She already has skin cancer from the years of sun-worshipping. She used to lather up in baby oil for the perfect skin fry and I don't recall ever seeing her without a deep sexy tan.

Sunscreen now isn't going to change anything, says Sylvia, and it just makes her feel greasy. Nothing, I want nothing, she says, except to die already. We cover our ears with our hands and close our eyes tightly so we can't hear or see her, just like the three monkeys who don't want to see, hear or speak any evil.

Sylvia pretty much hates life in the nursing home. She reacted with great indignation when the aides insisted on putting her in a diaper. She's not incontinent, you see, but she does need help getting out of her wheelchair and on to the toilet seat. For the aides, having her in a diaper means less mess to clean up if they don't get to her in time. Aunt Sylvia would probably prefer I say "ignore her" instead of "don't get to her in time." I already told you she was feisty, right?

One of her granddaughters, a doctor in Pittsburgh, wants her to have cataract surgery. Right now, she can't see well enough to read or watch TV. Restoring her vision would improve her quality of life, says Dr. Granddaughter. Sylvia refuses. She refuses any medical intervention whatsoever because, as she will tell you, she would like to die already. But as I said, we don't go there with her.

Sylvia doesn't look in a mirror anymore because she says she is afraid she won't recognize the old lady she has become. She gets her hair and nails done each week and lord help the aide who forgets to schedule her for her twice-weekly showers. Is this a sign that she really wants to live?

An Eastern European Jew, she is a religious fatalist. God will take her when He's ready, she says, but she doesn't know what's taking Him so long. She wonders whether her long life is a curse or a blessing.

Sylvia will tell you that she's had a full life with much joy. She is as proud as a mother can be of her daughter and granddaughters. Throughout her life, she traveled widely and with much intellectual curiosity. She was a reader, a learner, a sponge who absorbed knowledge.

But the one thing she apparently never learned was how to die. But let's not talk about that.