The Great Dying: Happiness Comes on Day Five

My family has come to Hawaii.

Hawaii, like an aging model, is still gorgeousjust sometimes in a fragile, wasted way.

My parents were here a long time ago; they came on their honeymoon, back in the Old World times. They bought a hotel-and-airfare package to Honolulu. They went scuba diving in the coral reefs and touched real rays and even one dolphin, they said.

Of course thats not an option anymore, but you can snorkel all you like in fiberglass reefs stocked with colorful farmed parrotfish and now and then a robot shark.

I love the parrotfishs bulgy, fat lips.

Lydia Millet


Lydia Millet is an American novelist and conservationist. Her third novel, My Happy Life, won the 2003 PEN Center USA Award for fiction, and she has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize as well as a Guggenheim fellow. Her newest novel for young readers, The Bodies of the Ancients, comes out in January. The Great Dying is adapted from her YA book Pills and Starships, published by Akashic.

Back then, they ate at restaurants with views of sparkling aqua-blue bays; they went to luaus and drank fancy drinks with paper umbrellas. (We still have those; some of them have my parents names printed on them, from a honeymoon party that was held for them. robert & sara, says the faded writing, hawaii, may 2068.) They took small trips to the other islands, even the one that used to be a leper colony.

These days Honolulu and most of Oahu are seawall and salty aquifers and long, long blocks of abandoned buildings.

But they wanted Hawaii anyway. They were nostalgic. So this time we came to the Big Island, where were staying in a hotel with a view of Mauna Kea. Ive seen pictures of it from way back when, white at the top and majestic. Theres never snow anymore, even at 14,000 feet, but the volcano still looms.

Its just the four of us: my mother and my father, my little brother, and me. Its the four of us here for our last week.

A week is the period the companies usually suggest, once you finalize dates. Any longer and customers can get morbid, or even, if they decide to refuse their pharma, hysterical. And then the whole thing collapses. Any shorter and theres not enough time for good-byes.

My parents arent even that old. My mother had me in her late sixties, and two years later she had Samand though theyre vigorous and healthy on a physical level, on an emotional level theyve decided theyre done.

This would be harder without the training we did at home, without the pharma regimen they have us on. Even with those tools its still intense and vibrant, and everything seems inflected with meaning. Cursed with meaning, almost. Meaning attaches itself to everyday objectstoothbrushes, swimsuits, dangly earrings. Here in the hotel suite, I look at these normal items and everything seems like it portends something.

We just got here and already were on the brink of tears at times, or at least my mother and I are. My father and Sam are trying to act stoic, though now and then I catch one of their hands or a bottom lip trembling.

Meanwhile the edges of objects glow, blur, and fade as I look at them. They all seem permeable or aliveas though the aliveness of objects is there to compensate for my parents being ready to die.

I dont think its the pharma thats doing it, either. Sam and I arent even on a full pill regimen yet. On Day Four well have the option of a powerful tranquilizing blend: Thats Good-Bye Day. They like the contract holders to have their memories intact to say good-bye, because the fifth days pharmathe last pharmacauses forgetfulness. It brings on a long-term memory loss that wipes all memories associated with trauma, so they go out happy.

Happiness comes on Day Five.

Its early afternoon. My parents and my brother have gone out for a walk, and from the balcony of our suite I can see them strolling, their light clothes flapping in the breeze off the ocean, on a trail along the high jagged bluffs.

They carry umbrellas that protect them from the sun but also hide their faces from me. They could be anyone.

The bluffs were well engineered and have been planted to look wild, in a fake way. There are scrubby bushes from the desert, South American cacti and Chinese beach roses (according to the brochure) and even, now and then, dune grasses and sand. They hide the concrete seawall beneath the artificial bluffs so that you dont have to remember where you are or whenso you can almost forget youre not in Old Hawaii. Forget, in other words, that youre living at the tiny tail end of the fire-breathing dragon of our history.

The company my parents chose is a midsize outfit that likes to boast how it hires locals. So our rep, when it came down to it, was a lady my mother had once played golf with.

My mother isnt the golf type at all, by the way. She barely knows how to play, but one time she competed in a small-golf game for charityits mostly small golf these days, unless you have huge money to throw away on travel to one of the big courses, plus water-use finesand because she had a good sense of humor, at least till recently, she was basically the comic relief, I think.

But that one day was when she first met the rep, Jean.

Jean showed up at our apartment a couple of months ago, in the hour before dinnertime when we usually hang out together and talk about our day and stuff. The four of us were drinking cocktails in the living room. Being 15, Sam doesnt drink that much yet, but my mother had offered him a junior can of wheat beer.

And there she was at the doora compact, middle-aged woman from the 10th floor, frosted hair, braided wedge heels. Id seen her in the elevator once or twice.

This is Jean, said my mother softly. Jean, these are our children, Nat and Sam.

My name is Natalie, but I go by Nat.

The woman smiled and sat down and looked at us with a gentle but still oddly businesslike expression.

Your parents thought it might be good to have me here is how she started in.

Sam looked up right away. Hed been reading off his device.

Youre service, he said flatly.

I do work with a service company, said Jean.

She didnt miss a beat and didnt seem awkward; she had a forthright attitude without being domineering.

Youre the counselor, or whatever they call them, said Sam.

Im coordinating the personal aspect of outreach, conceded Jean.

On the contract we purchased recently, put in my mother, soft-voiced. Mine and your fathers.

Sam picked up his beer and drank most of the rest of it, a flush rising on his skin.

I had been sitting at the bay window, looking out over the garden. Our apartment complex was nice, with trees and water features and little striped chipmunks, because chipmunks always poll higher than squirrels.

Anyway, I liked to drink and take in the view.

But then, without really noticing my own movement, I turned so I was facing the room, my back against the view of the trees. In the pit of my stomach was a heavy new stone. At the same time my arms and legs felt light and liquid, like the bones in them had softened.

Why didnt you tell me? was the thing I said.

Were telling you now, sweetheart, said my mother, coming to sit beside me on the ledge. She put one arm around my shoulders. Its all according to schedule. The timing is what they recommend.

They encourage the parents not to get emotive when theyre disclosing. It only makes things worse. So my mother sat there next to me, her arm on my shoulders light, keeping a kind of professional attitude. With her free hand, she shook the cubes in her glass and raised it to drink.

My father stood facing us all with his tumbler of whiskey. His face bore a kind, bemused expression, as it used to when Sam or I would cry and he had no idea how to stop it.

You can still take it back, said Sam, with a kind of hurt urgency. Please, MomDad! Take it back!

Honey, said my mother, we dont want to. Or maybe a better way to say it is that we weve lived for you two ever since the tipping point, sweetheart. Youve been whats kept us going.

The tipping point was when we couldnt do anything more to stop the planets runaway warming. There were feedback loops in the climate system, like the albedo effect and water vapor increase in the atmosphere and plankton die-off in the oceans. So even though wed stopped emitting so much carbon and methane, we couldnt stop the seas or the temperature from rising. At least for a few centuries.

Both of you are practically grown up, said my mother. And when it comes right down to it, you dont really need usnot in the day-to-day sense. You think you do, maybe. But we know deep down that you can take care of yourselves. And you will.

You cant say what were feeling, said Sam, shaking his head. Only what you are.

It helps, for peace of mind, said Jean to Sam, if you keep argumentation for later. During this encounter, this time of disclosure, weve found that what allows for peacefulness is just listening.

Fuck listening! said Sam.

He was bright redlike someone had dealt him two slaps, one on each cheek.

And really, went on Jean calmly, as though he hadnt said anything, theres no rush here. Theres plenty of time. Remember, all contracts are voidable right up until the end. So theres absolutely nothing to make you nervous.

She didnt mention what we all knew: that theres a stiff financial penalty for last-minute cancellations. She didnt need to. My parents knew a couple whod canceled just five hours before their contract was about to start, but at that point it cost like 90 percent of the full price. And they ended up buying a new contract a couple of months later. That meant less money for the survivorsa tainted legacy.

But youre doing so well, begged Sam, turning to my mother.

I felt frozen.

Youre doing really well, youve got your moods well stabilized lately, he added.

No, yeah, son, said my father. Well were not too bad off. Were not personally complaining. We feel so lucky, compared to lots of people. No question. And you knowits not any one big thing. You know? Its not a dramatic situation, theres no particular, exact catalyst here. But we feel like, for one, heywhy not quit while were still ahead? You know, leave while weve got our health. And theres still no impairment. We all saw how Mamie got after she passed 100.

Youll be all right. You have such great resilience, added my mother. Wewe think youre very strong.

Oh please, said Sam.

Try to see it from our point of view, my father said. When we were young, there were still big animals swimming all over the oceans. The rivers and the forests had all this life in them, not just the squirrels and pigeons. You could go anywhere in the worldwe drove a gas-burning car when we were young. We flew on huge airplanes. Whenever we wanted to!

My parents keep thinking, somehow, that one day well hear about how different the world used to be and for the first time well understand them.

But isnt the world always different for the kids than it was for the parents? Sure, maybe its more different now. We get it.

But this is the only world we ever knew.

For Old World people like us, you know, said my mother, weve had as much as we can take of seeing everything go away. And we dont think we can bear towhat happens if, if it keeps going how we think it will.

Of course, we hope and pray it wont, said my father staunchly, tossing back the last of his whiskey. We figure, go early, while everythingswhile theres still hope. You know.

But I knew what he wasnt saying: They couldnt stand to see our future. They couldnt stand to watch us struggle.

Its never an easy decision, put in Jean.

Not helpful, I thought.

But then, the companies put the counselors in the room partly to deflect the family members feelings. Or fears and tears, as they say.

Your mother is so tired, Sam, said my father. He was fiddling with a pile of black and green olives on a tray. The olives were stacked in a pyramid, like in a picture Id once seen of ancient cannonballs. They should have been a tipoff that this was a special occasion, so to speak, because olives arent the kind of food we get every day. We both are, if Im perfectly honest, he added.

We sat there for a while, not knowing what to say.

Eventually Jean suggested we take a walk outside, through the courtyards of the complex. Walks are popular with service companies. Low-cost momentum, I guess, and a natural mood boost.

So we prepared ourselves fresh drinks, mostly in awkward silence, and took them with us into the elevator. We gazed outside as the car descended.

The elevators in our complex are external and made of a shaded glass, so you can see the sky and then the buildings below it, and as you drop, the trees in the courtyard come up to meet you.

Down through the green canopy, down along the tree trunks. Finally we landed facing the rock gardens, the fountains and splashing waterfalls of perfectly reclaimed sewage.

What a nice evening, said my mother, and we looked up dutifully at the fading bands of red and yellow in the western sky.

One thing we do have, in the New World, is beautiful sunsets.

I think what put my parents over the edge was a trip they took a few months ago, a light-rail weekender to the place where my father grew up. It wasnt a coastal town in the strict senseit wasnt right on the beachbut it was on a river delta, maybe 20 miles from where the true coast used to be. When the first storm surges came that couldnt be stopped by seawalls, the town got an influx of coastal refugees. Wave after wave followed, though most of the people didnt stay. Back then they were migrating to places like Ogallala, with fertile land or thick forests. If you look at an old map animation, you can see the masses moving away from the coasts, inward and upward from New York and Florida, from Southern California and the dying cities of the desertLas Vegas and Phoenix, say. The animations look like storms or vast, sky-darkening flocks of birds.

Sometimes, at home, I take a mild mood softener, sit at my screen, and gaze at the animations dreamily. You can customize them to show whatever details you wantthe continent shrinking as the oceans rise plus the massive migrations. I also like to watch the building of the seawalls. You see the swamping of Cape Cod, the swallowing up of the Florida Keys. Islands all over the oceans contract to the size of pinheads, then vanish. You can zoom way out and watch the planet rotate, see the surges of ocean that followed the melting of the ice.

Theres something lovely about it, lovely like Eno or Mozart, thoughespecially without pharmait can be sad.

Anyway, my fathers hometown had been leveled by the waves of refugee camps. Nothing was left of the houses and gardens of his leafy street, the school he walked to holding his younger brothers hand, the swing sets and climbing gyms at the park where he played. All that was gonethe whole town had turned to tent cities and landfills and fields of composting toilets.

My dads baby brother died a while back, a do-it-yourself deal. He hated the service companies. So other than us, my dad has no family left.

For a while after that weekend trip, he and my mother were so quiet that sometimes we forgot they were there.

Before we left for Hawaii, my parents helped Sam and me move to a group facility for survivors who arent old enough to live alone. The two of us will go back there after the trip, to live for a few months till I turn 18.

Then, the morning we left, Sam and I picked them up to catch the boat that brought us here. That was the worst. The apartment where we had lived was bare. Their luggage stood in a neat row against the wall, small cases packed with only bedrolls, some toiletries, and a few clothes. It was a shock to see the sterile whiteness of what used to be home.

Well, said my mother, turning back to cast a glance at the empty living room as we were filing out the front door, good-bye, everything.

Sams coming up the path again toward the hotel building, so close hes almost beneath meI see the circle of his shiny white umbrella. My parents arent with him. I squint: I can still see the two of them, out at the edge of the cliff.

The oceans turning anoxic, scientists say. Its what happened 250 million years ago in the Great Dying, otherwise known as the P-T extinction eventthe biggest mass die-off in Earths history. And now its happening again. The seawaters turned more acid from the carbon its storing, so the ocean food chain has mostly collapsed. Big burps of methane are bubbling out of the water along the continental shelves.

Where there used to be corals and whales and sea lions and seahorses, now theres mostly bacteria and archaea and viruses. The odd school of mutated jellyfish. Plus the garbage vortex and the chemical streams.

But still, Mom and Dad stand at the edge of the bluff, their arms around each others waists, and look out over the faraway waves like anything could be therelike those waves might still be the glittering roof of a marvelous underwater country.

The Fiction Issue

Tales From an Uncertain Future

Read More

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