In the yellow back bedroom of her North Arlington home, Audrey Ghizzoni is preparing to die.
No 61-year-old woman could have lived a fuller life. Audrey Ghizzoni was a lawyer with the U.S. Patent Office. She was a lobbyist for the National Organization for Women (her license plates read ERA YES). At one time, she served on 10 Arlington County school or government committees simultaneously. She has been married for 36 years, and has raised two children.
But for the last year, Audrey has been virtually immobilized by Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). She is chronically short of breath, and the condition is getting steadily worse -- so much so that Audrey can no longer walk more than a couple of steps and can no longer leave the house.
Her world has become a TV set with a remote control clicker, an oxygen nose clip and a night table on which 14 kinds of pills stand -- two for ulcers, three for osteoporosis, five to facilitate breathing, two for pain, one for depression and one for anxiety.
"The only thing I can't figure out is how I can be depressed and anxious at the same time," she says, with a rumbling belly laugh. But she has figured out the answer to a far more searing question.
"I might have six months, maybe a year," she says, matter-of-factly. "Or it could be tomorrow."
In April, Audrey called the Hospice of Northern Virginia and asked to be admitted. Hospices do not accept patients who have any hope of getting better. It was Audrey's way of introducing the end of the road to herself, and vice versa.
Since placing that call, "I've done a lot of thinking. One of the things I've learned is that if I talk about my death, I can accept it."
Which is why Audrey Ghizzoni has agreed to let me share some of the final months of her life.
On a regular basis, until she dies, Audrey Ghizzoni and I will meet in her yellow bedroom to discuss her life and her death. Her purpose -- and mine -- is to understand what's happening to her, and perhaps to make dying easier for someone else.
Audrey Ghizzoni did not come to terms with how serious her situation was until about a year ago, when she was forced to begin using a wheelchair full time. About six months earlier, doctors had told her that she had not only COPD, but emphysema, too. About the same time, she developed shingles in her right leg, and lost the use of it.
"Even then, I thought it was temporary," she says. "But when it hit me that they were right, that I had a limited life span, that's when I got angry."
Her anger remains, although she says it takes the form of sentimentality now, not of wanting to punch holes in the wall. "For example, I cry now at old movies on TV. I never did that before. That's how I'm letting it out," Audrey says.
Her husband and children are handling her illness in widely varying ways. Her son, Jack, 25, lives at home, and has talked at great length with his mother about what lies ahead. Her daughter, Maura, 23, lives in Florida, which has made extended conversation difficult. But during a Memorial Day visit, "Maura began to understand," said her mother. "Both of my kids are readers. She and Jack went to the library and took out some books on death and dying."
But Audrey's husband, John, 64, a lawyer with the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, "just changes the subject when I try to talk about it," Audrey says. "His whole life is inside this family. I'll be gone, and he'll be living here alone, and I know that's going to be difficult for him."
However, Audrey is the sort of person who points at a glass of orange juice on her tray table and declares it to be three-quarters full, not one quarter empty. There is no gloom in the Ghizzonis' modern home on 25th Road. John recently attended a gem show and bought his wife an opal ring, set in rubies and diamonds. "I shouldn't have let him," says Audrey. "This was a lot of money to spend on something I won't wear that long." But she delights in showing it off just the same.
Audrey Ghizzoni says she has made up her mind not to be a burden on her family over the next few months. But some tensions are unavoidable, because she is so dependent on them.
"The toughest thing is not being able to do anything on my own," Audrey said. "Until a few months ago, I could get up and get a sandwich if I wanted. Now I can't. And if somebody in the family gets impatient with me, I think it's because I'm asking for too much."
Yet the family is pitching in. John Ghizzoni has learned to cook his first and only dinner dish -- spaghetti sauce a la Audrey. Lessons were shouted at him from the back bedroom, as he stood at the stove. "He has done pretty well," says Audrey. But she admits the far more frequent meal in the Ghizzoni home is carryout Chinese food.
What has Audrey learned through the last 18 months of facing serious illness and death?
"Dying is still an abstraction," she said. "But I'm as ready as I'll ever be. And I'm more honest about it than I thought I could be." We will get a good look at that honesty in the weeks ahead.