So here we are. I wake up every morning and do what I have to do, because that is what you do, and write articles about broken toenails and plan for the book release, and then when I pause in my activities I remember: oh yes. That. It wasn’t a bad dream.
I have done what I am supposed to do. We held hands and stood in the face of a futile fight, and laid down our weapons. You may come, death. We do not fear you. And yet now that we have welcomed him, he hesitates, the rotten bastard.
We spent Mother’s Day at the beach, and afternoons watching the balloons drift by overhead. We enjoyed what moments we had, knowing they were to be short. And they are short, even shorter than we all had realized. The last full conversation we had was about a currant pudding, and then she moved into that chill fog of wandering from this plane into the next.
One of the last things I heard her say clearly, besides “I love you,” was “My bags are packed.” It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Our slates are clean, our consciences clear, and all we can do now is wait for the capricious whims of a malignancy that creeps this way and that in the motherboard of the brain, until at last, millimeter by millimeter, it overwhelms.
When you talk to the dying and ask them what they fear most, it is not being dead, something which is when all is said and done, rather dull by all accounts. It is the journey that worries them, the brambly path and the hands that pull them back or the quicksand of ineffectual treatments that, despite our best attempts, cannot make us immortal. They worry that they will suffer, and they are right to do so, because we do much to prolong it.
“Cherish every moment,” they say, and I did. There was a time, days or weeks ago, when there were still moments to cherish. But despite what some people will tell you, there is a line that some cross, a time where those moments are gone, where 22 hours of agitated sleep are interrupted by an hour or two of fretful wakefulness and perhaps a nod, and when they tell you the suffering is worth those small remaining moments, they are wrong. “Cherish these last days” does not bring me comfort, because she is gone in all but the literal physical sense.
Perhaps for you, the one by the bedside drinking those drops of life like a parched man in the desert, these last hours are worth it, but I do not believe they are for the one in the bed. I understand not everyone agrees, but I do believe we have the right to decide for ourselves when that line has been crossed. I’ve always felt that way- after all, I do this for a living for pets. The vast majority of people, in that situation, recognize the line way before the body reaches it on its own, and we can conjure death to our sides when he’s dragging his feet.
When the line is crossed with people, all that remains is an agonized twiddling of the thumbs, a bedside vigil that stretches ahead, vast and unrelenting. Those at peace have been waiting for it, and welcome it with open arms and relief and often not a small bit of impatience.
My mother is not suffering too much I suppose, though more than I would like because to me she shouldn’t suffer at all. We are managing her with a large and extensive brew of medications, consulting with the hospice team, feeling her feet for signs of cold and moving her this way and that so she doesn’t develop sores. What dignity she strove to live with her whole life is reduced to the fact that what we must do, is done by family and not strangers.
I am sad, because I know she is dying, and there is so little control of the situation.The pain of her being gone from my life is nothing compared to the feeling of helplessness while we try to ease her discomfort. We are doing all we can, and in my conversations with the hospice staff I know what we are doing as a family is more than most are able to, and that makes me both grateful and sad for others.
I believe she can still hear me, so for now I can whisper in her ear and hold her hand, choking down tears I don’t have time for- I can do that later. It will have to be enough. But do not tell me to be grateful for these last hours. There are many blessings in this journey, but this is not one of them.
Maybe someday I can look back at the ghosts of this experience and make something of it, but for now, all I can do is be frustrated at a world that views compassion so very differently for a person than they do a dog.
And it is a lesson I shall not soon forget.