(Still tied up with the class. Here’s more filler until I have time to write real posts.)
Thanksgiving! I’ve got half an hour to write until the turkey goes in and true bedlam begins.
I seem to be spending most of my time with Janice these days reassuring her that, Yes. Of course. Just like everyone else who’s ever lived from the dawn of time, she, too, is going to die. She’s survived so many things, so many times now, it’s gotten ridiculous and she’s starting to battle horrifying visions of immortality. I can’t help but laugh, yet feel a wave of compassion at the same time.
Whenever she starts moaning about it I point out every sign of decline I can think of, and when I hit on something that resonates her eyes light up with hope. Yesterday, we talked about two things that have to take place before a person can finally go. One is advanced disease in the body and the other is a surrender of sorts; a person gradually lets go of the drive to live, the one that makes them get up day after day. I’ve seen signs of this in Janice lately. Since she moved to the nursing home she sleeps a lot of the time and rarely participates in any activities. She told me yesterday there are times when she doesn’t want to eat and she even said she feels “dead” inside most of the time now, which is, of course, a classic description of the depression she doesn’t believe in and refuses to treat.
So, casting about for some way to cheer her up I mentioned, “Y’know, Janice, those things might be a sign that you’re finally surrendering.” She perked right up.
“Really? Do you think I’ll die after all?”
God, what a character.
She’s slowly, slowly turning in some kind of invisible womb, her head shifting gradually downward toward the birth canal, preparing for her journey through the passage that connects this world to whatever comes next. Regular activities are losing their grip and she’s starting to drift, turning increasingly to the doorway of sleep and its other dimensions. She tells me her daughter keeps encouraging her to take part in the facility’s activities, that she would be happier if she did.
But Janice looks at me, distraught, and says, “She just doesn’t understand. I can’t. I don’t feel good enough.”
It would be so hard to be ready to go, to long for it, and still be stuck here. Day after day. Year after year, dealing with constant pain and constant loss and constantly diminishing ability. It’s so weird—how some people can want so desperately to live but die anyway, and how others seem to get trapped. Wouldn’t it be great if there was some kind of cosmic barter system set up where we could trade final time with one another?
“I’ll give you three of my unwanted years for your quickie.”
I hope I don’t die of congestive heart failure or M.S. or Alzheimer’s, something long and protracted. Please God, can I have cancer or something else shorter? Not a heart attack or a car crash though…I’d like time to say my good-byes, to let Cal and Lorin and McKenna know how much I love them. It would be unbearable to leave without being able to tell them one last time.
After we talked I drove Janice over to the bank, and while we were sitting in the drive-through she spotted a Dollar Store across the parking lot. Boy, did her eyes light up! I asked if she wanted to go in and she grew more excited than I’ve seen her in months. She looked…dare I say it? Happy.
(Everyone says that, during dying, hearing is the last thing to go. But watching Janice yesterday I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps, with women, it’s really our love of a great bargain.)
She couldn’t shop for very long, of course, as it was a big store with a lot of stuff. But she stubbornly managed to drag herself…doubled over her walker and sucking strangled huffs of oxygen in a way that alarmed everyone within hearing—up and down a couple of aisles before grabbing some crackers and gasping that she was ready to go. By the time I wrestled her back into the car she looked bloodless, ghastly, and absolutely euphoric.
“That…was so…much…fun!” She wheezed and gazed up at me with grateful eyes from where she’d slumped to the bottom of the seat. “I really…enjoyed…that!”
She so delights me. This Thanksgiving I’m grateful I took Janice to the dollar store.”
copyright Dia Osborn 2011
“..cosmic barter system set up where we could trade final time with one another.” Oh yes. I have often thought of the unbalanced aspect of some leaving too quickly and others lingering long beyond what they seem to want. But is it because those lingering ones still haven’t lost that tenacious grip of wanting? I don’t know. I’ve seen the days-long wait between not eating/drinking/ conscious response and the final departure. It sure doesn’t seem like anything important is happening there.
Heart attacks and accidents are a good reminder to always tell your loved one what they mean to you…it could, unfortunately, be the last time you say it.
I used to think people would linger because of either unfinished business or an inability to let go. But there were some patients I worked with for whom that was clearly not the case. It’s an odd twist of fate, but sometimes having a healthy, strong body, or a very strong heart, can work against the whole process. Some people who are otherwise ready to go just have to wait for the bodies to give out. There was also one that just seemed to be waiting for a certain preset time to arrive. I remember watching her and considering the whole concept of destiny as a very real possibility for the first time.
That days-long wait between conscious response and death is actually one of my favorite times. There’s an energy that builds up during that period, a feeling of transition and gathering anticipation. It reminds me a lot of the period between when a woman first goes into labor and when she can finally start to push. It’s incredibly grueling physiologically, but it takes that kind of powerful (and painful!) muscular contraction to open the cervix up. During dying the body is going through that same kind of dramatic physiological change as the systems build into a cascade of shut down. It looks like the person is just lying there but really there’s so much going on in internally. Centimeter by centimeter, they’re preparing for departure. Then, finally, something akin to the cervix being fully dilated is ready and they’re able to leave their body. The timing is totally unique to each person, just like it is to each child first entering the world.
That was also the time, during the really good deaths, when some magical things happened with gathered loved ones. There’s a healing energy that seems to be available during that window for some reason. A lot of grace.
andrew died on friday
I’m so sorry John.
“I hope I don’t die of congestive heart failure or M.S. or Alzheimer’s, something long and protracted. Please God, can I have cancer or something else shorter? Not a heart attack or a car crash though…”
Is cancer really the best way to go? Sounds painful. I think falling would be alright. To spend ones last moments in a sensation of flying. To feel the wind on one’s face and a cushion of air, like angel’s wings soaring with one into final sleep. And then CRUNCH. That was fast. But its one of those accidental deaths. And how to ACCIDENTALLY fall to one’s death is a bit enigmatic. This usually involves foul play. Perhaps a fatal wound that takes a few days…? That way one can say goodbye and not suffer through the breakdown of the body from within. That’s the part that sounds really scary to me. I’m prepared (I think) to spend the next few decades incrementally losing physical ability but to then know that something INSIDE is rotting scares the crap out of me. In the end, its really not up to my choice, is it? When I’m taken, I’ll go however and whenever God wants. And hopefully, when the time comes, the embrace will be loving and I will be ready.
What a treat to find a comment from you here!!
I don’t think there is a BEST way to go. 🙂 Cancer is just appealing because of it’s time frame. I’d like more than just a few days to wrap things up, not just to say good-bye to people but places I’ve loved, too. And to make sure all my affairs are in order. And to savor things one last time. I’ve seen a lot of different dying processes from different diseases. None of them are comfortable or pain free and I’ve kind of accepted that. It’s still scary but nowhere near as scary as it used to be.
I LOVE what you said at the end: “And hopefully, when the time comes, the embrace will be loving and I will be ready.” Very, very beautiful! Amen to that…