Written in December 2007 on an evening I was caring for my friend, Mau, as she lay dying.
Death is a blessing. The final process of achieving it can be torturous; the pain, the humility, the loss of control, dignity and modesty. The inability to determine whose hand wipes your ass, and whether or not they wash it before handing you a drink of water. Whispers surround your consciousness and scratch away at what sanity you cling to. The ever present pain; it seeps from the core of your bones into every nook and cranny.
The very act of taking a piss, or even a ragged breath, cause for caretakers to stop, listen stare, analyze and discuss you.
Tonight there are seven people in this house. In the living room, Mau at center-stage in a hospital bed, a small stool at each side, overhead trapeze, IV pole, narcotic pump, bedside table littered with cups, toothettes, gloves, and syringes to drink from. Strategically located are trash bins, sharps disposal unit, boxes of Kleenex, personal hygiene wipes, and a basket of clean washcloths and hankies.
A 12 inch blue silk dragonfly with six foot tail runners adorns the ceiling above the bed. Mau’s largest and most impressive pieces from an endless collection of musical instruments; the bass, conga, and trap set (complete with cymbals) are pushed into a corner at her feet. A fifty gallon fish tank purrs constantly and the half dozen giant goldfish can often be heard rooting around the bottom in the gravel.
Chairs, end tables and sofa all pushed to the walls in a circle around the room’s centerpiece, Mau’s death throne. Moving toward the end of a great, strong life in which she has been the leading lady these last seventy-two years.
Seven forty-five pm finds the room dim – IV pump quietly clicking, softly bubbling water and ragged, sometimes irregular breath. It’s my turn at the bedside… counting, always counting. Six regular breaths, two missed. Twelve regular breaths, four missed, and on and on through the hours.
Five other people quietly pad around the kitchen preparing plates and bowls of food. Sometimes a small “excuse me” is heard.
It’s snowing outside and surely freezing as it was horribly cold a few hours ago when I took a walk. My thoughts wander – if Mau dies tonight, will hospice be able to get here?; will Sasha need someone to hold and rock her after the final breath is taken and the house is empty?; should I become a hospice nurse?; will I have enough time to read more about Buddhism?.
Sasha is amazing, allowing this many people inside her personal space so freely, letting go. She seems to have let go of Mau. We all have, actually. Not in the sense that we don’t care – but in the sense that we now understand and are eager for her to be free from this reality of pain and loss of control, eager for her to move gently into the next leg of her journey.
Dan and Barbara are tireless in their efforts. They pace themselves through each day, washing dishes and laundry, cooking and tending to the trash, feeding the fish and dogs, sweeping and tidying about the house. Hot meals appear regularly and dishes are washed. It smells like a home, not a sick-room or hospital.
Gene has persevered in scheduling shifts, first – line to sit at bedside and second – line to call for help when needed. I’ve been assigned the 8 pm to 1 am shift and everyone else will venture to their seclusion and private thoughts for the night. Gene will relieve me about 1 am for the rest of the night. We all overlap and shift and step in when needed, like a body of water keeping an ever-changing space effectively filled.
Post-it notes flutter throughout the house. “Keep door closed, cat inside”, “fish fed 12/15″, “snack food in this cupboard”, “milk in the back fridge”, “hard-boiled eggs”, “tortellini 12/14″.
Marcia arrived today and will spend several days helping out. She seems to look at a loss much like I did 24 hours ago. In another 24, she¹ll be a pro like everyone else.
Pain: Mau is pain; right knee disintegrating; three fractured ribs on the left and large swollen lymph nodes on the right side of her neck that interfere with breathing, swallowing, and talking. The morphine pump automatically dispenses a tiny, continuous stream and Mau can have a “bolus” dose periodically if needed. She hesitates to use this much because it increases the grogginess and confusion.
Occasionally she cries when talking about the pain, stating “it’s all fucked up” and “not fair”. It never seems fair. Mau describes the pain as a 1 or 2 or sometimes a 4 on the pain scale and insists on no more medication. Her decision to be coherent is strong. Even still, there is the occasional hallucination or nightmare, she refers to as one of her fantasies.
Swelling on Mau’s right ankle is perceived as “tape wrapped around my foot”. When I explained to her about the edema, she understands and is relieved. Nightmares and hallucinations, though, usually require specific attention from Sasha.
I feel honor to be in attendance – and at the same time, strongly wish to be in my own home and bed. I’d like to fart and stretch out on the sofa without getting in someone’s way. Or pig out on the chocolate stash. This is a serious exercise in practicing “nothing”; an exercise in “existing and being, only for another” a slowing of time and movement.
I know that life cannot exist without death… such a cliché. How many times do people hear that? Why do we even keep saying it? Long ago, loved-ones regularly took care of their own dying. Gradually, hospitals took over the task of caring for the dying and most Westerners forgot how to slow down and minister final care for the terminally ill. Fear of death took over from there and most shun the experience.
Many often express horror at the mention of death, horror that God would have the audacity to take a loved one – especially a child or young person – especially a partner- especially a mother or father.
They exclaim, “How can He allow this?!!”, and I think, “How can it be otherwise?”
Is it not the ultimate goal of every life after its achievements? Is it not the ultimate goal to reach for and ascend to the next higher plane? Where does the fear come from? Are we this afraid to be born, take our first step, speak, and fall in love, express kindness, and share of ourselves? Why do we fear death, the next logical step? There seem to be so many questions to ponder through the night.
I rejoice at this time with my friend, and celebrate her life and accomplishments of 72 years, our good times together, and shared friends. I will miss Mau when the shell I can see has expired, but am comforted knowing that her spirit and power will continue far beyond.
Sarah Denton; 12-07