Our parents taught us how to live. Their final gift -- showing us how to die.
Carrie, my wife's mother, is dying. Now 77, she has been battling the Angel of Death at close quarters for more than five years, surviving from one festivity or family event to the next, buoyed up by an irrepressible impulse to celebrate. But now, the battle is over, she has chosen to die.
Death’s weapons against her have been diabetes, its complications and a heart condition. Several years ago, her left arm was amputated. Increasingly enfeebled in the last year, uncertain on her feet because the amputation left her physically unbalanced, she became unable to manage stairs, making most visiting impossible. With her eyesight almost gone and her hearing bad, television remained one of her few pleasures — loud and close up.
Several weeks ago she fell twice, and after that, though not injured, she was unable to walk. We thought she had become frightened, had lost her nerve, so to speak. But it turned out that the fall and the inability to walk both derived from kidney failure, and she went back into the hospital to be hooked up again to tubes and wires and catheters.
Dialysis made Carrie lucid enough to understand and insist convincingly that she did not want dialysis. The pain and discomfort of the procedures, the machines, the medications was too much finally. A foot infection that would not heal presaged another amputation. At 77, she just said no; the game was over.
Medical technology is, among other things, a form of torture. Once unhooked from the machines and off all medications, Carrie’s condition improved markedly for four or five days. Full of clarity and strength, completely at peace — in fact, nearly beatific in her smiling responses to her family — she remained strong enough to insist on the one thing she still wanted: to go home, to say goodbye to her husband of 52 years and the other members of her family at home, to die in her own bed.
Now she lies in her own bedroom, sinking (or is it rising?). She is very weak and quite separated from the living. She sleeps most of the time, takes nothing but a little liquid and, when awake, does not want to be bothered answering questions or talking. She is almost in the other world now and does not like being summoned back to this one.
As my wife's father, who continues to take care of Carrie with unparalleled devotion, said one evening in the living room, ”It is very strange sitting around waiting for someone to die.“
Strange, indeed. We do not even know what to pray for now. The waiting is tedious, too, and boredom mixed with terror is an unsettling combination. We find euphemisms for what is happening, and we notice that some friends who ask after Carrie seem offended to be told the blunt truth too bluntly.
But oddest of all is the mandate to do nothing for Carrie. It turns out that in the end, facing death — this lesson is badly learned in the culture of medical technology — there is nothing to do but wait. If it is hard to go about one's ordinary business, given the panic and terrible distractedness that death’s presence brings with it, the hardest thing of all is just to sit still.
Carrie is not in pain. Given the possibilities after so many years of ill health, she is having an easy passage. Without a gesture or a word, she is setting us a good example. Maybe it will not be so bad to experience the miraculous rebirth in the embrace of family, like a newborn baby, surrounded, as Carrie is now, with caring, awe and love.