Saturday, March 20, 2010

Dying Well

A good leg will fall. A straight back will stoop. A black beard will turn white. A curled pate will grow bald. A fair face will wither. A full eye will wax hollow. But a good heart is the sun and the moon. Or rather the sun and not the moon, for it shines bright and never changes, but keeps its course truly.

– William Shakespeare, Henry V, with slight adaptation by Vice President Walter F. Mondale, eulogy for former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, January 15, 1978

When my mom asked me if I would be willing to accompany her to a Death & Dying class at church, I internally freaked out. First of all, the subject matter sounded panic-attack-inducing and secondly, how could I say no to my mom? Going at it much on her own for about seven months with my dad's chronic illness, my mom asks little and expects even less of others to carry her bone crushing load of grief and duty.

Of course I would accompany her to the special Death & Dying class.

We were back at church and it was my first time to show my face in several months. I kept my head fixed at the red carpet and the old tiles, acting more interested in centuries old flooring than in the caring and curious church-goers who I could tell were writing and crossing out polite intro sentences in their heads to find out, "How's Chuck?" Some church members just put it right out there and said things like, "Wow, I really don't want to ask you, but how's Chuck?" That's always a tough one because it's like, "Wow, your face looks like hell, I don't dare ask you about your bicycle crash, but, HOW WAS IT?"

My penchant for judging the reactions and consoling capabilities of others was soon to vanish, but, more on that later. Let's get back to church.

We were hanging our spring jackets in the coat rack and I was dazed by all the camel hair suit coats. My dad often wore a camel hair suit coat to church and he looked so handsome that I called him 'The Professor'. My mom and I were a little more stooped over than normal, perhaps subconsciously trying to shrink into the crucifixes and cushioned seats in the church lobby. I know for my part, I pretty much just wanted to skip the service, hang out in the church art gallery, get my booklet from the Death & Dying class, and skeedadle.

So, my mom is always able to surprise me with humor at the most unexpected times. We were hanging our jackets and she turned to me unexpectedly and goes, "Now. It's communion today. I HOPE that no one here has read your blog about communion and about how much you like the grape juice and the bread." That made me laugh. It's kind of an honor when my mom references my writing because I know it probably takes a lot of strength for her, a teacher and librarian of 40+ years, not to critique my laissez-faire writing style.

I made it through the church service, but not without crying during communion. I absentmindedly picked up one of the small stubby eraser-less pencils that they keep in the pew so you can sign in and make last minute donations in the mini envelopes. I had started to make a to-do list when it happened. As grief will do, a memory crept up the back of my spine and down my throat as fast as lightening. The memory was of how my dad would always watch me intently when I picked up these pencils and made little drawings. My mom would give a disapproving eye roll, but my dad would beam down on me and would later marvel at how round I could make a cup look or how my hand writing (most likely bubble letters that said 'SUSAN') was perfect.

There is nothing like the artistic approval of an artistic father. It is the ultimate compliment and confidence-booster for a little girl.

Then my dad would lean over and I would hear the soft crinkle of the elbow in his stiff black sport coat crunch as he drew his own little caricature next to mine, complete with his squared-off block hand writing.

Church is such a hard place for me to be. It represents the countless Sundays when my dad stood tall and dapper in his impeccable suits and sang beautiful harmonies to all the hymns. Church represents the stressful guitar and flute practice sessions that my dad and I had before performing flawlessly for the congregation. I would be white knuckling it up until go time, when my dad would look over at me, his silver flute would glisten in my eye as he brought it up to his lips. Before counting the beat, he'd whisper, "Ready, Runsk?"

"READY, Dad."

Well for this, I was not ready. Witnessing a disease repeatedly cripple and torture my Daddy has propelled me and my family into a cycle of grief that keeps on giving. The spaces between the bouts of pain grow wider, yes, and brownish green weeds grow between those spaces of grief, but then BOOM, a fresh stick of dynamite goes off, blowing dirt and roots all over the place and you find yourself crying with raw chest pain, as I am right now as I remember my dad in those damn suits.

Sitting next to my my mom at the Death & Dying class was, well, pretty awkward. It just seemed like we did not fit in. There was this very nice older lady sitting next to me and she smiled at me with her eyes. She did not smile at me with her teeth, but I am not sure if she had hers in. "You two ssshisters?" Ha, No, but that is nice of you. She's my mom. Later she looked at me with this face that had such a serene expression and I felt envious of her obvious comfort with the subject matter. "We didn't get to talk much, did we?" I love that about older people – they make you feel like you have known each other forever. They can almost see by the look on your face as to whether or not you have living grandparents and if you don't (like me) they basically become your rent-a-grandparent for the moment.

For all my internal kicking and screaming, the Death & Dying series of classes at my church is doing me some good. Besides now understanding exactly what it means to have 'Organ Donor' checked on my driver's license, I have come across some concepts that have been mightily comforting with regards to not only the life of my father but that of my own.

  1. Respect death. It is our right to die. Death is not something to be feared but to be respected. This is why slasher films (i.e. Scream, Saw, Texas Chainsaw Massacre) are so screwed up because they convince us that death is something to be feared and avoided. Other cultures view death in the same joyful genre as birth.
  2. The Pope (can't remember which one) said that the first thing we should be told the moment we are born is that we are dying
  3. Plan for your death now. It is a gift to your loved ones to decide if you want to have a spaghetti dinner with silly hats or one million white flowers thrown into Lake Calhoun. Just plan it. IT'S GONNA HAPPEN SOMETIME.
  4. Live your life fully now. Ask yourself if you are living your life the way you want to. If you are not, take the baby steps toward how you want to live it. The only thing standing in your way is you.

I had no idea that just as I was starting to formulate some comforting ideas about death that I would be challenged with something harder than comforting myself. I recently came into the situation where it was time to test my skills in comforting someone else.

My very good friend, Jessica, has been one of the few champions who has been with me through the past half year, thick and thin, always knowing the right thing to say, the right thing to do, the right thing not to say and not to do. She is a natural expert at grief herself as she and her family have struggled with her mom's leukemia for the past four years.

She contacted me a few days ago seeking solace after learning that her mom had made the decision to stop her fourth chemo treatment and go home for hospice care. Jessica was at my door, late during the week, and she crumpled into my arms just sobbing. I stood there and held her, knowing, but not fulling knowing the depth of her pain. She came into my apartment, and my friend Dajana and I tried our best to bring comfort to this wounded soul, this crumpled bird with broken wings. It was so hard to hear her say the words.

"She's my mom. I hear her voice on the phone and I am not ready to be without her. I am not ready to let her go."

I went through the very same type of consoling with my friend Farah, whose mother is in the hospital and went through the same ventilator/unconscious thing as my dad. We are such young girls - we are not ready for the trauma of losing our parents yet, right? After months of feeling like an alien freak dealing with my dad's issues, it was such a jolt of unfamiliar responsibility to deal with the same type of tragedy with two of my girlfriends. It scared me that for all the experience that I now have – a death of the same person many times over it seems - that even I struggled with the proper words of comfort for Farah and Jessica.

We held Jessica as she curled up on my couch. We wrapped a down comforter around her and cried with her. We looked at the polaroids of her recent 29th birthday. They revealed a beaming Jess, flanked by brother, sister, and mother on hospital bed, with Jess wearing a tiara and holding a Barbie cake that she baked. Just the way her mother used to make.

We fed Jess orange juice, made her sleep and shower before starting her 13-hour drive back to Arkansas to enter what sounded like the most terrifying life journey yet. I wanted to reach out and give her comfort. I wanted her to be excited about the bird necklace I got her, but I knew that look in her eye. It was the look of grittiness just to get the fuck through it and then come up for air later. I got out my sketch book and Googled mapped all 20 steps back to her home down south. I wrote it all out in big letters and colored every other turn in pink highlighter so that she could decipher the directions in the dark. I kept saying to the girls that I felt like we were in some independent film, especially when Dajana made banana and chocolate crepes.

But this wasn't an independent film. It was Jessica going home to watch her mother die. And there was nothing we could do to change it. We had already responded to the pleas to pray for a miracle. We were past the point of Oprah's Angel Network swooping in to throw cash at the situation. There was nothing we could do.

There was nothing we could do except accept it.

This was not the time for me to wax poetic about the gifts of the journey and the freedom and human right of death because, thing is, death SUCKS for the rest of us, right? Sure, it may be a release for the person who gets to go, but the rest of us have to go find new hobbies and clean the house. Death is like saying farewell to your friend going on vacation to Florida. You might be able to happy for her, but what are YOU going to do?

So, in the end, I think all we can do is focus on how we each go about dying well. How do we make a good death someday and how do we think about it now without sounding suicidal or morbid? Well, I believe that the only way to die well is to live well. That way, it won't matter when it is your own time to go on to the next journey.

There is no way to properly finish this blog entry because it not only deals with my own pain but also the pain of my dear friends. Sometimes I write stuff only to read it later and say, "Who wrote this trite and immature shit?" But, I'm at a loss. Death, just, give it a rest for a while, will you? The truth is, there are no rules. There is no guide book. Others will try to tell us what to do or how to feel, but the truth is that we walk in the valley of the shadow of death alone with whatever maker in which we each individually believe. Alright, but only because you know you love it, I will give you a trite-as-hell send off that I totally don't believe in (but, at least I'm being honest).

Here's to living well, dying well, and being well in this unpredictable experience we call being human.

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