(Merle Haggard/Grateful Dead reference)
Part 4 on dying
I guess I am saying a number of things, or trying to.
First, as a caregiver, it is devastating to feel out of control. I know of no worse feeling than the feeling that I cannot fix things. Or that things cannot be fixed by somebody.
I think that is why we sometimes lash out at those who are trying most to help us or our loved ones. It is because we are not in control as we want to be and, damn it, they must not be doing their jobs right, because we could certainly fix it if we had their tools and their training.
Second, we are, many of us, lucky even to be here this long. Death tried to grab us on numerous occasions and barely missed. Sure, we can continue to fight and should, but we should also be thankful that we have made it this far. I will wager that no one who read the first three parts of this did not think to himself or herself, “Yeah, well, I could tell stories, too.”
Because you could. More importantly, you CAN. You are still here. You still have hope. And hopefully, you still have humor.
But, again, I digress.
If we can all agree that death is a bummer subject, and I think we can, I am about to move into more bummer territory.
I’m pretty sure I told you about my friend who killed himself because he realized he was gay. That was a supreme tragedy. The young man was gifted. He was an absolutely beautiful young man, both externally and internally, a veritable Adonis who was also an artist and one of the kindest young men you would ever care to meet. But clearly troubled and then dead, by his own hand. We did not know he was gay.
I may or may not have told you about my wife’s best friend’s brother, also gay, who died of AIDS. I went to see him when we visited for Christmas, long before it was acceptable to believe that you would not simply die by looking at someone with AIDS. And I asked him what it felt like. I can be ghoulishly honest, I suppose, but he was kind about it. We talked about death. He was afraid, of course, but not like I might have thought. I believe he was in too much anguish to fear it greatly.
This is why I promote pain management, by the way. When you are in too much pain, you simply want to give up, and I don’t blame you. Any doctor that doesn’t understand this deserves to have his or her license taken away. Pain management is fundamental to cure, to well-being, to the will to survive.
Sean’s death (the AIDS friend) did not impact me so much as his last days did. I admired his courage and even his resignation, I admired his love for his partner and for his family. There was much to admire about what was going on, but I did not know him well enough to be deeply affected by his death.
My mom’s death, of course, was another story altogether.
I am the oldest of six children, four boys and two girls. Dad was in the Navy for the entirety of my youth, which means he spent much time at sea, seemingly six months of every year, although I know it was not really that frequent. But it is true that after a certain number of us popped up, if you will, he also began to take on extra work to keep us fed and clothed and living in houses large enough for the entire brood, even if that meant some bunking up, and it did.
That was never a problem, as my brother and I, living in the same room for much of our youth, even into teen-hood, became closer maybe than most siblings do (no Deliverance jokes, please).
The point to be made, though, is that mom pretty much raised us for large parts of time. My mom suffered from Grand Mal epilepsy in addition to chronic anemia, perhaps brought on by the drugs she was taking for the epilepsy. That is out of my purview, for sure. What is not out of my purview is the recognition that she did a great job. None of her sons or daughters are in prison or dead. Yet. Yes, one or two or three, maybe even all four of the boys, spent a night or two in jail on one occasion or more, I cannot say for sure, and yes, one of the daughters married an older man who would be considered a pedophile of sorts today, as she was only 16 when this married man lured her into his clutches (but they are still married today with three boys all grown and moving on), but she really did a great job.
In 1974, in the fall, in the winter, I think, I was in college, six hours away back then, when my dad called and I answered on the lounge phone in the dorm and was told that mom had breast cancer. I was advised to stay at school, that she would want that and that there was nothing I could do by coming home. So that is what I did. I do not regret the choice. There is very little that I regret, I suppose because it does no good to do so. But I certainly did not regret this one.
When I came home, the woman that was my mother, the woman who was my mom, she seemed fine. They had taken a chain saw to her, or so it would later appear when I got a look at the wounds, but they meant well, and did well, for the times. Reconstruction was not yet a word, except as it related to rehabilitating the deep south. She lived with the scars and the lack of that breast, at a time when little was understood or accepted about it. And she did so for a good 20 years following.
Never a complaint, never a mention of it. We didn’t even think about cancer. It was over, it was done with, a chapter in the past. That was it.
Such were the times, such were my parents, such was my mom.
End of discussion.
And then, in the midst of what should have been a comfortable time in later years, there in what to me was the lap of luxury, with the tournament pool table, the in-ground pool, the coy pond, the Bayliner, the Cadillac, there in the midst of that came ovarian cancer.
Cancer, I am sure I have noted, is an equal opportunity employer. It was coming for mom. She fought it. She fought it valiantly. Fought it so valiantly that it did not kill her. No. She went for treatments and the doctors would hand over their dollars for the bets they’d lost on football games (lucky for her, the Cowboys were winning at the time) and she would make the staff smile, make those around her smile. Life goes on, she was saying, and so it did.
Until the breast cancer came back, not in her breast, but in her brain. After all of those darned years, BC decided to return, and to do so in grand fashion. She fought this too.
But I was finally called down to Texas. Mom was dying. When my family and I got there, she was sitting out back next to the pool, cool as a cucumber, anxious to see us. She was not, after all, dying.
And when, less than a month later, I was called back, I went alone, and there she was, again, in the exact same chair, in the exact same spot, with the exact same attitude, waiting for me.
You have to be impressed with that. She was not going to die on our watch. My dad even said, “When you come, she comes alive.”
The third time, I also went alone. This time was different. This time, mom was lying on a gurney in the den. She was in a coma. I talked to her, I held her hand, I stroked her face, but I do not know if she knew any of that. I wondered if I had taken the previous visits for granted. How much time did I spend playing pool or shooting darts when I could have been with her on the patio?
She seemed so well, it seemed natural, part of coming home, part of being one of the boys, a bad habit we have in my family.
This time, this was the real deal, and it was too late to undo any past lapses, so I ignored them. I slept beside her gurney, holding her hand when I was standing over her, always in her presence. And sometime during the night, she died.
My dad woke me. Keep in mind that I was a 35+ year old man by now. He spoke with more tenderness than I had ever heard from him, and he said, “Joey, she’s gone.”
I got up, I kissed her on the cheek, I went out into the pool room and got a beer and slugged it down.
THAT is what I did. I kissed my mom on her cold dead cheek, squeezed her hand, I am sure, and then I drank a beer quickly.
The rest of the morning is not a blur as the cliche would suggest happen next, but is rather worthless to talk about. The Medical Examiner came, he confirmed she was dead (and he gets the big bucks!), and he advised my sisters to beware of any strangers in their breasts.
He was nice enough but you are bound to find fault in such a person that comes to tell you that your mother is dead, you are bound to want to beat him up, in fact, even though he is just the final messenger. No one beat him up, and arrangements had to be made.
It was early still, too early for newspapers to be awake, for funeral homes to be awake, and so some of us played pool, drank lots of beer, while my mom’s dead body lay in the next room. This is true. I never thought about it before now. I knew, I mean, that I went out and did those things, but never put it together with my mom being in the next room. I think I am wrong, in fact. I think the ME took her away. Yes he did. But she was still in there for me, for us. And we drank and played pool and shot darts and got as wasted as we could get at such an early, dark hour.
There were things to do, of course. I had to call the newspaper with an obituary, haggle over words per dollar and the cost of a picture and all of that. I never dreamed that would be part of a death, certainly not the death of my mom. So, I’m in an internal rage mode talking to some lady about what it will cost to do this or that and not knowing what my dad has in mind for all of this, and it is simply surreal. It is outside of any form of reality I might imagine.
My mom has died! Does the world know? Does the world care? Do dollars matter? Do column inches matter? It is all unreal, bizarre to me. How am I to do this in the midst of my pain and loss?
But of course, that is the intent, I think, to divert me from my pain and loss. Later, my dad would say, one of you is not done with this. I think he meant me, my mom’s oldest, the one that ‘took after her’ as they said.
My mom was buried fairly quickly. I came to think that all people were supposed to be buried that quickly, but it is not so. My father-in-law has since passed away and I know that arrangements can be made so that others can make time to be there for services. In our case, my mom was not given the opportunity for far-off loved ones to make it. The service was small and cheap, frankly, and I was disappointed, as were others.
I still do not know the reason for that. I know that she later received a much better reception from all of her children but me. I am thankful for that. I also know, though, that grieving is for the living. The dead do not know how we treat them, how we memorialize them, how we praise them.
They are gone.
My mom had a quirky sense of humor. My dad was Mr. Right. Everything should be in place and all should be as others of our social level would expect. That sort of thing. Mom had an Elvis clock that she put up in the den. Be advised that this den was filled with rich, rich leather, a beautiful fireplace, a magnificent gun case. And there was Elvis, up on the wall, keeping time.
A trip to the bathroom led to The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You as you unrolled the toilet paper. That was my mom.
I miss her greatly. But I do not think about her daily, and I do not mourn her daily. Even at holidays and birthdays, I honestly do not think of her. I do not think I am evil, but normal. Talking to someone in the last couple of days, she remarked that her grandkids didn’t understand why she didn’t seem more remorseful at her mom’s passing. I said that youth do not understand that as we get older we learn to grieve differently. She agreed.
The thing is, grief is a selfish thing. Have I already said this? It is for the living. It is understandable and useful, but let us not forget that it is for us, the living. In that way, we can move on with our lives, rather than wallowing in self-pity and deep regret.