Thursday, March 25, 2010

Goodbye Will Come, But We'd Rather Delay It

Goodbye will come, but we’d rather delay it

By Jane Fishman [Jane is someone I've met, and also my favorite columnist.]

No one likes to say goodbye. It’s so final. That’s why we don’t erase phone messages from someone who has died; we like to hear their voice.

That’s why we keep letters. Handwriting is so personal, so singular. That’s why we save robes or rings or pink princess phones. That’s why we drag our heels before throwing away their clothes.

Writer Joan Didion calls this magical thinking. The person may “wake up” and need something to wear. Then what? “You threw away my favorite black shoes? My good outfit I got from Aunt Dorothy? What were you thinking?”

We know goodbyes will come, but we don’t like to think about them. We have euphemisms for goodbyes. For death. She’s passed on. (Or over. Or away.) She’s an angel. She’s in a better place.

When someone is dying we try to make things easier by getting real close and whispering to them, “It’s time to go.” Many people say that’s what you’re supposed to do.

We tried that one with my mother, the hospice nurse and I. It makes sense in the abstract, but they’re not easy words to form.

When I tried saying them, I felt foolish. I half-expected my mother, who had not had anything to eat or drink in more than three weeks (“A record for me,” said the nurse. “She’s one for the books,”), to pop open her eyes, raise her eyebrows, hitch herself up on her skinny arms and say, “Go? Where are we going?”

This was a woman who was very happy in the present. She did not mourn the past. She did like to watch the robins, follow the clouds, wonder about the man at the next table. Finding the wordsWe have euphemisms for illness. “Bed rest,” said the resident doctor, seeing a sleeping, non-responsive woman slouched on the couch. “Let’s put her on bed rest.” As if she were not 96. As if with a little rest in bed she might recover her vigor.

“Her body is tired,” said the good doctor, accurate but also a little misleading. As if with a little more time spent putting her feet up, and drinking a cup of coffee, she might get back some punch.

And yet what did I say when the residents asked, “How’s your mother?” I said, “Peaceful. She’s peaceful.” A little less than accurate, but it seemed to do the trick.

She was peaceful. We had the morphine. We had the painkillers. We had the sedatives. We thought about putting a little Crown Royal on the mouth sponges.
We wanted to do something. But there was no agitation, no disturbance. There was no need.

Always thrifty, this woman was going to get her money’s worth out of life. She was going to wring the last possible minute out of what she had.

“Her heart is strong,” said the nurse the same day she could no longer hear the bottom (or diastolic) number of what constitutes the blood pressure figure. That was the same day we both hunched in close to count 30 seconds between breaths.

Looking at the Senior Olympics medals draped over the top of her lamp, the nurse elaborated.

“This is what happens when you’re in good shape. Maybe we should go out and eat some fried food.”

A nurse’s aide didn’t see it that way. She was comforted by the calm, which wouldn’t have come if she were in bad shape. She was impressed at the tranquility.

“As if she were in a deep sleep,” she said. “Now I see I don’t have to be so afraid of death. This is changing my whole way of thinking.”

'We had dreams’If only we knew what she was thinking. If only we knew what she was dreaming, what that suspended existence between here and there felt like because it looked as if she were enjoying the process.

But would she make her birthday, March 1, we all wondered? Maybe that would that will be the day. That plus nine, as it turns out.

Still, we had dreams. I dreamt about watching my mother drive into a lake and not coming up, walking into an empty room, looking out the window for my car, not finding it and crying, “Everything I have is in that car.”

I ate a lot of Jell-O during those weeks of vigil, green and orange, plus sweet potatoes, food for someone on bed rest. (There was denial in the dining room.) I shared an intimate relationship with my cell phone, wondering at times if someone forgot to call me, if I missed a call, if my phone failed to pick up a call. When would the call come? When I was in the shower, on a walk with my dog, after I went to sleep?

Would they remember to call me?

With reluctance I put on my big-girl pants, went to the funeral home and picked out a casket, a plain pine box, even after the funeral director, consulting his note cards, told me, “Let’s see here. Your uncle Harry picked out this fine mahogany box for your grandparents.” (“And your point would be?” I asked).

The morning of the funeral I drove to the wrong cemetery. Was that deliberate? Perhaps.

The day the men in black came to escort her out of her room, excusing themselves for being late, I said, “It’s OK. There’s no hurry.” By then my cousins Bonnie and Jeri and my nephew Mike had come to the room. In between crying I was laughing over Rose stories.

Just before they bent to take her, I said, “Wait, can we just make sure she’s gone? Can we check one more time that she isn’t breathing?”

I did not want the moment to end. I did not want to say goodbye.

Jane Fishman is a former columnist for The Savannah Morning News.


afk4life said...

Thanks for sharing, it's very well written. For me I just try to spend time as much as possible with people I care about before the funeral, that's how I will remember them and I'm fairly sure its how they'd rather be remembered as well.

Ms. Moon said...

I am so grateful to you for introducing me to Jane Fishman. This is a beautiful piece of writing and everyone should know that death can be peaceful and beautiful and funny, too. That we all die and we don't pass on or go over or meet Jesus, we die. And that is fucking OKAY! and the way it is. It's hard to let go, yes. It's hard to say good-bye, yes. But it's what we must do.
I love you, Ms. Bastard.

Kathleen Scott said...

Thanks for posting this, SB. It helps us all to hear stories of living and dying. Lessens the fear.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Sounds VERY WISE to me, love.

You know you are dear to me.


Sarcastic Bastard said...

Ms. Moon,
My pleasure. I knew you would appreciate Jane. She is our kind of people.

I love you EXTREMELY.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

You are my dear friend, and you are welcome.


Jeannie said...

Good choice to pass along.

Love you.

Syd said...

SB, this is beautiful. I remember the coroner asking why my mother waited so long to let me know (2 hrs) after my father died. I think that she wanted to sit there and just be with him. To make sure. To say a few things. I know that I didn't want those who I loved to leave me but I couldn't hold them here on earth.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Thanks, Jeannie. You know I love you back!

Sarcastic Bastard said...

You are a sweetness. Glad you liked the post.

I'm sorry about your parents. I am dreading losing my folks in advance. It must be one of the hardest things.



Lori said...

Thanks for posting this. As you know I was my late husband's full time care provider. In the beginning his prospects were wonderful, until they gave him a damn staph infection in his heart. Once I felt in my gut that he didn't have long, I did everything I could to make him comfortable and happy. When he did pass away in the morning in our bed, he was surrounded by the people he loved the most in his life. The last week he suffered terribly, and I saw his eyes flutter up about 3 minutes before he exhaled his last breath. He was tired. He was ready. I didn't say goodbye. I just whispered in his ear to save a place next to him in the hereafter. I miss him everyday. I talk to him in my head, trying to imagine what advice he would have given me. People might die, but they are always with you forever.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

I'm sure Kenny was a sweetness. I'm also certain you took good care of him. He was lucky to have you.

Love you much.