Monday, December 04, 2006

On Living On

My friend, Laura, her mother-in-law is dying. Recently Laura made a comment on Ren's blog that made me want to tell her this story. The blogosphere has been blessed lately to have several terrific articles about death posted -- Ren's heartfelt sharing referred us to a wonderful outpouring at 37 days, and Jim at earthhomegarden was just as eloquent. It is unlikely I will be eloquent, and very likely I will ramble.

I have said before that I think death is not so removed to those of us on the farm. In the fall and winter, it seems something or the other is always dying. Just as in the spring something or the other is being born. Birth and death. Different sides of the same coin. I didn't use drugs in childbirth and I do my best to not interfere with something's death but to honor it in its transition as it has honored me in sharing its life.

But death, and human death, was no stranger to me even as a child. My grandmother died before I was born. Her sister, my sort of substitute grandmother, died when I was quite young, too young to go to the hospital to see her, or to her funeral, or so the adults thought.

Next was my uncle Virgil. Now, Virgil was a case, you'd have to understand that. Small, thin, wirey -- he was the one who got in the fights that his younger but much bigger brothers got him out of. He had a nickname for everybody. He always scrubbed my head when he first saw me.

He didn't have a good family life. He was married twice and both women abused him. He drank, evidently a lot. I wasn't much if at all aware of those things then. He smoked. A lot. That I was aware of. And he took Alka-Seltzer by the bucketful.

He got stomach cancer first, but that was actually fairly easily treated. Then he got lung cancer, I'm sure it was less than a year later. His wife was crazy, said he got cancer to spite her, stuff like that. Again, I was a kid but these things I was marginally aware of.

And then one day Mother and I came home to find Virgil sitting in our back yard. Oh, he was so sick. He'd driven six hours just to get to his sister's house because he knew she'd take care of him. When he got there he was too weak to walk into the house. He settled into a bedroom, consulted local doctors, we got an oxygen canister in our house, and life went on. Not so different, but with Virgil in the house.

He still smoked, and darn near burnt the house down a few times. And I remember a few dramatic things, like coughing fits he'd have when I think everyone in the house thought he was dying right then. That's when the oxygen came out. I remember my mom and dad looking at each other, that silent communication that exists between husbands and wives -- but neither called for help. What help was there?

I don't remember much else specifically to be honest. He lived with us three weeks. He died three days after he left us, and he only left us to have a doctor check-up and the doc put him in the hospital then. And the funeral, with my mother having banned his wife, was interesting to say the least.

But what I remember most is sort of what I don't remember at all -- all the normal time in those last three weeks. I learned that it didn't matter how sick he was, he was still onery and funny Virgil. He was still himself. That is probably where I started to get a sense of reincarnation because his beingness was not diminished at all. I learned that death is not a bad thing. I learned how precious just the watching tv together was. I was somewhere around 12.

I'm not finding the right words, of that I'm sure, but I treasured, even then, that time I had gotten to spend with him, and with my family because of his dying.

His father, my grandfather, was already sick when Virgil died and died himself not that long after. He also had a somewhat lingering death in a series of strokes. There were several times he was in the hospital. The hospital then was a 17 bed hospital, if you can imagine that, where we could walk in any time and everyone knew everyone else, and it was run by a convent of Irish nuns. I still remember which room he was in when I got to watch a World Series with my other uncle, my hero. Did I mention that I really don't like baseball -- but I loved being with my uncle T. I remember what room Papaw was in when he died, that he had his next to last stroke on New Year's Eve, that the glycerin for his throat smelled of lemons.

I remember, for both of them, that caring for them was never, ever a burden but a joy. Stressful, certainly, and hard, but also a gift to us, the people who could give the care. Not that I did anything myself really, but I just always felt that those times were gifts the dying had given to me.

I have written of my father dying before. There are people in my life, now, who I am not able to be with as they are dying. I do not regret any time I have spent but I do mourn the time lost. While I remember their dying, that is not all I remember -- I very much remember their lives. And they do, in fact, live on in me. Patti quoted Jack Lemmon: "Death ends a life, not a relationship."

Neither death nor pain are bad things. Like birth.

"Do whatever it is you have to do to have no regrets." Debbie of SOFH told me that when my dad first got sick. I pass it on.

Day's End
Originally uploaded by
Contrary Goddess.

PS A link you must visit -- Funeral Consumers Alliance. I really ought to put that on my sidebar. The book Caring for the Dead is simply fascinating.


javaseeker said...

My wife and her sister are on a roadtrip right now. We don't often spend time apart--we enjoy our friendship too much for that. Time away does remind us, though, to be less wasteful of our time together in bickering and trivial stuff. Each day is a gift--no regrets.

laura said...

thank you for this. once again, i'm all out of words...

Ren said...

Thanks for sharing this CG. I also felt like I was rambling after reading the 37 days blog, Patti is quite the wordsmith!

There's been a lot of griefwork and thoughts about the life/death cycle for me this last year. I'm glad to have writings like yours, Patti's and others to ponder, digest and illuminate the journey.

Off to check the links....thanks again.

Ren said...

I forgot to share this:

I had my green cemetery picked out in Florida, but now that we're up here I'm not sure. My thought was to buy a pine box and use it as a shelf, then when I die my family won't have to worry about a coffin!:)
Maybe cremation is better at this point.

Anyhoo, I love the idea of green cemeteries (not exactly a new concept, but sadly a rare thing these days) and thought you all might want to read about it.

the Contrary Goddess said...

because I just have to acknowledge this . . .

my mother is not dead but very incapacitated and I haven't been able to see her in years. I'm pretty sure I've written on that at some point. It is such a huge pain to me. And suddenly it is so fresh again, because I thought, for just a moment, that she had died last night.

It brings up the deepest issues. I was raised with such different values than I have embraced as an adult, and yet it is like the reptile brain or something, I have to continually actively not honor the values of materialism, I have to decide that I am a loved child even though my parents both decided, in death, to not love me in the same way they always chose to show love to me when I was a child. Like so many things, it is a decision, not a feeling.

and like la, now I'm out of words.