Brushes with death... and life.

When my mom got close to dying, it really wasn't a shock or a surprise.  The end was depressing emotionally and enlightening intellectually, but it wasn't entirely strange or unexpected for me in some ways (and admittedly difficult in others).  From the time I was very young, my mom always talked about dying.  She'd preface statements with "When I'm gone..." and that sort of thing and genuinely mean it.  Not just the emotion; she had me thinking in terms of a finite existence.

I only had one grandparent remaining when I was born, and she was gone when I was only three.  Both my parents happened to be the youngest of their respective families which is why their parents were much older,  and then they in turn (though I was an only child) were older when they had me.  As a result, I've only know my aunts and uncles as old men and women.  To date, my mom lost a sister of her three siblings, while my dad is the second to last remaining in his generation of ten(!).  Factor in all the siblings' spouses and assorted cousins who have passed away over the years, and you'd be right in assuming I spent a good portion of my childhood in funeral homes.

On Dad's side we used to try to have an annual family reunion, but those faded out almost twenty years ago.  One year just before the reunion was to be held, one of my very young second cousins died in surgery to correct a congenital heart defect.  The reunion's organizers understandably thought it would be in bad taste to have a get-together so soon after such a tragedy.  The following year shortly before the next reunion was scheduled, another relative died, and it just wasn't proper to get together to celebrate right then.  And besides, everyone had just seen one another at the funeral, right?  That was probably twenty years ago, and the momentum was lost.  The first Dani met of most of my extended family was at my mom's funeral.  Because that's our family reunion now.

As upbeat as my partner Dani is, you'd never guess how intimately she is involved with death and the dying.  When we first met she was working both for a radiology clinic and was in charge of a cancer charity plus running a support group after hours for cancer patients and their families.  Before and subsequent to that she was involved with Alzheimer's patients in one way or another.  Presently she works at a hospice.  Patients die literally every day around her from all manner of terminal illnesses.  However exciting your spouse's office dramas are, I'll bet they don't regularly feature death scenes.  Sometimes we'll be talking on the phone while she's at work and she'll stop and say, oh, sorry, she'll have to call me back; someone's dying.  With anyone else you'd read that as figurative hyperbole, but, no, that's what goes on there.

Still, when my mom was diagnosed with cancer about a year and a half before her death, we were all sort of in denial.  I mean, intellectually we knew there was an end coming (like I said, she'd been going on about that for years).  But it just didn't really click.  After all, we always thought my dad would go first.  See, my folks moved from the country to their current neighborhood back when I was in college.  Dad had the beginnings of heart problems that made it difficult to keep up a rural home with lots of land.  I only came home on the weekend, and not even every other one after a while unless he specifically requested otherwise.  It was taking a toll on him and they knew they'd better get out before it killed him.  As in literally.

The first house they moved to upon retreating to suburbia was a two-story, and it was a bad idea they didn't pick up on right away.  They only stayed in it for a year before realizing that the stairs were wearing Dad out.  Don't worry; they didn't lose any money on the deal and ultimately moved into one better suited to them and right down the street.  In the years subsequent to all this my father has had a double bypass, two stents put in (separate occasions), and a minor heart attack.  The latter could have been much worse were it not for the fact they live right across the street from a major hospital.  (No, this is not by accident.)  On top of everything else, he has had an abdominal aortic aneurysm for years that grows ever so slightly between each annual scan.

My mom saw her role as taking care of my dad until his bad coronary health caught up with him.  We didn't know how much time he had left, but we figured she'd overtake him, right?  Then she showed up with cancer.  This was a few months after my aunt, Mom's sister and ten years her senior, moved in with them following a bad fall in which she broke her shoulder.  The three of them would sit around and lay odds on who was going first.  My mom was always the longshot until she received her diagnosis.  The day she passed, her sister repeated over and over at Mom's bedside, " should have been me."

For all the sorrow, there was a lot of relief too when the end finally came.  You don't see the dying process in movies.  Cancer patients look sleepy as they say something witty or poignant, and then pass on quietly into the great unknown.  They close their eyes, their grip relaxes, and... scene.  In reality it generally doesn't work like that.  There's this gradual slipping away, sure, but it's over the course of weeks or months.  Things shut down both mentally and physically.  It's difficult to witness it.  Someone you love is winding down in ways that aren't graceful and poetic; they're awkward and painful and sickening and unpleasant.  Surprisingly, by the time of Mom's funeral almost a week after she passed, I felt almost buoyant.  So did my dad.  We had worked through a lot of grief in the meantime and we emerged from that with this near-euphoric feeling that I think was born out of that horrible stage finally being over.  We'd still feel the loss, but the most terrible phase, the one no one really warns you about, was behind us.

My mom's sister preceded her by more than a decade when she passed away after succumbing to Alzheimer's.  She suffered with it for years, the symptoms slowly building to the point where it was impossible to care for her anymore.  When her family put her in a rest home, that's when my mom really broke down.  When her sister passed away several years later, my mom didn't cry.  She was surprised by this, but she realized that she had done all her grieving years earlier.  That was when she had really lost her sister.  Her body had given out, but her mind was gone years before that.  I didn't have the same experience, but I did a lot of my grieving when she started slipping away.  Like I said in other words above, there is a series of little endings before the big one.

Other than these rambling anecdotes, I don't really have a punchline here or any insight to impart.  The ironic timing of these events was that all the while one family member was slowly slipped away and leaving us, another one was slowly coming to life in Dani.  He's literally just beginning to kick inside his mother this week as I write this, a week after my own mother is gone.  Both experiences are new to me, at least up this close.  My family identity changed twice in rapid succession but in a zero-sum way.  As I said above (if you didn't know already), I'm an only child, so it was strange when my mom passed away to sit and have a conversation with my dad, realizing that was "a family talk."  All two of us were present; there was no longer a third.  And it's just as strange to me to think ahead not of just a "Dani and I" now, but in the as-yet unrealized concept of us as a family of three.  It's been a very surreal year.

Copyright 2009 Alexplorer.
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