by Glenn Fairman 1/11/17
Miles away from my lonely garret, far off in the bleak and still night, my mother lays dying in hospice. In truth, she is beyond the hope of men and science: as an invisible lesion inside her brain feasts and expands exponentially – all the while claiming her personality as the despicable final humiliation offered to a brave and intelligent woman who has bore so much suffering.
In the course of a month’s time, during the arduous and interminable testing that accompanies these things, this aggressive cancer grew by a third to the size of a golf ball. In this short duration she went from using a walker to virtual paralysis: from carrying on a conversation to uttering the simplest of wants and chanting the same syllables in childlike repetitive fashion. When Medicine’s “Powers-That-Be” pronounced her case inoperable and only held up the most cursory of hopes using radiation and chemotherapy, we respected her wishes and brought her home to my brother’s house to care for her ourselves. When push came to shove, we would not let her go to a Convalescent Home to be cared for by strangers.
And so we wait. Watching her laying in bed or the jerry chair fills me with an impotent despondency goaded by the knowledge that no mortal hand can deliver her. As she is inexorably losing the ability to swallow and take fluids through a straw, my mother is steadily losing weight. The dehydration that accompanies such a condition cannot be remedied by intravenous means, for such an act violates the spirit of the hospice – a condition of controlled and buffered annihilation wherein we can offer her just enough pain and anti-anxiety meds to soften the anguish and to insure that her days that remain are as gentle as can be humanly engineered. Make no mistake: curative medicine is forbidden in the hospice. However, for those of us who must stand watch over her terminal journey that leads away from this life, it is important that we stand firm against the inevitable spiritual jaundice that accompanies our separate moral agonies. In the shadow of the Great Transition, we are called upon to distill some transcendent meaning about the beautiful character of a life that is even now sifting through our sorrowed fingers. But this is easier said than done.
I, myself, have been double-minded here. I suppose that it is somewhat common to disengage oneself from the dying: especially when their condition and communicative abilities render them opaque to us. But I know that this is mere cowardice. If the truth be told, it is because I know that my mother is in there scratching at the walls of her skin to be understood that sets my soul on edge. Such a vision has kindled a horror within my brain—and God help me, I cannot bear it. It is I who am in denial here. Consequently, it is not the time I spend with her that haunts me, but the hours away from her at night. It is here that I conjure up images of sitting on her lap while she taught me to read the newspaper at a precocious age or memories of her loving but fiery temperament. I cannot put away from my mind the way she loved us and her grandchildren and the memories of how I both pleased and disappointed her. This same vibrant and sacrificial life and the withered old woman in the bed are one, and it breaks my heart to know that she is soon to be taken away from us. I am both angry at her dying; and disgusted at myself for mourning my imminent loss while she still draws breathe and suffers so behind her failing veil of flesh.
Let it be said without equivocation: There is something grotesquely warped about a society such as ours that is so steeped in denial that it fumbles its coming to terms with death like some bloodless and sterile footnote utterly foreign to the human condition. Everything about the greater culture we inhabit is fixated on the young and nubile, while even the aging are portrayed as uber-vibrant grey haired- caricatures of the young. Death equates itself to defeat and is imprisoned in the dank corridor of our consciousness – that abyss we dare not gaze into lest it draw us into her inescapable maw. Science promises us years, but is silent on the content in which to fill those years. And ultimately, death takes us all: either in benign resignation or kicking and screaming through the fog draped path to the Undiscovered Country — fated to return no more to our weeping loves.
It is in sifting through the pots and pans of a life that one learns a wisdom hard-won. Old pictures of people we never knew or have long forgotten and tarnished knick-knacks in drawers that once meant something, held some vital purpose, or fulfilled some pleasure, all ring hollow. What was valued or highly prized so effortlessly passes into a trashcan without the least cry of resistance. Soon the treasures will be carted off or sold for a pittance, but the mundane stuff of a life will vanish and only the life itself will have meaning to those who linger but are soon to follow apace. We who believe in something greater than death will find solace in our hopes for we know that the summation of all life is more than pots, pans and pictures. As for my mother, Carole Ann Fairman, who has loved us more than her own life, I pray that as you enter into the Fair Pavilions, please glance back and survey the beauty you have left behind you. Until then, be at peace in the knowledge that we are there with you, bearing witness to a life of inestimable value.
Glenn Fairman returns from the wilderness and writes from Highland, Ca.
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