A day of glorious sun and gentle breeze, a breeze pregnant with thoughts of death. A short week of mountain hiking, Spirit Lake and Mt. St. Helens an arm’s reach away, death at my fingertips. Another few days of biking the San Juan Islands, empty roads, beach picnics and tired muscles talk to me of death.
The car heads home, my husband and I dirty, exhausted, ready for the comforts of warm shower and soft bed. But first we stop to visit my mother. We find her in her tiny bed, in her tiny room, in the tiny world of a dementia care facility we now call her home. It is 4:45. She opens her faded blue eyes. Is it fear I see there? A plea for help? Resignation?
“Do you want to get up, Mom?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says. It is the only word she speaks during our visit.
I find a caregiver and ask why my mother is in bed at 4:45 on a Thursday afternoon.
“She rest after lunch,” she tells me in accented English as she follows me to my mother’s room.
Is it a whine, a gasp, a moan that escapes Mom’s lips as the caregiver straightens her legs and pulls her to a sitting position? Mom clings to my thumb. Tight.
A death grip, I think.
If only, I think.
You’re wicked, I think.
I pry my thumb loose and step aside to allow the first caregiver, now joined by a second, to wrap a lifting strap around mother’s thin frame. Together they hoist her into her wheelchair. Dead weight.
As I wait, I check the hospice notebook kept at bedside. The hospice nurse visited the day before at 4:00 and found Mom in bed. She expressed no concern, did not question why my mother was still in bed so late in the afternoon.
Is this the new norm? I ask myself.
I remember the opposite end of life, my daughter as a young child. I remember how each time I adjusted to a new behavior pattern – eating, sleeping, tantrums – it changed. Sometimes the cycles of change were shorter, sometimes longer, not always the six months mentioned in parenting books. The only thing certain was that just as Tom and I got used to our little girl acting in a particular way, she changed. There was a new norm.
“I don’t think she’ll last the year,” Tom says as I wipe my tears on the way to our dusty car, still full of camping equipment, still crowned with bikes, still holding the magic of hilly island roads and majestic mountain trails. Still haunted by thoughts of death.
I do not believe in hell or heaven. Sitting up on a fluffy cloud drinking gin martinis – nope, don’t think so. Nor do I believe that my mother will meet up with my father and sister when she dies. Death would be so much easier if I could believe, but I cannot.
What is death? In my mother’s case, the body is slowly shutting down, the messages no longer passing from brain to spinal column to muscles. When the messages no longer make it to the heart, the heart will stop and life will end. The body, my mother’s body, will be nothing more than a shell of the vibrant, strong, beautiful woman she once was.
But that woman is already gone. What is left is already a shell with no memory, no recognition, no pleasure. My mother is living her own death but her body does not die. When it does, nothing will remain but the memories of her held in the hearts of her loved ones and that genetic piece of her carried forward by each of her eight living children and numerous grandchildren.
I am guilty of wishing my mother’s death. I carry that wish on mountain trails and along island roads. I carry it to writing practice, to movies and readings, to college classrooms. It is a death wish that I cannot release, that I will not release until my mother is dead. I wish for one strong stroke to stop the endless stream of insidious mini strokes that have, over the last ten years, stolen my mother’s words, memories, recognition, small motor skills, and finally large motor skills. Unlike watching my daughter’s growth, my mother’s new norms are not joyous celebrations of new skills acquired or stronger struggles for personal independence. Mom’s new norms are nothing more than the dreadful stages of a body moving at a snail’s pace towards an inevitable end. So if I am a sinner for wishing my mother’s death, I claim the title.