Taking Care of a Dying Person

I remember when I first met MawMaw, she told me to keep Cody on the straight and narrow. To be honest, she kind of scared me: this tiny, old person with a perm was clearly no woman to challenge. Over the years, though, I learned that tough exterior covered an extremely sweet person who felt herself to be much worse than ever could be a reality. She has given me and Cody so much, and so, when the time was right, we moved her in to our tiny, old house, and here she remains, in the slow and strange process of leaving the planet.

Last week was hard; it started with conversations with her dead sister Tootsie about Steve (her also dead husband) going out to the chicken coop in Bossier City only to discover a snake, would you imagine? We advanced to an admission of being afraid and a night of nightmares and everyone being awake trying to coax MawMaw back to our reality from one of her own. She sleeps with a little boy but doesn’t know who he is because she has never seen him. But, the last two days have been clear and almost normal. Her “symptoms” if you can call them that follow the pattern written out in the hospice folder. Perhaps we are within days, or weeks, perhaps not. No one seems to know anything specific about this mystery we call dying.

Taking care of a dying woman who cannot walk and who is bedridden while teaching 8th graders and trying to complete my first semester of grad school is very hard, and everything is suffering. I try to not take it all so personally: I feel defeated and grumpy all the time. I feel overwhelmed and sad and worried and anxious; I have a short temper with my students. I hope that will change, for their sake and mine. It is not their fault, after all, that they are teenagers.

She tells me funny stories sometimes, and sometimes I do nice things like give her a facial with lovely oils to soothe her “onion-skin” as her nurse calls it; paper-thin, almost translucent, and apt to dry out and tear if we aren’t careful. She still has her sense of humor and she winks at me when she is being wicked. I appreciate that very much. When she gets upset I ask her to tell me things about her children when they were little and about Bill (her husband) and when they got married, and how he built their house for $6000. Many times now, she doesn’t remember the details.

I have been watching her sleep and she reminds me of a puppy right now: moving, twitching, frowning and smiling as she remembers…something. I feel she is reckoning with her life at the moment, when both awake and asleep. She said the other day she wished she had been a better mother.

This process is slow, and it is also fast. Sometimes it feels like longer than 4 months, and then I realize how short 4 months actually is. So much has changed for us; our marriage is better for this experience as we actually have learned both to communicate and to take care of/appreciate the other one. We say “thank you” more and give each other breaks when things are hard: walk away even, or just kiss one another or hold each other’s hand rather than trying to prove something. These are good things.

As I type this, the north wind is blowing around the house, as it likes to do on some winter nights. I wonder how much longer she is with us, and if the wind will take her away one evening. I know the wind is a woman, and she a harbinger of change, especially in winter. We all talked about death the other day; we are all on the same page. We will be all right when it happens. Like she says, she has to get to heaven to be with her mama again, and her sisters, her brother, and her husband.

Such a mystery this life.

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am in a thousand winds that blow,
I am the softly falling snow.
I am the gentle showers of rain,
I am the fields of ripening grain.
I am in the morning hush,
I am in the graceful rush
Of beautiful birds in circling flight,
I am the starshine of the night.
I am in the flowers that bloom,
I am in a quiet room.
I am in the birds that sing,
I am in each lovely thing.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there. I do not die.

– Mary Elizabeth Frye

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