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

Carousel

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”

– Virginia Woolf

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I recognize them by their trucks: the men of the town. Very few women drive trucks, but almost all the men do. Silver F-150s, blue striped GMCs, black and bright green Chevy’s, red construction and demolition Peterbilts. In fact, I live behind a demolition company and walk past their fleet of oversized red trucks every day.

Yesterday, I walked down to the harbor to have lunch and conversation in a truck. It was the blue striped GMC. Its interior was dusty and reflected the country life of its owner: green shotgun shell on the dash, Old Crow Medicine Show music playing from the tape deck, a pack of Marlboros shoved into a cubby hole, an iPhone, a can of Monster, old coats, older boots. The interior was that heavy carpeting of 1980s American cars: the stuff that binds upon itself over time and becomes softer but tangled, stands up from the floors and walls of the truck. As I sat there, I was struck by the memory of my mom’s Oldsmobile station wagon: our childhood car that had the same carpeting all over its interior, and velveteen and vinyl seats.

When we were kids, my brother and I would sit in the trunk of the car because there was a rear-facing seat in there and we could stare out the back window of the wagon and pretend we were driving backwards. I don’t think they make those seats anymore; I have a strong attachment to that memory. Houston, Texas, blue Oldsmobile station wagon, my brother giggling, my mother managing us, moving us across that landscape that was so alien to her. Streets of white asphalt that crunched under wheels and feet, dust, pine trees, humidity, intense heat. Pine needles turned golden as they fell off in the summer and fall, pine cone wars with neighbor kids, swimming, popsicles, Jello eggs.

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In high school, I spent much time in a town called Porter, Texas, which was about 45 minutes away from where I lived. Porter was home to my boyfriend’s grandmother, which is also where he lived most of the time. She lived on a few acres surrounded by a hurricane fence in an old, stationary trailer with an ornament of an eagle that hung off the pitched front window. In that kitchen I was served mashed potatoes and fried chicken and Kool-Aid and all kinds of other delicious things over about three years. There was a barn, too, and many, many rose bushes everywhere. She loved roses. There was also a large tree with a swing, a dirt road leading to the trailer, and whole lot of nothing else.

Porter, a town outside of Conroe and near Cut-n-Shoot, was in the piney woods of East Texas, on your way to Huntsville. The trees were tall and skinny, and shady. Despite the heat that seems to pervade all those memories, there was a calm in that shade, and I remember them moving in the wind. When it was very rainy, during the monsoons, sometimes, they would pop: literally explode from over-watering. They seemed to pop at different intervals, as if there were places in the trees naturally designed to expand into a large bubble of water and wood pulp. The smell of East Texas was strong, too: pine, and soil, and heat, and sweat. The sounds of trucks driving along the roads, lawnmowers, tractors, dogs barking, chainsaws. Raccoons lived there, in the woods, as well as copperheads and water moccasins in the rivers and streams. The sun streamed everywhere: I have so many patchworked memories of sitting in a patch of sun, on the dirt, on the ground, stirring it into designs with a stick, watching ants, playing with earthworms, drawing spirals and other shapes in the earth. I still do that, today.

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I am experiencing a feeling of returning and it is very disorienting to me, as if I have been spinning on a carousel for a long, long time, and it is finally stopping; as if the blur of pictures that you see whilst riding a hobby horse on a carousel are slowing down and coming into focus. This place, the country of coastal Maine, not my town exactly, but the places around it, remind me so much of those country towns of East Texas. The people are similar, they drive the same trucks, they do the same things with their time. There are fir trees here, not pine, but the smells and sights are so similar. Of course, in East Texas there are no beautiful granite formations or islands or the ocean, but the feel is there. It’s as if I have returned after a very, very long time. And I suppose, in some ways, I have. Thirteen years away from your family makes returning scary and challenging: starting anew, again, for the third time in a few years, living in small towns in a place with such a long, long winter. Exploring options, trying to forge a path.

I was speaking with a friend about his new bathtub the other day, and how, when he took his inaugural soak, he was transported back to the bathtub in his parents’ house, a series of memories about forty years old. He said he remembered how it felt to be in the bath, how the walls in the bathroom looked, and the sensation of holding your breath under the water as long as possible. We all did that, didn’t we?

And yesterday’s lunch in the blue GMC, with its carpeting and velveteen-vinyl seats, transported me back to a childhood outside of Houston that, at many moments, I plain forget. I thought I had forgotten so many sights and smells and sounds and memories of growing up in the almost-country of east Texas, and yesterday all these things flooded back: the train track behind my high school where a friend of mine got drunk and passed out on the tracks and was run over, my best friend’s almost El Camino and racing boys in cars in it while smoking cigarettes and jamming to the Rolling Stones, my boyfriend’s 280ZX and sitting on his driveway in the afternoons after school. Driving to Huntsville to sit in the sunken rose gardens at Sam Houston State University, time spent at a strange lake house in Cold Spring when I was weeks away from graduation from high school. Camping in the woods in Nacogdoches, making forts in the woods with neighborhood kids, reading books on a blanket in the front yard and waving to the elderly lady who drove past me in her Cadillac each day.

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My parents left Houston about six months after I graduated, and so I never returned there as an adult to have these memories cemented into my mind. Funny how things come flooding back, as you sit talking about nothing in particular, on a cold spring April day, looking at the water move against the dock, in a 1980s beat up pickup truck.

digging in the dirt 2Houston, 1987