Dying seems like one of those things that should be indivisible. Like a number that simply must be entirely itself and refuses to be split into smaller components. It isn’t. Dying is broken down into infinite parts. Unless you go by lightening bolt or thunderclap, it doesn’t happen all at once. At least not until it does.
She gave up yesterday. Sort of. Radiation has been happening at the same time, more or less, every morning. So when I got to the hospital with my cousin and her room was empty, we rushed down to the inquisition-looking room where radiation takes place. A black shape hangs on the wall. It has a head with a cage for a mouth and a body that looks like the vague outline they use for target practice. There’s a shelf on the wall that holds masks made out of laundry-basket plastic. They’re white. The mask itself is mesh, but the sides are solid and those sides have four holes drilled in them, two on each side.
Two days ago, she spent the last of her energy to get onto the table. It is a narrow table, stainless steel that they try to make kinder with blankets, and at the head of the thing is a plastic thing to prop up the patient’s neck. It looks about as comfortable as the lip of the sink you lean on when you are getting your hair washed at the salon. When your neck is positioned just so, the mask goes over your face – this one has my mother’s pert nose. I didn’t get that nose, I got my father’s nose. Those holes on the side, they match up with pins coming out of the table, so when you’re laying there, there is no moving your head. This is kinder, they tell me, than the old way when they taped you down and tattooed you in the exact spot where radiation was to be applied.
Two days ago, I was there when she went in. There when they didn’t know that, from Friday to Monday, she’d lost a lot of strength and wasn’t going to be able to walk the three steps from the gurney to the table on her own. They weren’t prepared and that lady of mine, she worked so hard to get where she’d been told to go.
Yesterday, I was only there when she got out. She looked at me like I was a date she was afraid had stood her up – no recrimination, just utter relief that her faith hadn’t been misplaced, that I was there, that there was an explanation. She didn’t know if it was night or day.
We talked to her radiation doctor. Yesterday was nine of the ten prescribed treatments, intended to hold the seizures back and help her with the splitting headaches. But the doctor said she didn’t have to do the last one. Too hard on her, she’s slipped so far in the past week. She doesn’t have to do them anymore. She asked the doctor what the next step in the fight was, and the doctor told her there was no more fight. She wanted to know what was next. The doctor said hospice, but I think mom meant to ask what dying was like.
I wanted to quote Serius Black at her: Quick as a wink. Like falling asleep.
But what do I know? I would have been wrong, anyway.
She gave up. At least part of her did.
We cried. Not like this was a surprise to anyone, not really. Weeks, days, it hasn’t mattered. She’s not going to be there for my nephews’ graduation. My niece’s (theoretical) wedding. Great grandbabies. All of that is going to go on without her and we’ve known that for a year now.
The last thing she asked was about my grandmother, who is alive and as well as you can be when you heart is breaking for your suffering child. A little pain medication and she fell into its arms willingly.
The dying sleep differently. It is uncomfortable to watch. Her head rolled back, her mouth wide open, her lower jaw sunk back into her neck. It is one of those small components of dying that shouldn’t be distinct, but is. Her lips are dry, so I put Eos lip balm on them. As a 100% alive person, she had this disgusting habit of picking absently at her nose. She’d pick holes in the membrane inside her nostrils, and then rub Vicks in the inner rim. It was gross. There’s Palmer’s Skin Oil by the bed. I bought it on … Sunday? I roll some onto my finger and keep her nose moisturized. Even now, I can’t talk myself into sticking my finger all the way up her nose. There are limits.
Sometimes she gestures at her face like she’s trying to perform this ritual, but she’s lost track of where all the necessary parts are.
Because she’s breathing through her mouth, I’ve been using the end of the straw to drip a little water into her mouth every once in a while. I could drown her like this, so I don’t give her a lot of water. I mean, being picky about how she goes right now doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I’d still rather not drown my mother in her hospital bed. They have swabs that you can dampen with water. I tried that. She bit down on it and wouldn’t let go. The straw works better.
Since, she’s been awake (that I know of) for two ten minute chunks. Not able to speak. I painted her nails while she was gone. I told her between doses of medication and she looked at them all wobbly-eyed and nearly smiled. Then she went back to sleep.
She breathes like there is a mixed marshal arts tournament happening in her chest. She’s not there. But she’s not gone either. I was expecting them to call me in the middle of the night to say that she’d given all the way up.
Until you see it, you think dying is indivisible. Barring bullet or crash, it isn’t so. You die gradually, a little bit at a time. In a minute I’ll wash my face and do something to keep my hair out of the way, then I’ll drive to the hospital with my cousin, and we’re going to go learn what it sounds like when a tough old lady fights the notion that she’ll never walk in the woods with her grandsons again.
Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do.