Rob’s mom passed away last Thursday. As much as we have spent the last 5 years that she has battled cancer preparing ourselves for this, somehow it still came as quite a shock. I’ve heard this same thing in “cancer stories”…from other folks who have lost a loved one and endured a torturous end. Now I know what they mean.
A very frail woman, the doctors gave Carol 3-10 days at the end, and she lived for 18. For the last 4 of those, she was sleeping almost constantly, but sometimes waking to say something. One of the strangest things about witnessing death and dying is that you never really know how conscious the person is. Do they hear you? Can they process what you are saying? If they wanted to, could they shed a tear? Are they smiling inside? Or crying? Are they scared? What do they see, their eyes fixed at half-mast? Are they dreaming? Sitting by someone’s side, for hours at a time, it’s impossible not to wonder these things…silently and aloud. It’s impossible not to move through the whole gamut of emotions — anger, frustration, impatience, hope, peace, yearning, sadness, nostalgia, acceptance, gratitude, even joy…and back again, over and over.
It seems, in Carol’s case, that she hung on until everyone in the family arrived. And perhaps most humans in her state would then release themselves somehow, but my sense is, she realized the kind of accidental family reunion she had created in her wake, and held on a few more days to keep it alive. What an irony.
And yet not. It makes perfect sense, as each family member, down to the toddlers, sat by her side, watching her sleep, rubbing lotion on her fingers, telling her it was okay to go. How could she miss all that togetherness?
It struck me, 1000 times during that heart-wrenching and extremely difficult week, the beauty of family gathered in this way. Every combination of individuals taking their turn at the bedside; three generations accounted for – the wise elders, the busy, capable 30 and 40-somethings, the blissfully naive youth. There were countless moments of pure grace — hands on hands, mingled tears, singing, and each individual being exactly who they are — and there was a deep recognition of the cycle of life. There we were, watching an elder sleep, days and hours from the end of life just as one would sit and watch a newborn sleep, hours and days from the beginning of life. None of it was, of course, photographable, and hardly any of it can I even expect myself to retell. Doing so would somehow seem sacrilegious, but in my heart I hold those moments, now as they blend together, as some of my most poignant to date. Life altering — I don’t know yet quite how.
And so, we return to our lives with a hole in them. Returning to a whole lot of business as usual…toast in the morning, a litterbox to clean, a vegetable garden full of weeds, and all of the millions of daily occurrences during which we never noticed before how much she was a part of them, but notice now that she’s not.
We are re-entering slowly, as if returning from another universe — only answering the most pressing of phone calls and noticing how many things truly aren’t all that pressing. A bit more processing and a slower pace is pressing right now, as we attempt to wrap our brains and hearts around the strange feeling of having joined a club of sorts…the club of having “lost someone you love,” and more specifically the club of people who have lost someone in that way. Indeed, it does soften you. I find I am seeing the holes in things — the space. And so it is.