Curtain Down

Not long ago, my middle sister said to me on the telephone, “Do you ever think about your death? I think about mine all the time.” She laughed dryly. “I don’t suppose you do, given that you’re so much younger than me.” (She’s twelve years my senior.)

“I think about it a lot,” I replied, much to her surprise.

Okay, well, maybe not a lot, but certainly more frequently than I used to. It’s normal and healthy to wonder about how it will happen, when it will come. Will I have the luxury of watching it approach from afar and have time to prepare? (I’d love to throw myself a Going Away Party, a real Irish Wake with lots of food and beer and music and laughter; geez, yes, let there be laughter.) Will death strike suddenly in the guise of heart attack, aneurysm, or automobile collision? Will I I linger in any of a number of horrid ways, felled by disease, rendered immobile, unable to communicate? Will my wishes for a gentle passing and a DNR order be  honored, or will my family find themselves fighting those in authority?

(Whatever comes, I hope to be carried off by the Death from Discworld. If you aren’t familiar with the Discworld novels by Sir Terry Pratchett, stop when you’re doing and immediately order the entire set and get busy reading. I’m happy to wait.)

It isn’t only my death I contemplate, but that of my husband or my closest friends. How will I cope, assuming I outlive them? If I don’t outlive them, how can I help prepare them for my own leap from the lion’s mouth, my own step into the next Great Adventure?

Without being grisly or grim, I’ve had a larger than normal curiosity about death ever since my niece Leslie died in 1989 after 25 years of battling Cystic Fibrosis. I was one of those at her bedside and when she passed (the oxygen canula being removed from her nose at last) I heard her voice in my head, an exultant shout, “YES!” as a burst of energy surged upward and outward into the universe.

Believe me, I’ve received my share of skeptical looks after telling that story. Whatever. Believe as you like. I know what I know.

But after that, I longed to touch the mystery again, as well as prepare myself for the own parents’ eventual decline and death. I read DYING WELL by Dr. Ira Byock (a game-changer of a book that I recommend to everyone) and I volunteered with Hospice, providing gentle massage. One of the most profound moments was asking a cancer patient if she’d like me to remove her hat and lotion her bare head. Incredulous, she said, “You’d do that?”

“Of course,” I replied. “Why not?”

“I didn’t think anyone would want to touch it,” she said in a tiny voice that made me want to cry.

The skin of her head was taut and smooth; hot, flushed from the chemotherapy drugs. I can feel it even now. “Oh, my goodness,” she all but moaned when the lotion touched her scalp. “That feels so good!

The patients and families at Hospice taught me both the best and the worst ways to approach your own death or that of a loved one, and taught me not to judge. Some families rally around because of love, and some arrive as carrion crows in disguise. Some folks distance themselves out of unresolved anger, and some because of fear because death, which used to be such an interwoven part of our lives, is now a stranger in our homes. I could tell stories of the patients for whom I recommended removal from their homes due to neglect and outright hostility. I could tell you of the man who promised me that when I get to Heaven, he and I are going dancing while his wife and my husband go play golf.

One of my favorite memories is of the family who, upon learning that hearing is the very last sense to depart, lined up one behind the other outside my patient’s room and entered one at a time to climb into bed with him and tell him how much he was loved, how deeply he would be missed.

I hope that when, and however, that time occurs for me, I’ll live up to their example. 


3 Comments on “Curtain Down

  1. “I heard her voice in my head, an exultant shout, “YES!” as a burst of energy surged upward and outward into the universe.”

    I absolutely believe. I was in the hospital room with my mom and grandmother as my great-grandmother lay dying. Suddenly, with with a final, soft exhale from my grandmother, almost like a sigh, it was as though all the air in the room rushed out. I looked at my mom and said, “Did you feel that?” Wide-eyed, she said yes. It was my great-grandmother’s soul departing, and we both felt it as if it were an actual wind escaping out of the room.

    So, yes, I believe you when you say you heard her voice.


  2. This is so beautiful and thoughtful….yes!! I believe in the Mystery…looking around us at the world, all the people…and the skies….what is it but a mystery?? Thank you for this Melissa!!


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