I didn’t need a doctor to tell me that it was over.
On the way to no longer being, a person suffering from a terminal disease, like cancer, ceases to be his or herself. It is during this time, which is hopefully as brief as possible for all involved, that family or friends (or medical staff, if they are sufficiently human) will get the message and take immediate action. The objective, you quickly ascertain, is no longer to help the person get back to being the person they were, but to help expedite—or ease—the resolution that Nature is not always interested in accommodating.
From August 1997 through August 2002 my sister’s children were our family’s salvation. First the girl, six months old, all smiles, laughs (and dirty diapers) in the room where my mother recovered from that first surgery. We were all figuring out how to handle this (the situation, the operation, the prognosis, the rest of our lives) together, in real time which we found to be increasingly unreal. All the tension, distress and a sudden unfamiliarity with ourselves would have been unmanageable without a distraction. Thankfully, we had an adorable, utterly uncomplicated distraction, a gift that gave us all something to savor at a time when we may have otherwise had to fill every second with actions, words and especially thoughts.
Then came the boy, a little blonde baby born in the last week of May, easing us into the sweltering summer of 2000. A couple of weeks before the full schedule of hardcore chemotherapy commenced. How could we have made it through June and July (the heat, the hair loss, the sight of incorruptible staff pumping poison into my mother in order to make her better) without this ebullient newborn and his dedicated (and only slightly jealous) big sister? The pictures from that period are awkward metaphors: the pale and chemical-bloated grandmother holding two beacons of immortality in her lap, their existence injecting a purpose and animation the rest of us could not begin to approximate.
Every single day between March ’97 and the first week of August ’02, those two kids were the things my mother loved best in the world: more than any hobbies, more than memories, more than us, more than herself. We saw this; we understood it and we accepted it. During the more difficult times we embraced it, appreciating the forces of the universe for providing a source of vitality that money and medicine do not address.
In July we knew (the doctors told us, using their expertise to avoid telling us anything) and, having already wrestled with what and why, we turned out attention to how long. The next few weeks were not unlike portions of the previous five years in miniature: good days, okay days, bad days and awful days. But there had not been too many terrible days (most of those involved what each of us, in our own ways, experienced when we were alone, when we could finally afford to let our defenses down and enable our fears and suspicions to stalk us in the open, usually at night when the silence conspires against anyone who is hiding from something).
Eventually, and entirely too soon, based on what the doctors told us—even though they told us nothing—the worst days arrived; days worse than anything we ever could have conceived or prepared for (which might explain why the doctors don’t tell you anything).
Eventually, and not entirely too late, Hospice arrived. We told my mother about it and she endorsed our decision (What took you so long, she did not need to ask). That morning when the nurse arrived, a gentle saint sent from heaven (because, as you may see for yourself someday, some clichés are true—and you are grateful for them), it was the worst day. My mother, shaking and distracted, an innocent bystander as pain and fear reverberated inside, each struggling to assume full possession of her decimated body.
(My sister and I looking at each other, relieved that at least we had been together to get through the previous afternoon, the day our mother finally succumbed, the day the pressure and the dread—at long last—had become too overwhelming for her to bear, when she told us to make the suffering go away, when she begged the God who was not in that room to help relieve her agony, when she reverted back to being the child she could not remember ever having been, sobbing at the impunity with which this disease assaulted her, when she resignedly looked into our eyes, no longer a mother or a wife or a woman, now just a cornered animal in a cold alley, unable to see or understand what was tormenting her, and beseeched us with a desperation I hope never to hear in another person’s voice to make it stop, when she said please, make it stop and we said, earnestly and with as much honesty as we could convey: We will.)
Watching her that morning as her two grandchildren buzzed obliviously around the room. There was the moment, the exact second, that she became somebody else: she frowned (she was still twitching, her system yet to respond to the new medicine she had yet to receive) then the look, first impatience, then indifference; the way she waved her hand (Take them out of here, she did not need to say). She did not say that and she did not necessarily think that; she was incapable of thinking that.
And this is when I knew it was over. This is when I understood that the end had begun, because this was no longer my mother sitting—distracted and shaking—before me, this was instead a woman who had entered the last stage of a long, drawn-out, devastating dance with the illness she had loathed and feared more than anything else her entire adult life. She was no longer herself and she was no longer entirely with us, she was in a different place, that place some of us are obliged to go when our bodies, then our brains are assailed, inhabited by some malignant host, and we heed a primal imperative to follow that path until we arrive at the place where we no longer need to walk or cry or breathe or believe.
*excerpted from a memoir entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone.