My mother-in-law passed away last Friday, we’ll call her Catherine.
On that same day, my friend’s grand-daughter was born.
It wasn’t a surprise, per se, that my mother-in-law died. She was a lifelong smoker and had been diagnosed with lung cancer just two months before. And yet, death seems to take you by surprise, regardless of the amount of time you have to prepare.
It wasn’t a surprise at all that a baby was coming. And yet, nine months of reading and preparation – and whether it is the first, third, or seventh – never fully readies a woman for birth. It comes on strong and takes you by surprise.
Nearly two months to the day after the initial diagnosis, I found myself in a hospice room: holding Catherine’s hand, listening to her labor to breath, listening to her labor to die.
Downstate two hours away, my friend was in a hospital room: holding “Anna’s” hand, listening to her labor to breath, listening to her labor to give birth.
At the hospice home, my children came in to see their grandmother: to hold her hand, to tell her they loved her, to line up single file with their cousins to present her with various art projects they had made for her that day.
The next day she slipped into a coma.
Still, the art projects were there for her – those tangible signs of love. People were there for her, too. Her husband, her sons, her daughters-in-law, her grandchildren, her friends, her other family members – those living testaments of love. She wasn’t alone.
Downstate, a young woman had her family with her. And her future husband by her side. She wasn’t alone.
I have read a lot of books in my life, many of them dealing with death in some fashion: The Fault in Our Stars, If I Stay, Les Miserables. But all the reading in the world couldn’t prepare me for that messy business.
The Fault in Our Stars talks about death by cancer. But it fails to show the nitty gritty of a person practically disappearing before your eyes as you watch the cancer – that ravenous beast – eat at the person you love from the inside out.
If I Stay was a fine fantasy novel, but my mother-in-law didn’t have that choice. Not any more. Not at the end. Death comes to the door whether we are ready or not.
Les Miserables comes closest to the truth, talking about suffering and redemption and dying for another person over and over and over again. But it’s over quickly, death in a book. And even when it is described in some vague detail, it can’t affect us the way seeing our real live loved one slip from our hands does.
See, some people in that hospice home were Fantine: no one there to hold their hand, alone in the last part of life’s journey. Some even, I’m sure, without hope.
And this is what I want to say: that death – like birth – can be messy and gruesome in its transition. But if we only spend our days talking of the birth pangs of life, expecting that death comes on a trip to Europe, or by choice in an ICU, then how do we expect the future generations to respond? What are we teaching our children? Do we inadvertently teach them to avoid it at all costs? Even if the cost is too much morphine? or a convenient needle at just the right time to avoid all that messy business of suffering?
One day. One life ended. One life began. It’s messy, this life. Let’s remember to help our children engage it. Let’s stop pushing the uncomfortable bits under the rug, to be dealt with later. Can we help them to love now, so that they are prepared to love in the end?