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A Good Death

Helen's care went from difficult to constant. I look back and realize I haven't written anything for six months. Helen died July 31, 2004, in our living room, while David and I had nodded off on the other couch - just in case she needed anything at a moment's notice. Even the baby monitors were not effective enough in reaching us by this point. She had become very delicate. Very soft spoken. In the last few days, eating nothing and drinking very little. Yet it was a good death.

People told us it would be difficult. It would ruin our marriage. It would ruin our careers. It would take too much out of us - and that we needed to take care of ourselves. Well, it was difficult. Very difficult. It was hard on our marriage. We both battled bouts of depression. We were both, at times, worn to our last nerve. It took a lot out of us. And we needed time to regenerate after she was gone. It was a little like shell shock when it was all over. But if we had it to do over again, we would do exactly the same thing. There is nothing we regret. Nothing we could have given we did not give. Nothing that should have been said that didn't get spoken. Nothing that should have been done that we did not do.

We sent her off in love and peace. And it changed the capacity of our hearts forever.

Before she died, she got a chance to call her brother and sister and say everything she wanted to say to them. She called each of her friends and made her goodbyes. She got to visit with both her sons at the same time for a one night celebration - a good bye party she wanted to have before she died. Then Glenn came in to relieve David for one week awhile back. She got to tell him how she wanted to be taken care of after she died. And she was able, in her way, to express her love for him. "Tell Glenn how much you love him, Mom," I urged - knowing she might not get another chance.

"He knows! He doesn't need to hear me say it," she replied.

Her son Glenn, the compassionate poet, looked at her with the mature face of one who has long ago given up expecting his parents to change said "Yes, Mom, I know."

I was able to tell her what an amazing husband her son David had turned out to be, and how she had raised him to be a good man. David sat and thanked her for a long list of things that, gathered together, were the experiences of his life that he would not have had, if she had not brought him into the world.

She expressed all her regrets, all her disappointments. But she'd had a hard childhood, as we all knew. And we were determined that she receive better care going out than she had gotten coming in.

We gave her a soft teddy bear that she named "Sweet Baby" that she fell in love with, and brought with her everywhere, including the dining room table. Sweet Baby was respected with full honors - a plate, and silverware, if not food - or Mom would feel she had been slighted. The Sweet Baby was replaced with a teddy bear that Glenn gave her that had been his in his childhood. By then she wasn't naming things - she was forgetting our names - but she was smiling from ear to ear to have the familiar talisman.

We kept her warm. We read to her. We sang her songs. We kept her dry and clean. We listened to her complaints and tried to keep her as comfortable as possible. Most importantly, we kept her away from being poked and prodded and manhandled by strangers, which she most emphatically had not wanted.

If she had not been able to express love much - for it had never been much expressed to her in the early days of her life - she was able to express thanks. She was so happy to be in our home, in our arms, in our blankets, and not in some strange place. She talked often of death. In fact, it made us a little uncomfortable - her spirit was so strong, we thought she was going to be around for a long time. But she told us she was ready to die and she was going to die soon. And she was right. She said that the hardest part was saying goodbye.

So, she said goodbye a lot. Until she couldn't say it anymore. Then she looked at us with soft smiles and gave us partial words.

And then she slipped away in her sleep.
Exactly as she wanted to go.

How often do we give that to each other? How often is the end of a life the completing of a circle, with little grief and no regrets? How often do we have someone to listen to the last of our stories and understand that our lives meant something - if only to us? Why would we want our relatives to die any other way?

I know not everybody can do it. They have children, work, obligations that prevent them from being able to make the sacrifice even if they wanted to. We were lucky that most of my work was freelance and could be easily laid down and picked back up again. But what preparations has our society made for the care of our aging population?

We barely recognize the need for parents to have time with their new born children. As the Baby Boomers age, we will have more and more elderly people and less and less young to care for them. And much as they fly exuberance in the face of aging, it will catch up to them at some point - even if postponed. Who will be there for them? Who will ease their fears and listen to their stories in this hyper efficient new age global economy? Some nurse's aid that cannot afford to give them ten minutes at a time because the managed care they are receiving is managing the cost effectiveness of his or her time?

As much as we may worry about the loss of our Social Security, there is a more basic question we might want to be asking ourselves:
Who is going to be holding their hand?

Sarah Byam
10th October 2004

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