June 4, 2012
TT: The long goodbye (I)
Sooner or later, the approach of death imposes an iron economy of illusion. The euphemisms that once sustained you start to cloy, and at length a time comes when you can no longer bear to speak or hear them. I saw it happen to a friend of mine who was dying by inches of a degenerative disease. One day he told me that he could no longer stand the company of optimists who urged him to "think positive." He knew he was dying and that the end would be terrible, and his only comfort, such as it was, came from being able to talk about it honestly with those of his friends who were willing to hear him do so. Not many were.
I remembered that conversation when the bottom fell out of my mother's life last December. She, too, was dying by inches, but none of us, including her, had been ready to face the truth until she was assaulted by pain of the most savage and unrelenting kind, an agony to which all normal remedies were unequal. Then, on the night after Christmas, she looked at me and said, matter-of-factly, "I think I'm going to die."
I replied, half stupidly and half practically, "Do you mean eventually, or now?"
"Now," she said.
It was no time for gentle evasions. I promised that we'd do our best to take care of her and make what was to come as easy as we could. Then I stepped into the corridor, called my brother on his cellphone, and repeated to him, word for word, what she had said. He rushed to the nursing home, and within the hour a hospice-care representative met with us in my mother's room. The talk was simple and straightforward. Not long after that, she was given a dose of morphine strong enough to soothe her pain, and the only question that remained was the simplest one of all: how much longer would she live?
What is true for the dying turns out to be no less true for those who love them. Set aside the language of hope and you soon start speaking in another tongue, one that is frank enough to horrify innocent outsiders who don't know what it's like to watch a parent die. I loved my mother no less after I accepted the awful fact of her coming death, but I also caught myself saying things out loud that not so long before I wouldn't have allowed myself even to think. First came It's time, then She'd be better off dead, and eventually If she dies tomorrow, I won't have to reschedule our flight to California. It was crass and callous and I hated myself for it, above all because I knew that it was nothing more than the plain truth.
Try as you will, you can't ignore the daily necessities. As W.H. Auden wrote of human suffering in Musée des Beaux Arts, "It takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along." Barely an hour after my father died, I took my mother to a Burger King around the corner from the hospital, where we ordered Whoppers and chatted lovingly about his quirks and foibles. He was dead, after all, and we hadn't eaten the whole day long. It would no more have profited my father for us to starve ourselves than it would have profited my mother for me to forget that when the funeral is over, the mourners must go back to work sooner or later--usually sooner.
* * *
From the end of December, when I returned to New York, to the beginning of May, not a day went by without my thinking of my mother's death. At first I thought about it constantly, taking for granted that it would happen in a matter of weeks and--yes--at what I assumed would be an impossibly inconvenient moment for me. (Shame! shame! I told myself, unable to repress the selfish thought and unwilling to acknowledge, much less accept, that everyone thinks such unworthy things at one time or another.) But she didn't die, and I got used to the idea that she might cling to life for an unknowable amount of time, and that every day she stayed alive would be a day of suffering, not only for her but for all those who knew her best and loved her most. Dostoevsky said it: "Man gets used to everything--the beast!"
Having long been in the habit of calling my mother every night or two from wherever I happened to be, I now found myself conducting one-sided phone "conversations" in which she whispered the feeblest of greetings, then listened in silence while I rattled on at length about what I'd done that day, trying in vain to distract her. She was too weak to say anything more than hello, or even to grasp the receiver in her hand. Instead my brother stood at her bedside and held it to her ear, assuring me afterward that he could tell from the look in her eyes that she was glad to hear my voice.
In March I carved four days out of my schedule and flew to Smalltown. I knew that the last month of the Broadway season would be unusually crowded with opening nights, and feared that if I didn't see my mother at once, I might not be able to get back again until the final crisis. By then, though, I had grown accustomed to the notion that she might linger indefinitely. It never occurred to me that she would have deteriorated so much in the preceding three months that the sight of her would stun me. I had to exert the utmost self-control to keep my knees from buckling when I first saw her lying in bed, ashen and wasted. ("I didn't try to warn you because I figured it wouldn't help," my ever-sensible brother told me later that night. "Nothing could have prepared you for the way she looks now.")
"I'm here, Mom," I said, trying to sound unshaken. "I told you I was coming, and now I'm here."
She looked up and asked, "Is it really you?" It was the first full sentence that she'd spoken to me in a month.
"It's me. And I love you."
I stretched my hands as far apart as I could. "This much," I said, and she smiled one last time at the ritual that had sprung up between us not long after she went into the nursing home the preceding summer.
No matter how ill she might be, my mother had always been able to pull herself together whenever I came to see her. For a few minutes it almost seemed as if she might still have the power to draw back from the brink of death. But such energy as she was able to muster soon ran out, and I spent the rest of my visit sitting by her bedside, telling her what was new with Satchmo at the Waldorf and playing the songs she loved on my laptop.
The bare, banal words "failure to thrive" ran insistently through my mind as I looked upon her shrunken form. That, the doctors said, was what was wrong with my mother, pretending to explain what they could only describe. For months she had eaten less and less, then next to nothing. Though she assured us throughout the summer and fall that she wasn't ready to die, she was no longer doing the one thing that might have made it possible for her to live. We understood: she was tired, and it was time.
I went home to New York knowing that I might be called back to Smalltown without warning. Thereafter I took care to keep my cellphone turned on and fully charged. I continued to call my mother every day or two, but most nights my brother would gently tell me that she was asleep, and finally I understood that there was no point in trying to speak with her any more. The time for talk was over.
(First of three parts)
Posted June 4, 2012 12:00 AM