Monday, September 27, 2010
We are born alone and die alone. This oft quoted axiom is so completely wrong that I wonder how it has survived throughout the years. Unless your name is Adam, having no mother and conceived from the earth, you definitely were not born alone. And if you have had love, a family, and good friends; you need not die alone either.
The most awe inspiring moments of my life have been those times when I have been present at a birth and at the opposing side of the scale, a death. Most people will surely recognize the joy that accompanies a birth but I felt it amidst the grief of losing the person I loved most of all in the world; my grandmother. It was an honor and a privilege to hold my grandmother's hand through her last hours and minutes of life.
My grandmother had always been the person I turned to most in my life, from childhood scrapes to teenaged heartbreaks and on into more adult troubles. I knew I had a faithful caring ear although not always a commiserating mind. She was strong and judgmental but kept her own council. She forgave and moved on in life with friends and family. She was truly the glue of our family. I loved and respected her and feared her death, knowing how much of a hole it would leave in my life.
Luckily, the end was quick. A stroke, a refusal of feeding tubes and any other life prolonging measures ensured my grandmother died as prudently as she had lived.
Her doctor conferred with me:
Did she really understand what refusing the feeding tube would mean for her health?
Without the tube she would die. I knew that, she knew that, and the doctor knew that but they usually choose not to use that word. Health care professionals prefer: expire, pass away, and other euphemisms that are all meant to avoid the word death.
I assured him that she was fully aware of her impending death. Several months before her stroke I had gone over to her house one evening specifically to talk to her about her death and if she was comfortable with it. Her only complaint about dying was that she knew how hard it would be on those of us left behind. I had this conversation with her not because she was close to death at the time, but because we all are.
In the days following the stroke she became less lucid and finally, on the 5th day of her hospitalization she was no longer conscious. That morning I had dreamed of my grandfather's face and although I am the farthest thing from religious, I felt it to be a sign that my grandmother would die that day.
I arrived around 6pm to find all of her living children and their spouses lining the walls of her room. Not one of them approached her bed. They were seated as far as possible from the soon to be corpse of their mother. She breathed strenuously and slowly, she looked like an old woman. I hardly recognized her as the person who had offered me cookies in the kitchen last week, last year, last life.
I went to her bed and took her hand in mine. I didn't let go.