...when you've never done it before.
My mother-in-law, Margaret Terrone, or as I've always known her, Mrs. T, is in her last hours.
She made it past her 96th birthday, and she’s gone through countless surgeries (triple bypass, complete hysterectomy, rectocele) injuries, (broke one femur one year, then the other the next year, then she fell down the stairs and fractured her neck, her arm, and two ribs) — and that’s only in the past ten years.
Her life was filled with family — her four sisters, her brother, their spouses and kids — and of course her own family, her husband and three kids and their spouses and kids. And their kids’ kids. Unending meals, homemade pasta, and the best cheesecake anyone ever tasted. She kept a spotless house that welcomed everyone to her table. Her neighbors all loved her.
Now, she is bedridden after fighting for many years with increasing stages of dementia. It has been an incredibly difficult road, but Elena (her daughter, my wife) and I have walked it together and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity.
First of all, Elena is a rare and precious human being. The past six of our twenty years together have been, for me, a master class in the way of the bodhisattva. Many teachers have shown up for me during this time. Elena, Lorraine (our beloved aide who worked during the week, 24/7), and Sunita, also beloved, who worked Saturdays and Sundays, as well as Sattie and her family, our neighbors across the street who've helped in a million ways.
Elena kept her mother in her own home for as long as humanly possible. Then, we moved her in with us when that was no longer tenable.
And now, after two of the hardest months of my life — living with a woman who doesn’t know she’s screaming, who screams in her sleep even — Mrs. T is in the final stages of life on earth.
Of course, now the screaming has stopped. She is bed-ridden, and unable to open her eyes. Hospice tells us that in the last hours, she’ll be unable to close them. She can’t tell us if she’s in pain. Her mouth is agape. Her hands are shriveled. All of her bones protrude. And her limbs are turning purple.
This morning, to bathe and change her, Lorraine and I turned her as gently as possible onto her other side, and I got a good look. She hasn’t eaten anything in a week. How is she still breathing? Bones in loose skin sacks. It would be frightening if I didn’t love her so much. If we hadn’t lived so intensely together for so long. She’s been a fixture of our days for seventeen years.
Every day, Elena would find something with which to stimulate her joy. Road trips! Restaurant outings! Back yard barbecues. Park walks at the Sands Point Preserve, at Alley Pond Park, at Bethpage State Park, at Caumsett. The Orchid Show at the New York Botanical Gardens. The performance of old show tunes at the local library.
And then she drove us insane for a couple years.
And now we are bathing her body, speaking tenderly, trying desperately not to hurt her while we turn her from side to side to keep her fresh and clean. I learned the Hail Mary in Italian during a breakdown I had in 1984 in Italy. Now I say it to her every couple hours.
Every single one of us is going to die. Death is a part of all our lives. I don’t know why we have this terrible bugaboo about it. Even when it comes through early disease or accident or murder, it’s a fact of life.
But when you get the chance to tend someone you love with gentleness, it’s a true blessing. I had no idea what I was doing at first. But I watched the aides, and pretty soon, I got used to it. And then it became a sacred part of the day to care for the body of this ancient matriarch who’d made her imprint on everyone lucky enough to have known her.
I’m glimpsing the holiness of ordinary things.
I know now how to put the gloves on, how to make sure there’s a lined wastebasket nearby. I’ve learned the trick of scootching the chuck up along her back so that when she turns over, you can pull it taut on the other side. I’ve learned how to load a (no needle) syringe with liquid, how to pull her cheek up and administer the medicine. And the whole idea of human waste is just a simple fact now — not the daunting ew-ew that it used to be.
Keeping her clean feels good. Massaging her feet, her limbs. Combing her hair. I’m glimpsing the holiness of ordinary things. I feel for those who, for whatever reason, can’t experience this. And I bow to all who have.
Death holds hands with life. Don’t be afraid. Let it show you what love looks like in action. When you do, your heart will grow much bigger than your body, bigger than your mind, even.
And you’ll never be the same.