“All the leaves are brown; and the sky is grey …”
The Mamas and Papas
The verbs and functions began to fall away like the September leaves. Some faster than others, the “helicopters” spiraled to their demise and others quietly and unhurriedly floated to the ground. One thing was undeniable – they were never to return.
Consistently, I would strive to put myself in my dad’s place and ask myself, “what would it be like to be too exhausted or weak to sit up?” It was very tough, if next to impossible to imagine. The next certainty I realized was that if you were not there to witness the gradual host of failings, or had not been through the “palliative experience,” one would be even less able to fathom the process.
Almost on a daily basis, I would ask him if he would like to talk on the phone to anyone who lived in other towns or provinces. The answer was sometimes “yes” and mostly “NO”. I think it was initially mortifying for him to have his baby there to assist him with these simple actions that the majority of us routinely take for granted.
Often, I would throw out names. “Would you like to talk to…?” Alas the answer would certainly be “NO”. If the answer was “yes,” I would dial and hold the phone and we would both pretend like I was not really there. The recipient of the call did not know that I was The New Arm, his new clandestine accessory, whose duty was to hold the communication device.
They were not aware of the three-step process: dial, wait, disconnect. Usually, he would speak for a few minutes and if the lucky recipient was able and time permitted (at this point, Time was all we had on our side), then the conversation could occasionally last for ten or fifteen minutes. Occasionally, my arm would get sore or tired and I would want to shift around, and I would remember that at least I still could. I would choose to remain motionless, choose being the operative word.
The usual suspects had their typical round of questions, which usually irritated him — ergo the reason for not wanting to talk in the first place. What can you ask that is inspiring, interesting and or relevant in this unpromising Life circumstance? “How are you? … How are you feeling? … “
They are of course attempts to make conversation, not really make a difference. And yes, it could be a struggle to scare up and scramble some words into some kind of poignant, understandable assembly. What does one really talk about at This Time? Especially when you are not in the mood to live out a chapter of “Tuesdays With Morrie”?
Some people have The Gift. Some people avoid these conversations like poison and some just ad lib with abject speed and detachment. What is the underlying motivation for these conversations? F-E-A-R. The fear of our own demise that glares in our face may be the primary trigger. Plus there could be discomfort in knowing that this could be the last conversation with our loved one and this could also play a part in the anxious unknowingness.
No matter, they are both inevitable. There are also the conversations after our loved one dies that we must prepare for and then these conversations can be even more excruciating or often simply non-existent. What can we possibly one say in this moment that is proper or comforting? Commonly, it is an apology … and for what: The inevitable? One of my favorite lines is, “I cannot even imagine,” and this could mean how the person is feeling, how they are doing, etc. The point really is to say SOMETHING.
What we most often trick ourselves to believe and are even more sadly, tempted to DO is what WE think is the right thing at that time, or would like to have said to us or done for us. For example, I use the same philosophy for gift-giving. What would my friend like for her birthday … NOT what would I like my friend to have for her birthday. It is irrelevant what we want in any of these situations – what matters is making it about the recipient, not what we want, think they want or feel like giving. What is it they really want? Sometimes it is nothing. Or silence. Listen to what they ask for. And muster up enough gumption and grace to give it to them.
During his time in Palliative Care, my Dad often just wanted some kind of normalcy. Even if he did not participate, he would listen to the conversations orbiting around him and once in a blue moon he would throw out a tidbit of a comment or ask a question. His grandkids were his delight and pleasure. They often provided a source of entertainment for him that was like watching sports (his other Love).
Watching and listening to the grandkids in his room was like watching a hockey game in the final period of a Stanley Cup game. Constant (verbal) jabs toward each other of course, furious texting and an innocent peppering of questions, “Grandpa would you like another blanket, drink of water, did I tell you I got an ‘A’!?” … all brought a sense of liveliness into an otherwise bleak situation. He was usually quiet, and listened, absorbed and relished.
The chosen few who can be present and real are a true comfort. At times a compassionate “sitting” is the only necessary gesture possible and more often than not, silently agreed upon.
When we knew for sure The Day was imminent, the hours became precious by the second. Music once again was a treasured partner and became the constant nocturnal companion (a personal Thank-You to whoever invented the “repeat” button). I knew that Death was preparing to pay her unfortunate visit to harvest my beloved Dad’s soul. And I hoped that while I slept in the chair next to him, at least Mozart and I were there to soothe and smooth during The Transition.
I always had a feeling I would get a phone call about The Transition. I did not want to believe that “it” would happen on “my watch”. But it did.
Rhonda Belous 2011