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It’s only a matter of time

March 15th, 2004 · No Comments

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
—last line of James Joyce’s story The Dead

In Where do people die, and who finds the bodies? Lisa Williams wrote:

During the dinner after last night’s regular Thursday blogger meeting, one of the participants said that he had never seen a dead body — that he had never been to a wake where there was an open casket.

She then described her own experience with finding her father’s body and planning funerals. I can’t imagine what it would be like to discover my dad dead in his own home. Or to be the one to carry out his last wishes. Her story and strength amaze me.

Reading Lisa’s post reminded me of my own experiences, but what happened to me was much more predictable, at least that’s how it seems to me.

I’ve already blogged how the first time I saw someone die happened to me in college while I was shadowing a surgeon in the E.R. It affected me, but I also wondered if there was something wrong with me, that in my two decades I had not yet seen a dead person.

Years later Ted and I would experience deaths in both of our families: a few of his relatives and my brother. I had had nightmares for years about my brother’s death. They were evil dreams, ones that I could only make go away by praying. I would wake from sleep in the middle of the night too upset to sleep after seeing my brother die at the kitchen table, his face falling into a bowl of cereal.

Growing up, I always sensed I would see my brother die. A brain tumor almost killed him when he was a baby, and although my brother survived the cancer, he was mentally retarded and had many medical problems. My other siblings and I knew his life might end before ours. I expected it.

But it still shocked me when doctors discovered another tumor, a huge malignant one, growing inside my brother’s brain, decades after his surgery and survival. I still remember shrieking on the phone when my mom called to give me the diagnosis and the estimate: only two to four months of life left.

My brother stayed the same for a while. At that time Ted, Abigail and I were living in San Jose. I told my mom I wanted to try to come and see him. Then suddenly, in December, my brother began to go downhill quickly. He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t see. My mom stayed at home from work to care for him herself. She didn’t want him to go to a hospital.

One night, a Monday, my mom called and said if I wanted to say goodbye to my brother, I needed to come now. So I called Ted who had already arranged with his boss for this moment: he could work from home with Abigail for a while. I bought a ticket to Seattle and flew that night, driving home in the dark in a rental car.

My sister came home from Germany later that week and we had one night sitting around the table, we siblings and my mom, playing Scrabble and drinking wine, my ill brother propped up in the middle of us all. Eyes blind, perhaps he believed we had all come home, perhaps that we were all children again.

The next morning when my mom went to wake my brother, she found that he had died in his sleep. I am glad and grateful that my mom had kept him at home and that he got to die in his own bed, in his own pajamas, in the room where he had spent most of his life. I think it was probably the best it could have been for him.

I believe Someone worked it out that my brother died during the one day that both my sister and I were home. A day earlier or later and one of us wouldn’t have been there. It was a little blessing in the sad situation.

I think it was good for all of us that my brother died at home. I remember his body, how parts of him were purple, how stiff he felt, how heavy it was to pick him up. It would have been completely different if it had happened in a hospital. It would have felt detached and distant. We wouldn’t have had the privacy and family time that we had at home. We wouldn’t have grieved the same.

Lisa mentioned there should be a How To manual. I can see that could be useful. For my brother, it was simple. His death had been foreseen, even predicted. So all my mom did was call the doctor and then the funeral home. It seemed to take them a long time to arrive. Then the men came, these strangers in suits, backing a large windowless van up into the driveway. My brother was carried out through the front door on a stretcher, covered in black, like an enormous trash bag. That’s what came to mind as I stood there on the side, watching these men take my brother away.

Seeing my dead brother changed me. As his older sister, I saw his life come and go. I realized that it could be me next. I may be here today and gone tomorrow. There aren’t any guarantees for my next birthday. Not that I want to die. But I know that death is a part of life. It will be my turn one day.

I think that death used to be a more common experience. It was a part of daily life. Families lived together rather than apart, multiple generations sharing community. Babies often didn’t survive until 2. Women gave birth at home, and sometimes both would die, mother and child. Grandparents and older relatives were cared for at home, not the hospital. There were accidents. There were wars. There were struggles to survive each day. Death happened. It wasn’t something as frightening or as foreign as it is now, I imagine.

Now I can go buy meat and not have any idea how it was killed. Or even any concept that it once was alive. It’s an inanimate object, sterile on a white tray and wrapped in plastic. We are divorced from death as a culture. And I believe that this separation and sanitization from death distorts our view of life.

This separation and avoidance also affects funeral planning. It’s an awkward topic. Lisa described a bit of her own family’s conversation. Years ago, I wrote a short story where a family dialogued about what would be done when the dad died.

William looked to his right…”When I die, cremate me…”

“Dad, why are you discussing this now?” Michael frowned…

“Don’t you want to be buried and have a proper headstone?” asked Madeline…

For Ted and me, I think we’ve agreed that we should do whatever’s best for the kids and whoever is left. I don’t care too much what happens to me when I’m gone. I won’t be in my body. But my daughters and husband might want to remember me. And I’d want them to remember me the way they want to. Whatever and wherever they want is fine with me. So often I think the emphasis is on preparing for a person’s own funeral, making plans, so that the loved ones don’t have to do it in the midst of their grief. But I think Lisa made a point that sometimes those plans don’t fit with those who have to carry them out: what the dead desired is not what the living want to live with.

Being at home during my brother’s death helped me realize how alive I am. And I want to be prepared for whatever happens next. If I’m alive tomorrow in this body I’ll rejoice. And when I’m not making this body move any more, then I believe I’ll be alive somewhere else. It’s only a matter of time until it’s my time.

Tags: journal