Monday, January 5, 2009

Lessons in Dying

We learn that death is a part of life through the course of our own lives. Nobody sat me down to tell me, and I consider myself blessed to have learned at an early age. It doesn't get easier, but with each death I am closer to being able to cope with my own mortality.

Our family dog, Midnight, died when I was a toddler. My sister Toni considered him her dog because we got him when she was the baby of the family. Midnight was a mutt, probably part Labrador Retriever. He had a blue-black coat and a purple stain on his tongue that Toni would show to threaten anyone who might bother her. She said it showed how mean he was. After she thought she had scared someone sufficiently, I would place my hand on Midnight's tongue to show how gentle he really was. Midnight was hit by a car and died. Toni and I were devastated. Daddy went out somewhere and brought home a puppy the next day. I guess the lesson for a toddler was that life goes on.

The next death in my life was the most crushing of all. My mother died of breast cancer when I was twelve. It was 1958, the time when children were seen and not heard. Cancer was talked about only in hushed tones. I guess people thought that if you didn't say it out loud, it wouldn't happen to them. There was no chemotherapy in those days, only radical surgery and radiation. I knew about the surgeries, even though the hospital didn't allow visitation by children under twelve. I knew there was cutting and burning so that her chest was one big burn scar, and there was hardly any muscle left to her upper arms. But I didn't know she would die. Adults didn't talk to children about dying.

My Mother takes on a different life through family saga, so that I have come to know her from an adult perspective. She knew she was dying, and made her request for how she would be laid up for viewing. But that conversation never included me, the baby-girl.

I had a little more warning when my husband died. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in February, 1997. The doctor said it was inoperable. I didn't know that was code-word for "get your affairs in order." His only request was that he not linger and suffer. He agreed reluctantly to chemo and radiation, encouraged by a doctor who thought he could shrink the lemon-sized mass on the main artery to the lung, and make it operable. I did my research, hoping we would have two to five years. He died two months later in April 1997.

I have since lost a sister and a brother, and it doesn't get any easier for me the survivor. I wanted them to be in my life forever. But they were both philosophical about their own deaths. My brother was a quadraplegic and had lived 35 years after that tragic accident, beating the odds by 30 years. My sister had Parkinson's disease, and found peace after her struggle to even open her eyes every day.

On January 1, we lost Annie, my late brother's widow. It was Annie who helped my brother beat the odds, and helped him have a quality of life far beyond what any of us hoped for him. She was from Kenya, a nurse, and herbal practitioner. But more than that she shared an uncommon peacefulness with our family. Since my brother's death she worked in China, teaching English. She moved back to the States last year. And then we learned in August that she had terminal gallbladder cancer.

How do you comfort someone who is dying? It was Annie who was trying to comfort me. She said she was ready to go home and be with Ron. She died peacefully on New Year's Day.

The lesson does not get easier, but I have good examples to follow. May God grant me such courage.

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