Friday, November 9, 2007
Heart Menhir, Cote Savage, Brittany
Photo by Carole Harmon
Life is slowly taking away my father. The other day as he waited for an MRI, a picture into his wounded, decaying body, he turned to my mother and asked, “Am I dying?” “Of course not!” my mother replied, likely out of her desire to locate some permanence in the man whose brain and heart and nerves are steadily refusing stasis. When she relays this story over the telephone, all the way across the country, I do not respond. I let her talk, telling me about the new doctor and the treatment plan and how she had known of his condition before the medical team. I don’t know what I would have said to my father in the same circumstance; I don’t know what I would say if he asked me now, except perhaps I would be curious: “What compels you to ask that question? What if you are dying?”
It has been a question I’ve lived with these past few years, when my husband almost died through blood loss during surgery, when a resultant brain injury removed his former personality and forced the death of our previous relationship. As he lay unconscious the surgeon showed me a graph of his tumor markers, a chart that went out only ten years. “What happens after 2014?” I’d asked. “We don’t have statistics for that time frame,” he’d replied, the surgery so experimental that no one had yet lived longer than a decade with this rare disease.
All of the work, it turns out, hasn’t been to get ready for his death, but to get on with our lives, as if the doctor’s words had no basis in reality. We’d had to stop imagining that anyone knew when the cancer might return. And to kiss each other at the door like we might not see each other again – with all of the love, all of the yearning, all of the hopefulness pouring out of our lips while we knew there wasn’t any protection from going in a flash.
Seeing my husband in restraints on the hospital bed is one of the dearest sights in my repertoire of memories: his face coming off the ICU’s flat mattress, wild-eyed, thrashing, using every muscle in a body that had been cut and scraped and burned in a twelve-hour surgery to look into my eyes, to communicate his closeness to that other place, the one where who we are dissolves like salt into water. I knew how much he wanted to live in that moment, how he was willing to experience being ground to nothing and have to build himself back up again. When I don’t know who I am or what this is, being present in what I consider the moment of his death and rebirth sources me. If I am the woman who can witness this death and live with its conditions, then I somehow know what is mine to do. He is the man who gave up his former self to live. I am committed to be with him, including being with the pieces I think are “missing.”
The same day my father is in for tests at the hospital, I receive a voice mail message from my daughter. She has dreamed that I died, and that my friend, the wise woman Judith predicted it. My daughter says we’ve been told I will die in a fast food restaurant, and then somehow we end up in one and I am gone. Later she is in New York, finding she can’t bear my death. In the dream, she can’t leave her apartment because she’s so frozen in her grief, then she realizes she has to audition, that the emotions will be useful there.
Her dream feels like the way it is when things are altered beyond our recognition, when bodies leave, when minds leave, when people we had counted on being there suddenly die to us in some way. We’re grieving we’re separate, and then we return to the world, and we even make art in it. Something noble happens when we share the depth of what it is to be alive in such times, when life is passing by, and we seek to affirm our passion for it, despite our sorrow at its going so very uncertainly, out of our control.
One of the joys that cancer brought our family was the creation of a list of things we want to do before we die. Each year we acknowledge what we’ve been given to experience, what we’d like to do next. It’s a way of giving thanks, of focusing on our dreams. What do you want to do in this sweet, wild life?