An Essay on Dying
by Shell Saurer
I’ve been caring for my mom now for 15 months. She’s 95, has advanced dementia, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, is under hospice home care and is, I believe, in the process of dying.
That word, when used in context of the end of the life of a loved one, is more powerful than a swear word of the highest caliber. We avoid it. When speaking of a loved one we soften it with words like “passing,” “crossed over,” “passed away.”
Somehow saying someone has died is rough. It has callouses. It admits that they’re never coming back. They are gone for good. A cold body with no breath or heartbeat; one that resembles someone you loved, but has now left you as you always feared they would.
It’s an interesting process to witness. To watch. To hold watch over.
We will all be there someday. That is the truest fact of life that there is. If you were born hatched, or sprouted you will die. You may or may not pay taxes, but you will most definitely die. As will all of your friends, family members and pets. It’s the timeline in which we do it that affects us, and those around us. And when it’s not us doing the dying, it makes us question the fairness of life vs. death.
Recently a dear friend’s two-year old baby daughter passed away during a nap. It happened, just like that. She was vibrant, sparkling with life, and then gone after lying down for a routine afternoon nap.
My mother lays down for a nap every day. In fact, her naptime far outweighs her awake time by about a 95:5 ratio. She doesn’t want to eat. Each meal is an argument so that I don’t feel guilty and can prove to myself that I’m not letting her starve to death. She doesn’t know where she is in the house she’s owned and lived in for 36 years, nor that I’m her daughter. Yet she awakens from her naps every day.
We don’t know when our number will be called or how it will happen, what it will look like. We can hope for swift and painless, but after witnessing the decline of both my parents and losing my father a year ago, nothing about the death process seems fair.
We work hard our entire lives to be proud of our accomplishments; whether it’s social status, monetary wealth and material gain, or being the center-point of a happy and loving family. We are proud, ego driven beings for the most part. We strive to be youthful. We want to live forever.
Yet modern medicine has only been able to make it possible for our bodies to far outlive the quality of life we have striven our entire lives to possess, and we can be left to fall on the floor, unable to get up out of our own excrement until someone comes along to find us and put us in a safer environment so delicately referred to as “A Home.”
We know this “Home” is like a kennel where we will be left to live outside of our comfort zone with strangers in equally deteriorating states until we die. We will be surrounded by cheery voices of workers in surgical scrubs that bathe us, change our diapers, feed us and monitor our pain levels and prescription intake. Once in a while there will be a compassionate worker that will hold our hand, stroke our back and listen repetitively to the five stories that are left in our memories, responding as though they are truly interested and making us feel like a viable human again for a moment. If we’re lucky, our loved ones will come visit occasionally. And we will know who they are.
The fact that you were once a proud CEO of a company, movie star or Olympic athlete will mean little at this point until you die and your obituary is written.
So, as I live with my mother and observe her declining health, both mental and physical, I think about this stuff. I have reached a point that I no longer feel that I can care for her as well as she needs to be cared for. She has fallen in the night and cried out for me, like she cries out for me pointlessly all day; only this time it wasn’t pointless. She was on the floor. Had wet herself. Gotten lost and confused in the darkness between the nightstand, the dresser and the wall, next to the bed in the very same bedroom she has slept in for 36 years.
She needs educated decisions on medications such as morphine vs. Tylenol, and will the side effects make things worse. She needs someone to bathe her, dress her and help her eat without taking her frustrated insults personally. She needs someone with a strong enough back to help her get off the floor or get comfy in bed. She needs someone who isn’t tired of hearing the five memories repeated endlessly, and someone who doesn’t want to correct the distorted reality that she remembers them in. She needs someone whose reactions to her shortcomings are not born of 53 years of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship.
I need to put her in A Home. I know that this is the right thing to do for both of us. She has gotten to the point where she needs 24 hour care. These days I work in 24 hour shifts and the lack of sleep has worn me down. Yet I feel like a slacker for wanting to do so. A loser. Like my dad always said, “You never finish what you start, do you?”
I hear these voices and they break me. My daily routine kills me. I do have some respite. I sneak away for hour-long tennis games and boat rides; sunset cocktails on the bay. My Facebook life paints a pretty picture.
My reality differs.
I’m torn. Should I let her finish her days here in a home she no longer remembers because I said I would? Or do I write her name on her clothes in water-proof ink, pack her old Samsonite suitcase with her few needed belongings and move her in with strangers who will take good care of her? With my father it was a knee-jerk reaction. I found him on the floor while I was still living in LA and felt there was no choice. But now this is my full-time job – to care for my mother.
I know what I need to do, but will hold off on the decision until I speak with our hospice nurse and attend a support group for elderly caregivers tomorrow.
In the meantime, as my mom talks to strangers that are unseen to my eyes, and sleeps more/eats less I know she will leave me soon. I am ok with that. It’s her time. She will die, as my dad and sister did before her and as I will someday as well.
Enjoy the days of glory, my friends. Each day alive in our senses is glorious. If I take away nothing else from this experience, I know this to be true, and am thankful. Always be your own best friend. Hug your loved ones, unplug from your earbuds and listen to the world that surrounds you, relish the sunny days and savor all fruits of your labor while you have the senses to do so.
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Shell Saurer is an event producer, production coordinator, office manager and family caregiver based in Newport Beach, CA.