Tag Archives: death

In the Garden

I write this wrapped in a blue blanket in our little white house. My arms still fit around a sleeping baby, but it’s not as easy as it was a few months ago. Her breathing is a bit labored (remnants of a difficult morning), and the twitch of her hands against my stomach feel like the movement of life.

We’d made plans to visit in August. She was already five months old, and I knew my great uncle would love to hold her. A trip to Portland always made me happy (there’s something about driving over the Piscataqua that turns me into a seven-year-old in summertime), but I knew we’d only be able to stay a short while. Uncle Alan was not doing well, and the last thing I wanted was to tire him out.

It didn’t happen. We got a message — he’s in the hospital, he’s so sad he can’t see you — and I wrote saying we’d see him soon.

I saw my Uncle Alan for the last time on Friday.

Evangeline saw him for the first and last.

I had this image in my head: little Evangeline sitting on her great-great-uncle’s lap, him laughing his full-belly laugh, the sheer size of him filling the hospice room.

When I got there, I was embarrassed by my childishness. A man in hospice does not laugh with his whole body. He does not hold an infant on his knee.

But he did smile. He did know who we were. He did talk to us. But there were so many things I wanted to say and couldn’t.

I will miss your sweet birthday notes on Facebook. I’m surprised how much I looked forward to them. I am surprised at your genuine love.

I wish I were as joyful as you were. I’m sure you had dark moments (who doesn’t), yet you emanated peace.

What will happen to our family history when you’re gone? Who will curate our memories with such care, such attention to detail, and such deep adoration for those who came before?

I will treasure the old books you gave me at graduation. I will keep your notes throughout the years. I pray my daughter has someone in her life who gives her beautiful things and encouraging letters.

I will never forget how you supported my writing. It started with my little magazine, “Ruminations,” and your subscription and dedicated reading of a silly girl’s silly writing. But it continued. I’ll miss thinking of you reading this blog, each entry like a conversation I hope to have.

I never thought I’d be a teacher, and yet how could I avoid it? With such a gifted, influential educator in my family, how could I not be born with a little inkling of teacherness?

The thing I’m learning about mourning is that after the first experience, it is never isolated again. Grief piles on grief, death conflates with life conflates with death, and each time I mourn someone I love, I find myself mourning all those who died before. I cry for my uncle and my aunt and cousins he leaves behind, but also for my Grampa long-gone, my Great-Gramma, for the very fact that everyone I love will die. I look at my baby and I cannot believe it.

Now, when I garden, my grandfather is there. Now, when I garden, my great-uncle will be there, too. When I thin rows of carrots, I see my Grampa sitting on an overturned bucket, doing the same. When I choose flowers for my bees and the hummingbirds, I will see my Uncle Alan and his beautiful gardens. “In the Garden” joins “How Great Thou Art” as songs that conjure an entire person every time I sing them. My Dad will help me pass on these familial traditions to my daughter, and even though she may feel removed from those who came before, she will know them in stories, in music, and in gardens.

We’ll miss you, Uncle Alan.

Night Terrors

Before operating on a person’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end…Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight (Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air, 98).

I woke in the night, anxious. I was hot, so I threw the covers off. Then I was cold, so I put them back on. I kept rolling over, trying to find a comfortable position, but my brain would have none of this sleeping thing. At 2:50, I turned my light on (thank goodness even though Gabe wakes up, he can usually fall back asleep), took a small book from the pile by the bed, and started to read.

I haven’t read in the middle of the night since I was a little girl in my parents’ home. I used to love the feeling of rebellion (who was I rebelling against? certainly not my parents, who didn’t care if I slept or read or wrote or dreamed — whatever consequences came from lack of sleep were mine and mine only), and the sense that I had found a book so good, so tantalizing, that I couldn’t sleep until it was over. My sister was a deep sleeper, also, so I never had to live with the guilt of a light in the night or the sound of pages turning.

It’s been harder to sleep through the night lately, and I’ve taken to reading or sometimes watching The Office. The soothing voices of Jim and Pam, the irritating voices of Michael and Angela, somehow these help me transcend the nighttime anxieties of why did I say that? what was I thinking? what will I do for work this summer? why am I not writing? why do I still stink at doing laundry in a timely fashion?

Reading also helps me let go of these thoughts, but instead of easing me into the comedy of a group of employees who never work, it often tricks me into thinking not about the daily worries of a relational human but into questions far beyond the capacity of a tired woman who must get up at 6:00AM.

It might have something to do with the books I’m choosing.

My uncle recommended it to me over dinner with the proper warning: “Be sure you have tissues.” I didn’t have any tissues at hand, but I thought: I have read many sad things. Sometimes I cry. Usually I don’t. So I read it anyway in the middle of the night, this tiny book with a title scary enough to make me wonder if I was being wise.

When Breath Becomes Air — at three in the morning, I read the words of a dying man (he reminds me we’re all dying but he more imminently than most). Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon-in-training, a husband, a hardworking, depths-reaching, meaning-seeking 36-year-old is diagnosed with lung cancer, and suddenly, it seems the future he’d been working toward is completely altered.

Everyone succumbs to finitude…Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned: either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder towards the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed (198).

I felt a strange kinship with this man I would never meet. He was full of many loves, many gifts, and like me, he had studied English AND… although his AND was biology leading to medical school, not music. This foot-in-both-worlds accounts for his visceral descriptions of the brain, of the opened body, of tumors precisely removed with deft fingers. It also accounts for a question that he seemed to have wrestled with much of his life: “If the unexamined life is not worth living, is the unlived life worth examining?” (31). In college, this question leads him to take a job at a summer camp rather than an intern at a research center, and it isn’t the only time he will choose human relationship over his so-called “monastic, scholarly study of human meaning” (31).

I was reading because I felt anxious about something I could not name, and this reading led me into questions of meaning, truth, death and its inextricable connection with life. I knew he would die — my uncle had told me and I had read the “About the Author” to be sure — yet I kept thinking: maybe he won’t actually die — maybe they find a cure, maybe he dies, but years and years later, maybe my uncle was misjudging my ability to handle intensity.

And then he and his wife decide to have a baby. She is born. She lives eight months. And he dies. He dies in his hospital bed surrounded by family. He gives his unknowing daughter a last kiss, he takes a deep breath, his breath becomes air.

Neurosurgery requires a commitment to one’s own excellence and a commitment to another’s identity. The decision to operate at a all involves an appraisal of one’s own abilities, as well as a deep sense of who the patient is and what she holds dear (108).

Suddenly, I was holding this book with this ending that felt incomplete. His wife Lucy writes an epilogue — sweet, loving, rounding out Paul’s person with authenticity — and I wondered what it must have been like to be in love with a man who was dying and writing, writing and dying, and wanting a child with him even so you could have a daily reminder that he was real, you loved him, and he died.

I was reading to stop my worrying and I had replaced it with deep sadness. Death comes for everyone, of this I have been aware since I was 9 years old and my grandfather died despite my utter determination to pray him into life, and I still do not believe it.

I still think that somehow I will defy the ultimate leveler.

And in the same breath, death feels right around the corner, closer to me than I hope most 29-year-olds feel.

In some ways, I think the worries I have about living enough, doing enough, hurry hurry hurry, all stem from this belief that death really is close at hand, and I am unutterably lucky to have lived as long as I have.

Maybe it stems from my blood clot at 22, my reckoning with if this is the end, how do I want it to look?

Paul Kalanithi did what he had set out to do: he taught me how to die, and in so doing, really showed me how to live. As his wife Lucy wrote in the epilogue:

Paul’s decision to look death in the eye was a testament not just to who he was in the final hours of his life but who he had always been. For much of his life, Paul wondered about death — and whether he could face it with integrity. In the end, the answer was yes (225).

“To live is Christ, to die is gain” — even at my best, I find this hard to fully embody.

I closed the book, put it back on the floor, and wept into my pillow. I cried for Paul, for his dreams that had to die, for his wife and daughter, for his family and friends. I cried for myself, for the husband who slept next to me, who might leave this world at any moment like a puff of smoke. I cried for my grandma and her twenty years of living alone. I cried for my students who are just beginning to wrestle with these questions of meaning and truth, and I cried for any child I might have — for the sorrow that inevitably awaits her, the pain she will without doubt experience in this beautiful and terrifying world.

I was reading to forget my anxieties, and in a sense, I did. Instead of focusing on the minute, meaningless worries, I was forced to confront the root of fear and ask myself:

How do I want to die?

Then how do I need to live?

My Hands are Dying

photo 2

Today, I’m writing over at my dear friend Hannah’s blog, Breathe Deep. It’s a story that took a long time for me to be able to write, but it felt good to write it.

And for the first time in twenty-two years, she found a reason to plead for herself. Her blood, her gelatinous lungs breathing in and out. It was quick and suddenly she saw her hand – red and plump like Mickey Mouse’s – and she thought Oh my gosh, I am getting old. Look at these veins, and she hurriedly covered the purple spidery arm with a sweater.

You can only ignore for so long. The next morning the blood still pooled, the arm still hung heavy and without its customary strength, and she decided a doctor would know. If only to tell her nothing was wrong, go back to your little life of serving coffee and greasy eggs and feeling self-important. You are not so great as to be seriously ill. But that was a mistake because one place after the other, the ultrasound with its beat-beating and the reduction of her insides to a white-gray image from Mars. “Clot,” they said. 

It’s one of the those stories that had to start in the third person and grow more personal from there. To keep reading, head over here.

Come back Friday to read Hannah’s guest post about her own version of in-between living.