The art of dying

Over the past few months I have watched my friend craft her death like a work of art. It is nearly complete.

She started with abundance. She spent frequent weekends watching her beloved grandsons compete in athletics events. (She was a runner for years – she told me she started running to beat breast cancer the first time it sneaked up on her.) She cared for her mother, at first in her home; later, after her mother moved into a facility, through daily visits and outings. She volunteered all over town – at the Cancer Center, the library, our church, a low-cost clinic. She traveled and went on a cycling tour.

She had a fat orange kitty named Peaches. In summer, her garden was full of roses. Her home was always immaculate, and friends were always welcome. Every day she ran or cycled, except on the worst days of chemotherapy. On those days, she walked. Every single day, summer and winter, busy day or not, her alarm woke her at 6.00AM, and every single morning she spent an hour or more in prayer and quiet, thoughtful study of her Bible.

Her mother died last year, and some months after that the doctors told my friend they had worked through every treatment option available and had nothing left to offer her. Then Peaches died early this year. My friend kept right on volunteering, running or cycling daily, waking at 6.00AM, welcoming friends, tending her roses, seeking to know God better.

And day by day, stroke by stroke, using her disease as a chisel, God carved away her life.

(Pic from Dollar Photo Club)
The master craftsman at work. (Source)

Or so it seemed to me. Only, when I started really paying attention, I understood that something different was happening. I watched how she stood before her God and He said, “Will you give me that?” and she said “Yes”  – so that running gave way way to walking, striding for miles gave way to a careful stroll down the block leaning on a walker.

He asked and she yielded – the library, the clinic, the Cancer Center, church activities, traveling to be with family, working in her garden. She stopped driving and depended on friends to take her shopping, and then to do her shopping for her.

Having been always quietly, insistently independent, she let her neighbors mow her lawn, take her garbage to the curb, collect her mail. Hospice sent someone a few times a week to help her bathe. Then they started sending someone to help her get ready for bed in the evenings and do a bit of cleaning, although she fixed her own dinner. A few weeks ago she started having a caregiver with her all night, but she still got up at 6.00AM every day so she could be dressed and see them through the door in plenty of time to sit down with her Bible after breakfast, just as she had always done.

“Are you afraid?” I asked her once. It was not a foolish question. I watched her closely and never saw her flinch, so I thought maybe I was just too stupid to understand. She thought about it, then said, “I’m afraid it might hurt. And I worry about losing my dignity.” That evening while I was helping her get ready for bed (it was a Sunday, when she sought the help of friends rather than the folk Hospice sent), as she leaned forward she farted. It was loud and unexpected and we were both startled, and it was entirely impossible to pretend it hadn’t happened. “Well, there goes your dignity,” I said at last, and we both fell about laughing.

Her liver failed. Her features have always been sharply chiseled with strong, prominent bones. She yielded her profile and it sank into puffiness. She yielded her clear, direct gaze as her eyelids swelled and she became too weak to open her eyes wider than slits.

Last Saturday Hospice sent her a hospital bed. We watched a movie – “The Gods Must Be Crazy” – while we waited for it to be delivered. I massaged her feet and told her how that movie had inspired me to abandon my own career as a journalist and start a mission school in a rural village in Africa. She ate a shortbread cookie.

On Sunday she was tired and weak. She wouldn’t eat, and spent much of my visit in her new bed, sleeping while I read my book in the chair she had bought for visitors. Her son called, but she couldn’t speak without slurring so he asked her to give the phone to me. He told me he planned to drive over on Thursday. I hesitated, then said, “Not until then?” I heard his breath catch. “Oh,” he said. “I’ll be there on Tuesday.”

On Monday she was alert again, happy at the prospect of seeing her family. She knew the lift in her spirits would be short-lived, so she told Hospice she was ready to go onto 24-hour care. We sat in the living room and watched another movie – “As Good As It Gets” – and made plans to take a drive, get her out of the house, just as soon as the weather improved a little.

On Tuesday she couldn’t walk further than the distance between her bed and her toilet. She drank from a little sponge on a stick that she dipped into a cup of water. I learned that she hadn’t been able to sit up to read her Bible for a few days, so I sat beside her bed and we flipped through Psalms, and I read everything she had highlighted – her trove of prayers and promises. Sometimes I thought she was asleep, but whenever I stopped reading she opened her eyes, so I would carry on.

Yesterday morning I looked at her lying on her bed, as insubstantial as a quick sketch in soft pencil. She has peeled away and yielded all the rich clutter of her life on earth, and what’s left is the pure essence of a woman whose trust in her Maker’s love has not wavered.

Picasso nude

I finished reading the Psalms and, at her request, started 2 Corinthians. I have promised to continue today, but she did not promise to wait for me to come.

How to talk to my friend who is dying

My friend is dying. The doctors have given up on chemotherapy and switched to “palliative care”. They say she may have six months, but really they don’t know how long it will be.

It has been so hard to know how to talk to her.

Two girls sit on the bench against the backdrop of the mountains

Several years ago, when she told me the breast cancer was back and had metastasized to her bones, I didn’t want to be the kind of person who avoids difficult conversations and blocks people from expressing themselves by trying to keep everything nice. So I jumped in with both feet and asked how she felt about dying, and we talked about that a bit, but it turns out there isn’t a lot to say on the subject.

The years passed and she continued to be active in our church and to volunteer for a free clinic serving our community, and she started helping at the local Cancer Center (she still volunteers there). She quit running, but she still walks almost every day. She lost weight (although she’s always been thin, so it wasn’t that obvious) and gained two attractive wigs. (She doesn’t need them any more, but she told me the other day that she quite missed the convenience of using a wig. Her hair is still very thin, and it annoys her to have to get it cut.)

I got used to the fact that she was sick, and although I loved the respite of quiet afternoons drinking tea in her immaculate, dog-free home, I saw her rarely. I checked in every now and then to make sure she was okay, and she was always busy and contented. But I avoided visiting her because it didn’t feel right to talk to her about the anger and frustration I felt as I got more and more engaged in dog rescue … because, after all, she was dying. In the face of that unyielding fact, the chaotic jungle of my life didn’t seem important enough to share.

Then, as my life spiraled further out of control, I simply did not have the capacity to help shoulder her burden. This year I hardly contacted her at all. (I don’t know why I thought shouldering her burden was my job.)

A few weeks ago I called her. She was glad to hear from me, she said, but she was too busy to visit that week. “I’ve just had people in and out non-stop,” she explained. Her sons visiting, with their families. Her sister. A steady stream of friends. Her sons again. And the folk from Hospice.

Hospice?

“Yes, I’m in Hospice care now.”

And suddenly it hit me. This is real. A day is coming, in the very near future, when the sun will come up, and set again, and in between there will be weather and traffic and conversations, but my friend will be gone.

I went to see her after her visitors had left. I took her some eggs, new laid by our hens, and nectarines off our tree. I was so scared – of what she would look like, of how I would hide my reaction if she looked like someone who was dying. I wondered what we would talk about, and reminded myself that I would encourage her to speak freely and openly about what she was going through.

She was sitting in her front garden when I arrived. Free of chemo, her hair has grown back, and there was a glow of color in her face. She was radiant.

I sat down, and asked her how she was doing. The pain is bad sometimes, but she takes meds when she needs to. It’s hard to sleep, but she has an iPad, and she spends the long nights reading emails and Facebook and checking in with friends. She’s given up driving because she doesn’t think it’s safe, with the drugs. She’s sad that she can no longer travel to other parts of the state to watch her grandsons compete in athletic events, because it’s just too hard to spend hours at a stretch in a car. She is getting lots of visitors, and although sometimes they stay too long, she loves having people around.

I told her that if ever she wanted company without having to make conversation, I’d be glad to bring my laptop to her home and simply be there. Her face lit up, and she told me she had just bought a big, comfy easy chair and installed it in her bedroom, for precisely that purpose.

Our conversation lagged into silence. I felt helpless and tongue-tied. It seemed self-indulgent to complain of the bleak wasteland my life had become toward the end of last year, and selfish to chatter about the tender green shoots that are emerging as I enter a new phase of my life. But… there’s only so much you can say about dying.

Then her phone rang. She glanced at it, clicked her tongue, and told me about an annoying problem she was having – calls from companies wanting to sell her “death stuff”. She wondered what contact list of terminally ill people they’d bought or hacked into. That triggered a memory of a telephone scam I had recently evaded – a too-good-to-be-true offer of a free cruise that culminated in a request for my credit card details.

Little by little, our conversation picked up. We agreed that neither of us was much interested in going on a cruise, and I told her about the cruise ships that annoyed me when Himself and I were visiting Alaska. She told me about her trip to Alaska a few years back, and how disappointed she’d been not to see a glacier because the weather was bad the day they were supposed to go. “I’d like to go back,” she said.

“Ja, me too,” I said. And then we were silent for a while, and I thought about what she’d just said. Because, of course, she’s not going anywhere. And then I thought about the glaciers I had seen, and about their pure, perfect blue that is like looking into God’s eye. And I thought about where she would, in fact, be going – and I remembered that there would surely be glaciers there, and every imaginable and unimaginable other kind of beauty, all shining in the direct light of God’s eye.

Alaskan Glacier

And that’s when I finally got it. There is no topic I can’t raise with her that we wouldn’t have discussed five years ago. Yes, she will soon be moving on. Yes, it’s scary, especially as the transition is likely to be painful. But she has made her preparations, and is confident of her destination. And right now she is still most emphatically alive.

I will visit her soon and let the conversation meander where it will.