Dreams of Dying
Someone has moved all the living room furniture to prepare for the lecture. I say no, put it back. They refuse so I must put it back myself. I go to move the red chair; its arm is broken; a tattered Indian throw covers grimy brocade upholstery. The stained blue love seat verges on collapse. The paintings are not paintings at all but cheesy magazine pages pasted onto thin, rumpled cardboard and put in a flimsy dime-store frame. Rather than a charming installation of venerable, valuable antiques, the room has been a farce. It should all be thrown out.
Managing While Waiting for a New Hip
I wake. It is a bad day. Pain has leaked out of my hips into my flesh. I dare not move. There must be a plant somewhere that grows beautifully in its season, lush and grand, then just in its final phase, before withering back into the earth, its flesh turns sharp and noxious. Poison. It does not produce a seed. The stalk shrivels, becomes brittle and pale. At last, winter buries it. That is my hips.
I roll my wheelchair to the cheerful, robust, black plastic trolley nearly the size of a small piano, grasp its handle, and awkwardly tow it behind me like a dinghy from one room to the next. My change of wardrobe—warm clothes, cool clothes—is folded on the bottom shelf. The middle shelf is my office–phone, books, iPad, computer which are at shoulder reach when I sit. On the top shelf, I have a beautiful tray ready for tea accoutrements and other consumables that I can slide off the trolley and place on a table beside me. Until I get my bionic hips, wheelchair and trolley are my legs.
“We don’t want pain, but the gift it brings is empathy.” I wrote that in all my wisdom, but I’m too peeved and irritated and miserable to appreciate myself today. I have an alarming, amusing perception that pain, as well as pleasure, is a reminder of embodiment; I can feel all my emotions, think all my thoughts, but because of the pain I never lose track of my body. This awareness would be nicer if it was pleasurable. Pain is not soothing. It makes me alert, on edge, an animal poised to leap. But, of course, I’m not leaping.
Since we all seemed to be determined to live so long, cataract and hip replacement surgery will be, already are, standard for a quality last few years. It is the rare person who doesn’t have one or the other as they age. As I wait out these last days to surgery, immobile with a pain that would be unlivable were it not solvable, I look back at the eras preceding these bits of carpentry. People drank and took laudanum for pain. They overdosed by accident or intent, or were struck down with the whatever finished them off because they had eroded their health—influenza, pneumonia, heart attack. In the 18th century, it took a couple of weeks to get sick and die. By the late 19th century, it was a year. In mid-20th century it was two years, for which our parents and the federal government made provision in estate planning and entitlements. Now it takes ten years to decline, much of it spent in dementia.
I drag myself to my mother’s Assisted Living to visit her. Her dementia progresses very quickly now. I ponder, as so many of us do, what makes a life worth living. She is lost in time and disjunct memory; her past swirls out of order, a jigsaw puzzle coming apart. As her family, value lies greatly in our shared history, but now she and I no longer share my childhood, her mothering. She doesn’t remember them, and when she does is often not certain what I, a woman in mid-life who she knows is her daughter, has to do with the little girl she remembers was her daughter. It doesn’t fit together for her. What is left? Food. Soft clothes. A hug. Yes, pleasant enough today, though I sense that these are slowly unhinging from meaning.
It seems odd to keep on living for the momentary flashes of affectionate present-ness, which is all my mother has these days. I wonder if those will be enough for me should I end up demented. We have to make these judgment calls long before we can possibly know our experience. I watch my mother. I feel like I’d rather take up drinking or drugs and enjoy an earlier demise, but all my years of healthy living will probably prevent a compact 18th century demise. If only we as a culture could escape the rigid, anachronistic directives of religion…If only we could accept the many factors shaping the right time for dying…We have skills and tools to prolong life but the question is, is it right?
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