Sunday, February 28, 2016

On death and dying

Someone else we know is dying from that dirty, rotten &^*&#*@ called cancer. I'm having flashbacks to all those I have known and lost to this damned disease. I dug this essay out and it fits my emotions and the brief, precious moments we all are granted in this life and the importance of making the most of each one.

                                                            Marcia’s clock
                                                           copyright 2016 Bonnie Vanak
                  I’m sitting at my desk at work, with a prime view of hectic rush hour traffic on Interstate 95. People driving at breakneck speed to get home, get somewhere, get anywhere because time these days is precious and even free cell phone minutes aren’t enough.  I’m not thinking about going home, even though it’s five o’clock.  I’m thinking of cutout pink valentines with a photo of Care Bears glued in the middle. Care Bears stuck to a long, chrome hospital pole with the cheery inscription, “To Mom. Happy Valentine’s Day. Love, Laud.”
            Laud is his nickname. Marcia told me she named him Hilario because she liked that name. “I didn’t know I was going to have a son who was autistic and couldn’t say his own name.”
            Marcia told me about Laud’s Care Bears today as I slowly reeled past the roundhouse slap shock of seeing her lying on the hospital bed, a lanky pile of bones and flesh, her Miss Clairol hair once swinging down to her shoulders, now cropped short and threaded liberally with gray.
            “I just took the razor,” she told me matter-of-factly. “It started to grow out and I took the razor to trim it and then realized I really did a number on it and needed to even it out.” It’s rather military style, her haircut, flat top, perfect Army requisition hair.
            But about the Care Bears, I fear I digress. You see, ever since Marcia told her adult son, who has depended upon her for his whole life, that she was sick, he has bought her stuffed animals. One after the other. A virtual parade of plush fur plopped in her ever-thinning lap. A zoo of Care Bears for mom. The giant Care Bear gift at Christmas.
            “You should see it,” Marcia says in her monotone, tired voice people have when they need to talk because they have a lot to say and know there is little time to say it in, but lack the energy, “It’s huge. Isn’t it Janet?”
            Janet, her sister, looks up from straightening up the rollaway patient cart with the little Jell-O cups, a mauve cup of untouched oatmeal and green cans of ginger ale. She stretches her arms out “like so” to indicate how big this bear is. “But you have to see it next to the others,” Marcia tells me. “It makes the others look so small.”
            There’s a Care Bear sitting on the bedside table, a clay potted plant nestled between its legs, the table Marcia hasn’t the strength to reach. It sits next to a Dean Koontz book she hasn’t the strength to read. Above her head is a trapeze to help her sit up. Marcia reaches up and her sister scurries over.
            “Do you need anything?” Janet asks.
            “No,” Marcia says with a glimmer of a smile. “Just playing.” She fingers the trapeze and it swings gently back and forth like the pendulum on a grandfather clock. Tick, tock, tick, tock, minutes slipping away.
            I hand her three cards I have brought. Two are valentines. She is too weak to open the second card. I do it for her. It’s a funny card. “My weird sense of humor,” I say, laughing because I must laugh, because if I don’t this crazy play of emotions I am struggling to contain
will gush out like water.
“Yes, Marcia says, with her oblique, dry sense of humor, “You did always have an odd sense of humor.”
            I give her a CD of Sister Jeanne singing. “The Sisters of Song.” I tell her that it’s a gift from Monica at work. Marcia toys with it and lets it fall into her lap. “Sister Jeanne, the fun, cheerful, rotund nun?”
            “Yes,” I reply, “that’s her, she’s sort of bouncy. There are 59 other nuns singing with her on the CD.”
            “You mean 59 other bouncy nuns, or maybe some of them aren’t as bouncy as Sister Jeanne?” Marcia asks.  I laugh, gratified to hear Marcia making a joke.
            Her sister gives her a cup of ice and coaxes her to take a spoonful of red Jell-O. The hospital has only yellow and green Jell-O, Marcia explains. Her mother had to go to the store and buy red. But the Jell-O doesn’t sit right with Marcia. She shakes her head, and plays with the Styrofoam cup of ice instead.
            “I have no appetite,” she says. “Do you think it’s because I’m on all these nutritional supplements?”
            I say, “Maybe.” I don’t want to wax enthusiasm and nod like one of those little animals you put next to a glass of water that bobs its head up and down stupidly. I know what’s going on. But I will not say it.
            She’s on antibiotics this morning. Her fever was 100. And there’s the steak in a bottle, as my sister-in-law called it when her mom was dying of colon cancer. Marcia’s sister says they call it blueberry pie. And opium. “It’s the last resort,” Marcia says in that flat, monotone, matter-of-fact voice. “For diarrhea.’
            She tells me in a calm, accepting tone that she was used to taking her IV pole with the chemo in it and wheeling it into the bathroom. But this visit, she couldn’t find the strength. So they gave her a port-a-potty. It sits, lid lowered, next to her bed like a polite, waiting visitor. But she had no strength for that, either.
            “I’m wearing diapers,” she tells me. I nod slowly. I know all about the diapers. I don’t tell Marcia it was the same with my mom’s colon cancer. First there is the walker to lean upon, to hop drag to the bathroom, and then the port-a-potty and finally, the diapers.
            What do you say to a friend who is dying and doesn’t want to give up? You talk about things like Abiquiu.  Abiquiu where the monks at Christ in the Desert monastery have a web site.
“Remember the monks online?” she asks me. I vaguely recall her telling me about them. Years ago, Marcia told me all about Abiquiu when I mentioned my husband and I were going to pass through there. “You must stop and stay a while,” she had insisted, her artist’s eyes dancing with memories of colors and light. “It’s beautiful. Georgia O’Keefe lived there. It’s got a tremendous spiritual power.” She had gone on and on about the beauty of the place. But we were in a hurry. The rose and toast and green cliffs were pretty, but so were the trains we were heading for in Durango, so we stopped for one minute, took photos like Japanese tourists. Snap, snap, snap and we were on our way.
            There’s so many medications and bags just hanging there next to Marcia as we talk of Abiquiu.  Red digital numbers flashing, pumps dripping. It all seems so out of place, as if Marcia’s hospital bed is sitting in a vast verdant field next to the cliffs and the beaming little monks, so serene and peaceful.
            And then she stops talking of Abiquiu and mentions chemo. “I don’t know what we’re going to do about any more government trials. I don’t know if my body can take this anymore.”
A tight smile stretches over her sister’s face. “We’ll deal with that later,” Janet says in a too bright tone. “Just concentrate on regaining your strength and getting through this now.”
            “Yes,” I say, chiming in, feeling this false brightness spreading to me now, although I know what is truth and what is reality and what is fact. “Just concentrate on getting better.”
            I didn’t ask if she was in pain. I didn’t need to. I see the signs, the same ones my mother had, the restless shifting of legs, heels flat against the bed, knees bent.
            I pretend. I ask, “When are they going to spring you?” She says she doesn’t know. Maybe Tuesday. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m wearing a diaper. I don’t think Hilario can help with that. Maybe I’ll be stronger by then.” 
            How do you look someone in the eye when you know they are dying and hold a normal conversation with them?
             What do you talk about with someone whose time is running out and they really don’t want to admit it because they still have so much to live for?
            You talk about Abiquiu  and men she says were her “mistakes.” I tell her, “Everyone makes mistakes, Marcia. Yours are just more colorful.” You talk about ordinary things like work. You talk about everything except the one thing hanging between you like a blanket, or the invisible veil between this world and the next.
            I drove away from the hospital thinking about years, months, days, hours, minutes and then seconds decreasing until the clock finally stops. Tick, tock, silence. I thought about time and how precious it is and how there’s so little of it. And then there’s Abiquiu. There are monks online and cliffs of gold, rose and green that lift the spirit if you pause long enough and listen to the music they make in your soul.  There is Abiquiu . I will return there and make time to hear their song. Because it takes a friend who is dying, who is too damn weak to sit up and open a Valentine’s Day card, for you to sit up and pay attention to what really counts.
            I will go back to Abiquiu. And when I do, I will think of Marcia, whose artist’s soul knew what I failed to understand. That we don’t have that kind of time and we need to soak up every second with that which is beautiful and precious and real to us.
            For her there were fuzzy, silly Care Bears.
            For me, there is Abiquiu.  I will return. I will. 

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