Earlier this semester, I asked my students to attend a documentary on end-of-life issues called Consider the Conversation. The film outlines how our modern society steers clear of talking about death and our end-of-life issues. I asked my students to reflect on how families deal with grief and loss, and how they can better help their loved ones as they pass. I'm currently grading those papers.
2011 has been a year of saying goodbye. We just said goodbye to my maternal grandma in November, and I lost my very dear, and very vital friend, Amy, this summer. In both cases, it was hard to say goodbye to people who've so long been a part of my life. Grandma and Amy both passed in institutional care (grandma in the hospital after a brief infection, Amy in hospice after a long battle with cancer). The film discusses how we've gone from dying at home to dying in institutional care and what are the positives and negatives of both.
Grandma had her daughters at her side. Amy had her husband, children, sister, and father with her. Thank goodness. I'm so grateful for all of these special people for being there for such special and wonderful people, no matter that watching someone go is such a painful feeling. I, on the other hand, was not there for either. There's sorrow and gratitude in that. I'm not accustomed to watching people die, and I'm scared to. I've never actually seen it happen. That's how our culture tells us it should be: distant, abstract, done quietly in a room, away from regular life.
But while reading these papers by my students, I've been thinking a lot about the last time I did see Amy in the hospital in our hometown and how little I actually did. We knew what was happening. She'd been given days to weeks. She looked only a little like the Amy I grew up with. So thin, so weak, a whisper of a voice. And in my inexperience with death, I had no idea what to do. So I sat down and started to blather nonsense. She tried to respond as best she could, but she also slept a fair amount while I blathered. But then, she woke up and saw me. She looked at me, knowingly. And she extended her hand.
I hadn't thought to take it. I hadn't thought to touch her, to comfort her that way. Not until she asked. Of course, I took it then, and held it as tight as I thought I dared, feeling her delicate wedding band in my hand as it hung loosely on her thin fingers. I noticed the mother's ring she wore. I noticed the coolness of her skin. She squeezed back as best she could. We sat that way for some time, still talking, still being together as we'd been in years past, as we began our initiation into adulthood.
As I offer feedback to my students about our culture's hesitancy to touch death, to be near it, I realize just how much a part of our culture I am. How could I not have taken her hand of my own volition? Why couldn't I see she needed that, she, my very dearest of friends. The person who always knew what to do and say to me. How much that moment has taught me now that I've reflected on it. It's just like Amy to teach me something so profound with something so simple.
My only saving grace, the one thing that makes me not feel like a total heel, is that as I left and said what I knew was our last goodbye on earth, I asked if I could give her a kiss. She smiled and nodded yes. And then I kissed the forehead that held the brain that held so much of my soul and essence. So much of me and who I am meant to be, even when I couldn't see it for myself.
That was my last opportunity to give comfort to Amy, but I hope in future, I am able to learn that a more proactive approach toward reaching out and comforting is the very least our loved ones deserve. They need our touch more than we need our distance. Our fear of mortality is nothing to their fear of being abandoned in their time of need.