Her dying is far enough away yet still so fresh in my mind. It’s been nearly 6 months since my mother-in-law entered the final stages of pancreatic cancer. She had “battled” it for nearly 6 years and was all but a medical mystery. Countless people have recounted painful experiences of loved ones who, after their initial diagnosis with pancreatic cancer, succumbed to the disease 6 months or 6 weeks later. Their decline was rapid and horrific. My mother-in-law; however, plugged along year after year without much significant decline. She was a candidate for and underwent a Whipple Procedure which removed her pancreas and much of the surrounding area of her bowel and stomach. After that she did a single round of chemotherapy before deciding that she didn’t want to do it any longer. She only had one more round of chemotherapy 4 years later – and that nearly killed her. For 6 years, she basically did nothing. She didn’t eat well and she cared little for controlling her diabetes, coronary artery disease or any of her other significant health problems. She pretended that nothing had happened. Call it denial, faith or whatever, it baffled (and hurt) all those I met who had loved ones try everything and still die painful, quick deaths.
It was a Tuesday. A beautiful Tuesday. That morning my husband and I prophetically discussed his mother and our desire to talk to her about her funeral wishes and religious (if any) desires. My husband set off to work and I set off half way across the state to a doctor’s appointment with the Littles. I was about an hour from home when my brother-in-law’s girlfriend called me. Although she had a wonderful dinner with her sister the night before, my mother-in-law was in terrible condition. In less than 24 hours she went from having dinner with her sister to a coma. It was that fast. She flew through an intense journey that started at ‘every-day-life’ and ended with her asking the priest we brought over to baptize and confirm her. It was emotional and surreal. The religious rights ended and she went into a coma. The priest left. Her sisters left. All that was left was a woman in a coma. A woman for whom, on one hand, I disliked to my core and on the other, I loved to my core. There she lay. Dying.
And this is where it begins. For two years, my mother-in-law had lived with my brother-in-law and his girlfriend. It was in their home that she lay. My husband, brother-in-law, his girlfriend and I were now her nurses. The four of us were thrust into the responsibility of caring for someone who just 24 hours earlier was capable of caring for herself (apart from cooking and keeping track of medications). Not one of us had any experience changing diapers, bathing an adult or administering medications. We were not prepared for the gut-wrenching details of death. For 13 days, we ran shifts caring for her. Some days it took all four of us. Other days, just two. But there she lay. Dying.
For 13 days we drove back and forth from our home to theirs. It was in those days, and in reliving those days in my memory for the past 6 months, that I have begun to grasp what truly lived in my heart versus what I wish lived in my heart. She was my mother-in-law for 10 years, and anyone that has known me for more than six and a half seconds knows that my relationship with her was tumultuous, at best. We agreed on exactly three things. One, we both loved my husband. Two, we both loved my children. Three, we both loved wandering around old car shows. Everything else was an exasperating attempt on both our parts to be cordial to the other. My pride wants to insist that she was a wretched soul that couldn’t be reasoned with, but the reality is that my soul probably had more to do with the hostility than I am able (or willing) to recognize.
The first day or two after slipping into the coma, I saw her in pain. It was a particularly brutal pain that I won’t describe out of respect for her. Upon reflection, I’m not sure if it was a physical, spiritual or emotional pain, but it was intense; and heart-wrenching. In addition to providing typical, palliative care I prayed. I prayed a lot. I prayed for God to take her and stop the pain. But take her, He did not. Those first few days dragged on into a week. All the signs of death that you can find on the Internet, she had. And per the ever-knowing Internet, most people die 4 to 7 days after this part of the dying process starts. Surely this was it. But day 7 came and day 7 went, and there she lay. Dying.
It was on day 8 that I started to lose it. Day 7 was that straw that attacked the camel and managed to snap his spine. I had expected it to be over in 7 days. The Internet said it would, Hospice thought it would and I just assumed it would. But like the woman herself, the length of the process would mystify me.
I had been praying. I was still praying. I wanted the whole thing to end. She had made several miraculous recoveries, but this time was going to be different. She was actively dying. It was the end of day 8 and I was sitting in her room watching her breathe. Any moment those short, shallow breathes might stop and she would be gone. For an hour I watched her breathe and I prayed they would stop. I prayed that her pain and suffering would end. But I also knew that those prayers were masking a deep desire that I had. I desired for it to end for me. I wanted to go back to my farm and my chickens. I wanted to pick apples. I wanted to can tomatoes. I wanted to change baby diapers and sit in my comfortable home. I didn’t want to take care of her anymore. One day was fine, two days was fine, three days was okay, but here I was, eight days into something that I did not want to do. I wanted her to die because I was tired of caring for her. All the horrible things that she had done to me came flooding back and I was mad at her for dragging this out. As these thoughts whispered through my ears, I was overwhelmed with guilt. This was no longer about caring for someone in their last days and hours, it was about how caring for her would make me look and feel. Despite the guilt, I lingered in the thoughts. I had, after all, put up with a lot of nonsense from her. I had, after all, been with her for 8 days. I had, after all, put up all the right appearances. It was time for her to go. It’s not like I was wishing for something that wasn’t going to happen anyway. I clung to those justifications and left. At that moment I deliberately turned away from the person I wanted to be and embraced the person I despised in myself.
Day 9 came and day 9 went. My heart was hardened from disdain with the situation and I stopped praying. Day 10 came and day 10 went and I became bitter. Is she going to live like this forever? Am I destined to spend a month, 6 months, a year driving back and forth to administer suppositories and change her diapers? I was tired. We were all tired. But despite the exhaustion, my ever-optimistic husband tried to rally the group and stoically lead us into self-denial for his beloved mother. But it was useless. The longer it dragged on, the more I despaired that it wouldn’t end. I realize now how incredibly cruel and insensitive I had been to his needs at that time. Not only was his mother dying, but his support network was crumbling. I was there physically and I was saying all the right things, but the man knows my heart. And my heart was hard and cold.
Day 11 came and the Hospice bath aid arrived at lunch-time. It was at that time that my mother-in-law awoke, sat up in bed and asked for something to drink. She drank half a cup of orange juice and spent a half an hour chatting the bath aid’s ear off. Stunned. Shocked. Perplexed. I cannot find a word to describe the astonishment that I felt. And while I wanted to rejoice in the miraculous turn-around, my hardened heart wondered if this was going to prolong the process even further. Perhaps, maybe, she would even make a full recovery and go back to her previous state of existing with cancer. I shuddered. Sadly, instead of taking advantage of those precious final moments with her, I hid from her. I didn’t want her to see through my facade and know that I was done with the whole process. Done with her. After the bath aid left, I went to check on her. She was in a coma again. If I hadn’t witnessed her sit up in bed and start talking, I would have never known that it had happened. But I did know. And guilt started to prick at my heart to see if there was any softness left. But there was not. The caring, nurturing heart that had arrived 11 days earlier had solidified, encasing cynicism and bitterness inside it. I was sliding down that rabbit hole again. The one that only rabbits live in. Where you abandon your values and cave into emotions. And as I made the trip down the hole, there she lay. Dying.
Day 12 came. The pattern of driving back and forth, caring for her and waiting for her to die was ordinary now. I’ve heard that it takes 21 days to make a habit. I would venture to say that it takes far less. This driving, caring, waiting routine that I was in was habit. And like any habit, once it’s formed, you lose sight of the original context as to why it started in the first place. Just 12 days earlier, I had rushed there. Not for some glory or to be able to taut a martyrdom for caring for someone that I had long had a difficult relationship. My original intent was to be with her, to let her know that I cared, to hold her, to love her and to walk with her through the most difficult days of her life. But in 12 days I had gone from good intent, to self-absorbed woe is me, to habit. The woe is me was gone and the habit was now there. Somehow, overnight, the heaviness lifted and my heart started to soften again. It was somehow different though. I had resolved to my new habit and new reality and I was getting ready to plan my life around it. I went into her room and apologized for being a jerk, not just for the past 5 days, but for the past 10 years. Then I left. Day 12 went. And there she lay. Dying.
It was a Sunday morning. It was day 13. We did our normal Sunday routine of going to church, then to Sunday school and then home for the kids to nap. We discussed going to see her. It was, after all, habit. Ultimately, we decided to stay home. We decided that part of this new normal would be taking time off from the drive, care, wait habit. So, we watched the Lions lose at football (which is a habit that the Lions have unfortunately developed) and we ate dinner. Then we got the call. She had died. Just as quickly as it began, it ended. There were no “signs” that it was going to happen. She had all the “signs” for 10 days. It just, happened. And I felt nothing. I felt no joy, no sorrow, no relief, no justification. I felt nothing.
We had already planned the funeral during the waiting process, so all that was left was to execute the plan. And we did. The four of us just did what we said we were going to do. And while the others grieved in their own ways, I felt nothing. It wasn’t a numbness, it was a nothingness. I still, 6 months later, feel nothing. In reflecting on the whole process, I realize that as she lay dying, part of me was going with her. All those years of animosity were coming to light. All the things that I had convinced myself that I had forgiven lay dormant inside, and the drawn-out process provided me just enough time to truly forgive her (and myself) for all those years. Had she died on day 11 (or even 12), then I probably still would have not forgiven. I realize now that I didn’t walk into a situation that hardened my heart. I walked into a situation with an already hardened heart that had been hidden beneath beating muscle. Some might say that I was grieving. I would say that I was forgiving. The self-righteous, stubbornness in me that wanted to pretend I had already forgiven was being dragged through the actual process to its conclusion. So, as she lay dying, I was forgiving.