Sunday, April 21, 2013

Dying Lessons

In reading over my last post, I realize I still haven't explained the "raging inside" comment in this series of posts about my mother, Frances Alenikoff, during her last days and after. Maybe I'll get to it this time. Maybe I won't.

Rage can be so boring. You've got to have just the right distance from it so it doesn't come across as self-indulgent and tiresome -- but still be engaged enough to be able to write about it in a true voice.

So, dear reader, I'll serve up the ire when the time is right. But today, I want to talk about dying.

"I Can't Figure Out How To Die"

I was taking my mother to one of her many doctors (it was the only reason we ever went outside). She was still living at The Facility in western Massachusetts. She inched over the threshold of the exit to the parking lot, hunkered over her candy apple red walker, then sank gratefully onto the walker's little black seat you weren't supposed to sit on as I prepared to get the car.

But she stopped me in my tracks. "I can't figure out how to die." She looked up at me intently, a genuinely puzzled look on her face. "How do you die?" I looked down at her. "Do you think about it a lot?" I asked, feeling my way into the conversation. "I think about it all the time," she responded. "Do you want to die?" I asked. "It's not that I want to die. It's that I think about it every day and I don't know how."

Then I had the answer. "You don't know how because you're not dying." It didn't seem to satisfy her. "I mean, I know you're struggling with your health," I went on, "but you're still vital. You are far from dying." Yes," she answered, "but how does one die?"

"I don't know, Ma." I sighed. "I don't know," and I went for the car.

It wasn't the only time Frances talked with me this way. She did think about dying all the time -- but it wasn't a morbid preoccupation. I figured at the time -- and I have no reason to think differently now -- that it was a natural part of being very old and quite sick. It was preparation for the end that was coming sooner, rather than later.

During the year or so that Frances spoke to me about dying, she seemed to approach it from different ramps. The most common was the bewilderment about the process she expressed to me that day in the parking lot. It was almost as if dying was a performance she was getting ready for, but she couldn't figure out how to choreograph the moves. My mother was always much taken with The Mysteries of life, but the Mystery of dying was confounding her.

Living Will Or Won't

On the other hand, she was loath to have the discussion about a living will or advanced directives with me. She had a living will, written out years before when she had done some estate planning, but I wanted to make sure it was current. There were several times I tried to enter into the conversation, but it seldom went well.

I was afraid she would want heroic measures, even though the living will that was in effect said she wanted none. It was a strange dance between us. I was afraid of her suffering needlessly in an endless (and expensive) process of keeping her alive rather than letting her go when her body was ready.

But having the conversation triggered her fears -- that I was trying to kill her (something she told my son she thought I was trying to do) or that she would be "buried alive." Her fear of dying was watered by her ever-hovering paranoia and anxiety.

Visits From The Other Side

My grandmother, Ruth Taylor
Yet Frances also shared with me her recurring dreams of visits from her parents -- starting as long as a year before she died.

Neither of her parents had been particularly loving to her in real life. Her mother, Ruth Taylor (her last husband, the fourth, was the great football coach Chuck Taylor) had abandoned her when she was just a baby to the tender mercies of my stern, exacting, humorless grandfather, who, in turn, farmed out the care of his daughter to a succession of paid, sometimes abusive, "foster parents" while he tried to make a living as a traveling salesman in the poultry trade.

My grandmother, a glamorous beauty, went to Hollywood for a minor career in movies and a lot of hobnobbing with the stars. Later, she studied yoga in India and became the amanuensis to Indra Devi, who brought yoga to Hollywood.

But on the Other Side, my mother's parents seemed to have mellowed. My mother reported that they both came for her lovingly in her dreams -- together, no less, something they hadn't been since the year 1920. She sounded very happy when she told me of these dreams -- and while the implication was obvious that "coming for" her meant dying, she seemed unafraid.

When The Time Comes, You'll Know

The last time my mother asked me how does one die, we were together in her room back home in East Hampton. She was in her bed and I was sitting on it, facing a little away from her. I didn't know -- and I don't think she did, either -- that she would find out the answer to her question definitively within weeks.

I turned toward her. Unlike the other times she had asked me, this time I suddenly knew what to say. "Mom, you don't have to figure it out. We all die -- none of us gets out of here alive. Everybody figures it out and you will be no different. When the time comes, you'll know."

Something in her relaxed as she took that in. She never asked me that question again. We were to go through some terrible times in the next six weeks. But when she finally had her answer, I could tell she had learned the moves well. The look left on her face after crossing over showed she had performed like a champ.


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