On Death


I am not peaceful.

I am also not inspiring, sadly resigned, bittersweet, reflective or wise.

Maybe I’m supposed to be, but I’m not. I’m angry, afraid, bitter and in denial.

As far as I can tell, that is pretty typical for a dying person. I’ve heard about the peaceful, lovely dying person who gently takes the hand of eternity while everybody plays mandolins and strews flowers. I’ve just never seen it, and I have a hard time believing it.

I share a room on the hematology-oncology unit with a woman much closer to the end than I am. I take her behavior to be a more advanced stage of the same feelings I have. But I’m far removed enough of the time to not think about it. People who will die as soon as this woman is going to die apparently can’t. She tried—we’d watch movies, or she’d tell me about her family and give me recipes, but in the middle of a pork loin broil, her face would crumple.

“This isn’t fair,” she’d say. “I don’t want to do this. I’m afraid.”

She sometimes cried. Or she’d get angry. A nursing aide would come into the room and ask how she was doing and she’d snap “I’m dying, how do you think I’m doing. “I’m dying.”

She asked me over and over how she was supposed to cope with this.

“I have no idea,” I told her again and again. “I don’t think about it.”

How can you not think about it, she wailed. “I can’t just not think about it. This is my life.”

The only answer I had was: I’m not as close as you are. So I pretend I’m not dying. I force myself not to think about it. When I can’t not think about it, I cry and yell. I’m cruel to my husband. I lay on my bed and wail.

I have nightmares about the things I can’t think about. A dead friend and I are walking along with a group of other friends, who stop while she and I continue on to a big house with a shaded sunporch.

“Why isn’t anybody else coming with us?” I ask. “Why did they stop?”

“They can’t see the house,” she answers. “We’re dead. So they can’t see us and they can’t see the house. Because we’re dead, and they’re still alive.”

Or I’m talking to a high school friend, and partway through the conversation, I realize she’s dressing me for my funeral. “Put some eye makeup on me,” I plead. “If you have to bury me, make up my face so I’ll look pretty,” and she agrees.

The most frightening: I’m standing in a big group of people next to a building that I realize is collapsing on us, and I have time to think “it doesn’t matter what I believe anymore, because I’m about to find out if there’s an afterlife,’ and the dream ends as the building falls.

I assume my roommate had these sorts of dreams, but they started to infringe on her waking life. She would wake up and have no idea what day it was, she’d just be upset and agitated. She was obsessed with the idea that they’d miss her dialysis and forget about her. Every time she woke up, I’d tell her that she hadn’t missed it.

“Why aren’t you upset,” she cried. Why are you so strong?”

I’m not strong, I’m just not as close as you are. I can push this away, tell myself I have many months, a few years—you have weeks. By next season, she’d be gone. Ironically, she discovered how close she was to he end of her life just as her daughter announced she was pregnant.

“All I want is to see my grandbaby,” she said. But the idea that you can cheat death long enough to give someone one last experience is a lie. No matter how much she wanted to live another year, to see her grandchild, spend a little time with it, she couldn’t. It wasn’t going to happen.

“You meet the baby in heaven, and send him on his way,” someone says.

“Bullshit,” she cried. “I want to see my grandbaby.”

Eventually, she started on Xanax, to give her some peace, and then they took her home.

“Take care,” I said. I wasn’t going home for weeks. “See you next time around.”

“No you won’t,” she snapped. “There won’t be a next time. Good luck. Stay positive.”

“I’ll think of you,” I lied. I’m not positive, I’m negative, I’m sour, so I just don’t think of it. And I can’t think of you. Not for long, not for long, or I’ll go down. I won’t be able to stop thinking, and I’ll be afraid for the rest of my life. And I can’t stop being afraid. I don’t want to die, not today, not in a year, not ever. And I’ll make my husband cry, and we’ll never stop. I can’t think of you or about you and I won’t.

And I don’t. Much.

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