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Joy and Sorrow

by MISSY COMLEY BEATTIE

Written on April 16th.

I had emailed David Ker Thomson, telling him I was going to sit shiva. On the way to this shiva sitting with my best friend Joan, who’s Jewish, I mentioned that we were sitting shiva and she said: “No, you’re not sitting shiva. You will be sitting with someone who’s sitting shiva.” We learn.

The next day, Friday, April 8, my sister Laura phoned to tell me our mother had fainted and fallen and that they were on their way to the emergency room. Against Mother’s wishes, Laura had called 911.

After Daddy’s death, Mother said goodbye to medical screenings and physicals. She had symptoms she minimized and often remarked, “Something’s got to take you.” The trip to the hospital provided some answers about her condition: a mass in the colon and extreme anemia. Mother’s choice: an exit strategy. She would starve herself to death, taking only a little water and ice chips. At home.

I flew to KY on Saturday.

I’ve written about my mother. She’s the smartest woman I know, sassy, funny, and a hellcat. For years, she was chairwoman of the local Republican Party but she evolved into a screaming progressive. George W. Bush repelled her. When she heard him speak, she said he was too stupid to be president. She and my father opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and when my nephew Chase was killed in Iraq, they were vocal, placing responsibility for their grandson’s death with Bush and Cheney’s lust for oil and U.S. imperialism.

The hospice bed is in the room across from mine. This morning, we washed her face and used No-Rinse Shampoo to clean her hair. “I’m making you look like Mrs. Frankenstein,” I said as I combed her hair up and over the pillow. She smiled.

I keep thinking about that email to David–shiva sitting. I am sitting shiva. Or pre-shiva.

Laura, her partner Erma, and I are a sisterhood. We love, listen, encourage, cry, ease pain, and nurse, cleaning the body, undaunted by excretions and secretions and their odors. We know. We know what needs to be done and we do it, with tenderness. The squeamish aren’t helpful at the deathbed. It’s blood, sweat, shit, and tears. This is real life.

We’re the family of love, crying together, a river of tears this week but, also, we’ve reminisced about a lifetime of happiness. We were raised by parents who were devoted to one another and to us.

The hospice team said starvation isn’t painful. It is for us, as we tell our mother how much we love her and wonder when the worst, living without her, will begin. Mother thought they’d bring a pill at some point, to end her life quickly. We explained that this is illegal. It shouldn’t be. It would be humane.

April 17th.

Today, Mother’s so weak–nine days without food. I look at her and the faces of my siblings. I think about life–this unchoreographed dance of joy and sorrow and something or someone’s cutting in with an in-between. And death’s encroachment. My senses are heightened. Mother’s breathing is harsh, yet birds are singing. Throughout the world, babies are taking their first breaths. One of our hospice nurses is pregnant, due in July.

We’ve told Mother that she and Daddy will be together soon. This is what she believes and we whisper in her ear that we are loving her into Daddy’s arms. Laura sat by her bed and read love notes Daddy had written to her during their 62 years of marriage. There are hundreds.

She died at 9:00 p.m.

When two men from the funeral home came for her body, they told us to go to another room, to avoid watching as they took Mother out of the house. I said no. Laura and I walked behind the gurney out the front door, down the sidewalk, and said goodbye to our mother as they put her in a van and closed the doors.

Missy Beattie is in Kentucky with family. She’s a member of Compassion and Choices and Final Exit, believing in the right to choose the time and place of one’s death. Reach her at missybeat@gmail.com.

 

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Missy Beattie has written for National Public Radio and Nashville Life Magazine. She was an instructor of memoirs writing at Johns Hopkins’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in BaltimoreEmail: missybeat@gmail.com

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