Some Thoughts on Death and Dying

I’m not a morbid person, I came to terms with my own mortality years ago. Although I am not looking forward to dying, the actual moment of lost consciousness with its ebbing spark holds no terror for me. I haven’t had many experiences with death, although I’m nearing the middle (likely) of my lifetime. The few experiences I have had have been pretty gruesome. My father’s father passed on after a seven year decline, losing his mind and then his physical control to Parkinson’s. My step-father’s father died from lung cancer. My mother’s father is dying of what seems to be old age, but he’s losing touch and interest in the world.

The trigger for this introspective moment is my step-mother, who is on her deathbed as I write. Dolores was a tiny, vital, fierce, energetic woman who took care of herself and lived a very good life. She didn’t smoke or take drugs, drank in moderation, ate the organic food she prepared with love, and enjoyed life to its fullest. Despite this, just after her 58th birthday she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She underwent an intensive course of chemo and radiation treatments that sapped her strength, but not her will, through the summer.

She was beginning to turnaround, to regain her strength and ability to eat once again a few months ago and we all began to, cautiously, hope. (For those of you who haven’t experienced cancer directly, you don’t hope until months have gone by after the last treatment, and you don’t release your fear until years of `clean’ tests have come back.) Then she noticed a tremor in her left arm, and an inability to flex her hands. An MRI revealed lesions on the brain. Essentially, cancer had invaded her brain.

Dolores is claustrophobic, and the treatment for this new cancer was to encase her head in a mask that briefly emitted radiation. It was never for more than 10 minutes, but she spent the daily sessions battling a terror so fierce it left her depleted and worn. And then the poison from the radiation began to take its toll. Unable to eat, losing strength daily, Dolores finally asked the question her doctors had hoped she wouldn’t need to ask: is this treatment palliative or curative, was it holding the cancer at bay, or actually making it retreat? It was palliative, there was no cure for what had happened to her, only a chance that further damage might be prevented and her pain eased. Facing a life of ongoing terror and physical depletion, Dolores decided to stop further treatments.

She hoped that she might be able to start eating again, regain some weight and strength. She knew that she just needed a break and she could get on top of this illness. Her energy was low, but her spirit remained strong. Once again, the Universe had other plans for her. It has been fifteen days since she last ingested any sustenance, although she has been drinking water. The hospice care began last week, with kind-soul’d caretakers arriving daily to help my father take care of the woman he has loved, fiercely for more than 25 years now. She will never leave this home while alive, and I wonder what my father will do with it when she has gone.

My full moon wish of the Goddess was Dolores to be able to release life, having learned all that she can at this time, quickly. I know my wish was heard, and granted. Hers is a quiet death. No media will cover her passing, no agonizing moral decisions will arise from this event, the lives of strangers will not be changed. Dolores, when she dies, will be one of the 155,000 who die that day. Like the Goddess, I do not fear Death, knowing I can learn a great deal from it. Dying, however, terrifies me. It is a place where my faith breaks down, where fear interferes and pushes me away from my divinity. I want absolutes, I want promises, and I want proof that when my time comes it will be gentle, painless, and swift. It must be a good death. Dolores, in many ways, will have a good death. She is in her beloved home, her husband at her side, with her clearly stated (documented and witnessed) wishes carried out without question. The hard part is for those of us who continue to live. For us it is not a good death. It is too soon, too fast, too quiet.

Knowing me as She does, Mother only holds me and Her Lover. I spend my anger pounding on His chest, accusing Him of taking the ones I love away, but He doesn’t mind. Eventually, I feel loss, but my knowledge needs no bolstering. Death is a stopping point, terrible for the still-living, but (often) a relief to the departed.

“She never got a break,” we cry. “It isn’t fair,” we wail – as if we never learned that life, by definition, isn’t fair. Our heads know it, but our hearts refuse to listen. Turning my head into the comfort of the Mother, I weep for the loss. The loss of a bright, beautiful, opinionated, frustrating, intelligent, out-spoken, daring, warm woman who made my father very happy. She challenged him, pushed his limits and stood up to him. And he loved – loves – her. He told me he misses his wife, because the woman he sleeps next to at night is no longer that person, it’s a shell, a faded image of what once was, like a sepia photograph left in the sun for too long.

The Crone merely points to a mirror on the wall, the Sage standing by Her side. I turn to look and see myself holding blooded daggers, a necklace of fresh skulls draping across my chest. Before I can see any more, I change into armor, a huge raven on my shoulder. Another blink and the left side of my body withers and pulls from my bones while the right grows smooth and young. She has no answers for me, I hold the answers within myself.

Samhain nears, and the old year will end as the new begins. The flesh has been harvested, and we are preparing for the long winter ahead. This year I will have a new name to add to the roll of my Honored Dead, a fresh stick of incense to light, and another candle to add to my altar.

This year I will spend part of the night doing what I can to manifest a good death for myself. I’ll be writing my funeral, preparing my Living Will, and making out my will.

* * * * *

CODA: On October 29th, two days after this was written, Dolores passed into the Summerlands.

First published in The Beltane Papers: A Journal of Women’s Mysteries. Winter 2005.

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