Dying is hard–at least that’s what my mom says–and not pretty like in the movies. She likes to underscore her point with a sudden, dramatic lolling of her white-haired head while heaving out a faux last breath, a grandmotherly Scarlett O’Hara. This always makes us laugh, her three daughters who are enrolled in a crash course on what it means to die. Gabriele straightens her head again, pleased by her comedic touch, and in the cinema soft light streaming through the bedroom windows the oxygen tube helping her breathe is the only indication she is sick.
We spend the day at Stanford’s Cancer Center. The Palliative Care doctor is a young Indian woman whose manner is both competent and reverent, a combination that makes me want to throw myself into her arms and sob. Stephanie and I tell her about Gabriele’s pain, a fiendish flower that blooms suddenly and tries to choke off her spirit. We speak of internal bleeding, low platelet levels, an infected feeding tube–a litany of cancerous side effects that we, like hopeful children, are expecting this mere mortal to fix. The doctor is quiet for a moment, her mind, finely tuned intellectually and emotionally, processing the depth of my mother’s disease. And then she looks at Gabriele, sitting straight-backed and attentive in her wheelchair, and asks if there is anything she’d like to add.
“Well,” my mom begins, her speech slow but clear. ”There is the psychological aspect of all this.” Uh-oh! I think. Will this turn into a drug-fueled monologue that makes no sense? But instead, what comes out is a lovely and fearless take on death.
“I”ve been interested in the act of dying for years,” continues this philosopher-poet, “and I think most people want to run away from it. But I’ve decided I want to look at it head on: what’s involved, what makes it harder, what makes it easier, what it is.” My mom’s green eyes look opaque, and I silently compare them to my father’s faded brown ones shortly before he died, trying to gauge how much time is left. ”I’ve determined I need to be a participant in this because I think dying is somehow equally as significant and important as birthing–having watched all of my four grandchildren literally being born.” Now, Gabriele smiles brilliantly, her eyes suddenly clear. The doctor, nurse, and social worker seem enthralled. ”So I’ve been looking at birth and death not as opposites but as the ends of a single continuum.” My mom’s fingers trace an imaginary line in the air. ”And I’m trying to determine what that means for me and what it might mean for other people who need to learn. I think we humans are still at a stage at which we really don’t know what to think about death, and fear really interferes with how we’re able to see it.” Then my mom’s elegant erudition is over.
We drive home through a violet afternoon, the hills banking the 280 Freeway rolling gently upwards in a velvety green swath, dotted by oak trees, cows and mustard fields. ”Moo cows,” Gabriele says absently, the scenery as familiar as the contours of her face, ivory-colored and translucent from lack of blood. ”Yes, Mama,” I reply, one hand on the wheel while the other rests on her thin thigh. ”Moo cows.” But I am really thinking about the newly purchased bottle of methadone tucked in my purse–a drug for heroin addiction or intense pain–and the meeting with hospice scheduled for that night, both things that inch us toward the ultimate finish line. Dying is hard, yes. And in some cases, it is very painful. But because my mother continues to model, as she always has, how to live, displaying a graceful acceptance of her situation and great peace, I do not feel afraid.