Monday, August 04, 2008

The Fine Art of Dying

Nobody knows what waits ahead
Beyond the earth and sky
Lie-d Lie-d Lie
I'm not afraid to die

Yesterday, at 5:00 in the morning, we were awakened by a phone call informing us that Kate’s mom was in her final hours. Within the course of a few days the phrase “six months to live” had become two weeks to live had become a few hours to live. We hoped that we would make it to Akron in time.

We did. It turned out to be a false alarm, at least if “false alarm” can be interpreted to mean that we were off by a day or two. My mother-in-law, always a frail little bird, is now down to 80 pounds. She is wasting away. Her legs and arms look like twigs. She can no longer talk, but she can hear, and she can still acknowledge our presence by nodding. And she’s not quite ready to die, although I don’t begrudge our frantic five hours behind the wheel on a few hours sleep, or a single second we were able to spend with her yesterday.

And there the work of my own hand
Be broken by and by
Lie-d Lie-d Lie
I'm not afraid to die

Kate’s mom more or less raised six girls. After the birth of #6, my wife, my father-in-law quite sensibly retreated to his woodshop, and spent a lot of time at work. That left the tough task of parenting mostly up to my mother-in-law, who focused on things like etiquette lessons, trips to the symphony and the art museum, and the fine art of becoming good Catholic women.

And that was a mixed bag, as it usually is. All of those women, now in their fifties and sixties, care deeply about art and culture. Only one of the six has remained Catholic, although four of the six have only partly apostasized by becoming members of various Protestant churches. That’s been a source of some sorrow for my mother-in-law.

It doesn’t matter, at least to the loosey-goosey Protestants. We pray the rosary with her and for her, relying on childhood memory to provide the proper words to the Hail Mary. We pray for her using our own non-standard, non-official prayers that we believe God hears anyway. We pray a blessing for her. We pray for a peaceful passing. We express our thanks, because a functional family is a rare thing these days, and we are thankful for her and her role in making that happen.

We are thankful for her life. She’s a good woman, and a sweet woman. I thought it would be hard being around someone who is dying. And it is. But it’s something else as well. It’s a privilege.

Forget my sins upon the wind
My hobo soul will rise
Lie-d Lie-d Lie
I'm not afraid to die[1]

When she was still lucid, a week ago, my mother-in-law told her daughters that she’s not afraid to die. She knows where she’s going, and she’s ready. Her daughters were scattered all over the world. One returned from the middle of a vacation in Utah. Another returned from the middle of a vacation in Maine. Another was on her way to China, where she will spend a year teaching English as a second language. They all made it back to Akron in time. They’ve all been able to say the words to my mother-in-law that needed to be said. Me too, and I’m grateful. Death is such a traumatic experience for many people. Not for my mother-in-law. She’s showing us how it’s done. We are so sad. But we are so honored to witness this.

[1] Gillian Welch, “I’m Not Afraid to Die”


Pilgrim said...

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.
Psalm 116:15

Anonymous said...

Andy, you've done a wonderful job capturing what all of us are experiencing. We should all wish for the opportunity to die with as much grace and dignity as Irene. My esteem for her has never been higher.