The other day, I held the hand of a dying woman.
I do it all the time, actually. It’s just some are dying sooner than others.
The perspective from which I view this transition makes me fairly detached from the sadness. Truthfully, I am quite relieved for her.
A week ago she was living like an animal caged in her mind. Alzheimer’s had already eaten away most of her brain tissue, and what remained was a very primitive connection of survival functions which allowed her only to eat and to fight. She was a highly defensive primitive vertebrate posed to strike… like a hungry alligator. She spent her days alone, a healthy distance from those whom she could grab, pinch, hit, or bite. She was lost and unlovable.
As I took her pulse, weak and thready, I studied her face. Her eyes were half open, unfocused, and her cheeks so sunken they nearly met in the middle. She groaned once, and I strained to hear her thoughts. I was hopeful there would be one last coherent statement, one last gracious goodbye that could restore her dignity for posterity’s sake. Her eyes flickered, and I hoped she was dreaming of her husband, her children, her parents… of those whom she loved. But I wasn’t even sure that she had someone to love. Or that someone had loved her. No one else was sitting at her bedside cleaning her mouth or whispering consolations between ragged breaths. This made me profoundly more sad than her death.
We sat tucked inside a dark room of a facility buzzing with the hustle and bustle of caring for the living, or more accurately, the undying.
I knew that most likely she would die alone, and they would find her sometime later.
Later that day, I went for a run. The snow whipped down sideways from dark, angry clouds. I thought about her, and wished I could have known her sooner. I wished she that could have recognized kindness, or had known that for twenty minutes or so, I cared. I wished I could have heard her story just so I could retell it.
It led me to think about all the older folks I know, and how they love to tell their stories. I see how the hand of nature is very intentional in making us pass our stories on before we leave this earth. This tendency is a developmental milestone not to be dismissed with a head-shake and an impatient ear.
I listened to this song as I ran on wet, slushy roads on one of the ugliest days of the year. The fog of breath from my lungs burned like fire. The snow was both isolating and insulating, and a melancholy chill wrapped around my bones.
But when a song strikes poignant and true, suddenly everything seems quite beautiful.
Sad and beautiful, like a posthumous poem.
Always listen to someone’s story. Listen to it over and over until it becomes your own, because eventually, it will.