Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Reflections about Death

Just as I am getting ready to climb into bed, out of the night silence comes a distinct voice: “Does anybody have any food?”

“I’m hungry,” Bea says as I enter the bedroom.

I feed her half a chocolate pudding.

“Now, let me sleep,” she says.

I return to bed and start to doze off.

Not five minutes have passed when the voice calls out again: “I’m hungry! I need food!”

Since it’s past 10 pm, I provide the rest of the pudding and half a biscotti. Then, as Bea is drinking water, I slip half a sleeping pill into her mouth. It does not get past her watchful tongue. I retrieve the pill from the sheets and push it back in.

“Swallow!” I order, asserting myself.

“Well, now. Aren’t you powerful!” Bea responds in that sassy tone she usually reserves for Nurse Jane. “There. Now, go away.”

In the morning, I greet Bea with a smile and one scarlet zinnia.

“Who are you?” she says. “Are you my mother?”

I arm myself with patience. “No. I’m Sandy and ...”

“You are my daughter,” Bea says before I can.

After breakfast, I reposition her on one side for another nap. The skin around her eyes is translucent from all the beauty sleep. Lisa comes and I escape for an hour. Upon my return, I find our lovely health aide holding Bea’s hand. Lisa reports this conversation:

Bea: “Why don’t I die?”

Lisa: “Because it’s not your time.”

Bea: “When will I die?”

Lisa: “I don’t know the answer to that. Do you want to die?”

Bea: “Not yet.”

Among Bea’s papers there is a pertinent note, left for us to find:

“At 65, most people are afraid of dying. I am without a religious creed, or any ‘pie in the sky’ predilections. Life, one observes, stops. What most strikes me now about death as I observe other deaths is the unfinished, tragically unfulfilled aspect of most lives – too often the futility of the life. I hear of a death and want to say, “Wait a minute. Help, help! That person hasn’t lived out a meaningful life.”

Everyone is afraid, mostly of heart failure or cancer or the inevitability of just wearing out. My father wore out last year at 95, long after recovering from cancer. He had a strong heart, the doctor said.

One beautiful day this spring I visited Manya Schidlovsky at Sibley Hospital in Washington. She knew, and I knew, and she knew I knew, that she would soon die: malignant tumor in the brain, inoperable. A scarf was wound discreetly around her head. Her eyes – those eloquent eyes – commanded more respect for the intensity of their feeling than her life had held for me heretofore. I wept as I spoke of how much I had admired her parents, of how we both love our sons, of how I would have a concern for Ivan’s wellbeing. (He doesn’t need anyone’s concern – a fine, capable man – but I wanted to give my husband’s kinswoman something.) She could not speak. Her eyes observed me solemnly. She handed me the Kleenex box to wipe my tears.

You leave the hospital, comforted by the spring flowers, new leaves, signs of Earth’s renewal.

We tell ourselves, so, we, too, are a part of this natural world and return to it. A comforting thought? At times. But now, when a life – one’s own life – has more to be accomplished, more ground to cover, more emotions to feel, more fulfillment …”

If there was a second page, it has disappeared. Bea has dated her thoughts July 7, 1975, the year my daughter Stephanie was born. Two more grandchildren would enter the world, for a total of five. Bea was a loving and well-loved grandmother. She traveled to Europe several times with my father. They had many adventures together. Bea even went to Russia, his country, on her own. She helped him write two books and started a book herself. Everywhere Bea went, she spoke to the people she met and tried to understand the world around her.

I hope Bea has achieved the sense of fulfillment she describes above.


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