Wednesday, March 18, 2009

An Acquaintance With Dying

Death is no stranger to me. That is to say,I have lost many loved ones to death, most within in the past two years. I know death well in its loss and sadness, and for that I hate death. I also know death in its belief of something more and better, and because of that I accept death. Death is no stranger to me. Dying, on the other hand, has never really moved past the stage of acquaintance with me. Mostly I think that is because dying scares me. But dying has been "hanging around" lately, in a manner of speaking, and so I have been making an effort to get to understand it a little better.

In the past year I have sat with two dying friends, Liz and Cathy. Liz, when I was with her last, had about a month of her life left. Cathy, when I last saw her, only had a week. Both dear friends knew that they were dying soon and both, though they might not have realized it, taught me lessons in dying. Liz, when I went to visit her and her husband in Maine last year, was in the last stages of cancer. I knew that when I went to see her, it is why I went to visit when I did, and still my mind fought against the idea of dying. I couldn't wrap my mind around the idea of losing Liz, and so the lessons seeped in but waited quietly until I was more ready to hear them. Liz and I talked a lot in the few days that I visited, or more accurately, Liz did a lot of talking and I did a lot of listening, and that's the way it needed to be, the way it was supposed to be. We talked about everything. The peace she had in her faith. The anxiety she had over leaving her husband and children. The ways she wanted to be remembered. Even the ways that she could feel her body dying. And, of course, there was happy talk to. Memories, stories, and shared experiences. And when I hugged Liz before I left I knew that I was hugging her for the last time, but my mind didn't allow the reality or poignancy of that moment to seep in until much later... until now, after Cathy's death.

Cathy, like Liz, had been suffering from a major (but different) illness for quite awhile, but unlike Liz, Cathy lived near to me and thus afforded me more opportunities to spend time with her. With Cathy the talking about her dying came over a longer period of time and in smaller ways. She, like Liz, also had great peace in her faith and concerns for her family. She also had ways she wanted to be remembered and observations about physical changes in her health. But all of that came dilluted over more time and wrapped in happy memories. And with Cathy it seemed that we had a more sure idea of when she was going to die. I knew, with more confidence than I did with Liz, that my last visit to her was my last, and Cathy knew too. Cathy came home from the hospital to die in her home. She came home with purpose and sent out word that she wanted everyone to come say good-bye. When I hugged Cathy for the last time the reality was all there and while I didn't want to accept it, somehow I could and knew it was okay. And that being okay somehow made Liz's death okay. I can't seem to find the right words to explain it. It is almost as though Cathy's peace and acceptance of her death combined with Liz's different kind of peace and acceptance and somehow the combination has given me some peace and acceptance. I am heartbroken, but have a new peace. A peace and a little bit better understanding of dying.

Dying is only a little bit more than just an acquaintance to me, and I'm okay with that. I'm not sure I want to understand dying too well. But I have sat with dying, listened to it, let it sit with me, and have less fear of it now. And that is something... though I must say, it doesn't seem like much when you are left still grieving, but it is something none the less.

And so, even on the rainiest day, there is peace and understanding if you allow yourself to sit with some sorrow.