Sunday, April 28, 2013

On Loss

This weekend I massaged some kale, made my inaugural batch of granola, got a little bit sunburned on the back of my neck while sitting on a porch with my women's group talking about expectations,  walked all the way to the Co-op to buy a can of garbonzo beans, held a two-week-old baby, and arranged bouquets of flowers throughout my house.

And my roommate's mother died.

Have you walked with someone through death, reader? Have you been close to a person who has been reduced to their most basic in-out breath?

Now I have, and it's not an experience I hold lightly.

How to write about a friend's grief? A family changed in one final out breath? I have struggled to find the words to articulate the profound experience of standing next to a peer who is caretaking her dying mother, who is holding on to a life slipping away.

I know: my roommate is strong. She is nurturing. She is a heartbreakingly wonderful caretaker. (How I wish I didn't have to see this firsthand! How I wish this would have been a theoretical skill for most of her life!)

I know she seemed fearless; especially compared to my fearful entry into the sacred space where her mother was dying.

I visited last Saturday, loaded down with bags of groceries and a mountain of fear. Entering the home, I saw the corner of a hospital bed in the room off the dining room. It took me two hours of chopping vegetables, measuring ingredients, and washing dishes to finally take a deep breath and follow Rachael into her mother's room.

I barely recognized her. Though my roommate hadn't been to our shared home for over a month, had been sleeping in her childhood home and spending as much time as possible with her mother, I didn't fully understand how close her mom was to death until I entered that small room.

In a few months time her mother had aged decades: her hair was thin, her body frail, her eyes held tightly shut, and her skin nearly transparent. She wasn't leaving that bed, that house. She would die here, and it seemed imminent.

I watched as Rachael gently stroked her mother's hand and hair. Rachael spoke lovingly to her and mentioned my being there. Her body seemed a bit contorted and uncomfortable, so we slowly and carefully moved her body on the hospital bed. It took us twenty careful minutes. She grimaced a few times, and her eyes blinked open suddenly and then closed: small signs the spirit was not fully departed. Rachael massaged lotion into her skin and used a dropper to give her the smallest bit of water. I stood back and watched, with a heavy heart.

When Rachael walked to the kitchen to get muffins out of the oven, I wanted to lean over to her mother and say, "Rachael will be okay. She has people who will help her. I can be one of them. She will be okay one day. She loves you."

It was the wave of grief banging at my chest that needed to believe the vibrant and articulate woman I knew was somewhere inside that body, and that assuring her that her eldest daughter would get through this was what I could offer, what she had to hear.

In loss, people search for what they can offer to the grieving. Neighbors offered hotdish and groceries; her mother's coworker Sue offered the name of a pianist for the funeral; her sister's friends offered companionship and a sense of normalacy. I felt compelled to offer a promise I can't keep that everything will eventually be alright.

When I went over Thursday, the change was pronounced - her mother was more still, her sleep seemed deeper. When the call came Saturday morning that she had passed Friday night, I greeted the news with much sadness but not much surprise.

And today when I brought just my friendship to Rachael, and hugged her with tears spilling down both our faces, and saw the empty hospital bed, and felt the loss so strongly it was like I could hold it in my hand, I knew the promise I'd made to her mother was a long way off.  But I hope I can help keep it.

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