For the last 11 days, my family’s life has been wrapped around the last phase of my mother-in-law’s life, first in the hospital, and then, hospital bed in tow, in her home, back on the land where Alice was born over 92 years ago. In complete harmony with our emotions and her physical state, the weather has been unduly wild, even by Kansas standards.
I’ve been in this place before when my father died, but I wasn’t living next door to the center of that universe, and of course, there’s that familiar ache that links me to other losses that happened far too slowly or quickly, stopping my breath and breaking my heart. I also know well how grief is preemptive and mysterious, manifesting in forgetting words like “garage,” not knowing what to order for lunch or waking up at 3 a.m. determined to re-organize the closet. But having visited this country doesn’t mean I know shit about how to navigate it, where I parked my car, or what to say or do next. My body reflects my psyche: sudden nose bleeds for the first time in my life, a cold to add insult to injury, and all I want to eat is bacon and cookies punctuated by iced coffee. It’s hard to sleep, it’s hard to wake up, and I’m not even doing the heavy lifting of long days and nights caring for Alice that my wonderful sisters-in-law and husband are shouldering.
At the same time, this place is endlessly beautiful. I’ve had many insightful conversations with Alice about how her mother taught her to climb a tree (make sure one foot is anchored well before climbing higher), what happens after death (“I don’t know having never done it before”), what to eat first and next (dessert), what matters most in life (loving your family), and if she’s afraid (“No.”). The wind blows so hard, a 50 mph gust that shook all the windows and made the walls tremble. It suddenly rains heavier-than-usual drops in a fury. The sun reached out its long and loving arms. Alice smiles and nods her head before falling back to sleep. None of us have any idea how her life will end or, more to our consternation, when, and what we should do to plan for everything in the best possible way because this is a family of worker bees who strive to give all they can.
Meanwhile Ken and I take a long moon-lit walk in the fields with one of his sister, or I speak to another of his sisters in the laundry room, or one of Alice’s long-time friends has a soulful chat with me by the mailbox, or someone brings a whole meal, but we mostly focus on the dessert. I alternate across a panoramic of prayer, panic, confusion, exhaustion, and making plans for something somewhere someday. I drive to the store with the dog, and on the way home, we both enjoy several Ricola cough drops, a favorite for both hound and woman, then come home thinking all is calm only to get another call that springs all the humans in the house to our feet and out to door until the near-crisis is averted, and it’s time to feed the cats.
One of my close friends is also on death watch with her mom, and we text about making bumper stickers that say, “Death Watch: No Rules” or “Death Watch: Take Your Hands Off the Dial.” Such times make me cognizant of the weighty mystery that beats in all our hearts, and pulses through how we see what and who is right there, loving us and letting us love them. The sunsets are glorious, the first moths of spring cling to the lit window, and the chimes on the porch do their thing like all of life, just being what it is and doing what it does.