Yolanda is my wife’s aunt and she is dying. Her battle with metastasized cancer is, as the hospice nurse says, coming to an end. The family has gathered for day-long vigils at her bedside. Relatives and friends trade-off for night shifts in case she leaves us under cover of darkness. All are stoic, waiting. Emotions did crack through when the priest arrived for the Anointing of the Sick. During the performance of the sacrament, Yolanda, who was groggy from the pain medications, raised her arm as if to fend off the inevitable. Her son gently lowered her arm and clutched her hand until the priest was finished.
Her primary caregiver, along with my father-in-law, is a retired nurse from Trinidad named Yvonne. She is a unique and soulful presence in the apartment, quiet, calming, selfless. She has known heart-breaking loss in her life, but she absolutely loves her work and she can recount stories of previous passings where she was present to help the sick shuffle off this mortal coil. Of all the family members moving through the apartment in the last few weeks, she knows everyone’s name and most unbelievably, seems to know what each person needs to hear about this act of dying, because make no mistake, Yolanda is the one dying but we are all reminded of our own mortality in this moment.
I am in the final edits of a book on storytelling as a theological response to grief and loss. The research and writing have taken more than a year. It is my thesis for another degree but I have little hope now it will ever be published. I have lost faith in the project and now the best I can hope for, I feel, is to complete it. I’m also now deeply concerned, after our vigil at Yolanda’s bedside, that I’ve missed something. Is my natural pessimism, gloom and doom coming through? After all the research and writing and rethinking and rewriting, I feel like there is no adequate response to grief and loss except to soldier on and live with the impermanence and eventual end of this existence. Lost faith keeps me awake thinking every night.
It seems to me that all art is a hedge against mortality. Hell, everything in life is an act to defy the end. Human beings seem hard wired in that way. “Once more unto the breach…” as Shakespeare put it.
I can admit to myself that I landed on this topic because I am afraid of my own death. I was facing open heart surgery for a bad heart valve and quite clearly, my health was a significant point of debate among the various doctors I cycled through for second and third opinions. Thankfully, the consensus now is that there are other treatments and drugs to try before we get to cracking open my chest, cutting out the failing valve and sewing in an artificial replacement. I am ever so grateful for this news, but it hasn’t turned my thoughts away from how brief human life is and how fleeting our influence is as well in this existence. All the literature I’ve read and taught over the years told me this but now the lesson has hit me, pun intended, directly in the heart. Bullseye.
One night this week, Yolanda, in a moment of lucidity, told Yvonne she was afraid to die. She had been calling out names of family, some dead, some still living, moving in an out of consciousness. Yvonne told her there is nothing to fear. She just needed to let go, that all the people who loved her, both the living and the dead, were there to see her off or welcome her home. Death is as much a part of life as birth.
I guess I was looking for a different answer than the one Yvonne conveyed to Yolanda, or I am unwilling to accept the answers I found in my research. I felt helpless to assist family members with Yolanda’s illness and coming death. I felt that someone who just spent a year researching how we respond to death, grief and loss should be a wiser and more helpful teacher. Instead, I remained a student and a novice. Do we ever find the wisdom in our own demise, or is that ability only granted to a select few like Yvonne?
The one thing that is abundantly clear is that everyone, saints and sinners, struggles with the knowledge of our mortality. Even Jesus, the night before his execution, tried to find a way to avoid his own death. But our end is present from the beginning, and if we recognize and accept that, loss makes our lives richer. Knowing we will die hopefully makes us wise enough to live in the moment. It is ironic that we must live because we will die. As Yvonne told me, whispered to me, actually, we can fight or we can make peace with dying, grief and loss. Either way, we cannot change the ending.
As for that ending, I have always treasured a quote from Louis L’Amour: “There will come a time when you think everything is finished. That will be the beginning.”
Endings, beginnings, and everything in between are the fruits of this existence. So we sit in Yolanda’s small apartment, all of us gathered together as family, telling stories, looking at pictures, remembering, praying, and waiting. In the other room, Yvonne sits on the edge of the bed holding Yolanda’s hand, guiding her into the night.