It is a quiet day. Or is it a quiet morning? A quiet hour? Impossible to say when you are caring for the dying, which is something like caring for infants, from what I observe so far. So many pulls on your attention and there’s always the Number One, the person at the center of it all, whose immediate needs and wishes trump everything. It is impossible to plan anything, hardly even meals.
But now and then you find yourself with a lull like right now. I am not the only, or even the main, caregiver, by any means. My role is sister care/household management–miscellaneous duties, and I fill in as needed on direct care. I’m here for a few days because, as a retired person, I can usually arrange my own schedule to have extended time away from home. But dozens of willing hands are helping out around the clock.
So now, for example, dishes are washed and the tree seeds that we track in from the back porch are swept out of the kitchen and hallway. A friend who is in the caretaking rotation is with Number One, who is watching a video of a musical now being performed in a major city festival; she composed the music for it, it’s a premier performance, and she’s not there, but the producers have sent her a DVD and at this moment she has the energy to watch it. The caretaking schedule for the next few days is coming together and I don’t have more names, yet, to add to it before Number One takes a look at it. Number One’s wife doesn’t need lunch yet. Dinner depends on a walk to the farmers market in an hour or two. I’m caught up on my own email. And so, if I am quick about it, I can reflect.
“How does anybody do this alone?” Number One’s wife asked me last night. Meaning, how does one walk with a beloved through the dying process without a community of friends and family to help? The practical considerations are overwhelming. Comfort and peace for Number One, above all. Keeping the laundry moving so Number One has the right nightgown and the most comfortable sheets. Answering the phone and conveying well wishes but barring most visits. This is difficult to regulate for someone with the outsize personality, charisma, and generosity of our Number One. At the same time it is important to allow for the spiritual encounters that come up, you never know when, so goodbyes, but not too many too soon or all at once, and so some just won’t be said. Procedures and baths and the extreme inconveniences caused by the failing body. Walking through the labyrinth walled by her wish to savor the last bits of life and her wish to get it all over with, ASAP.
Dying is hard work.
Yes! One meatloaf sandwich coming up, for the wife. I will make borsch this afternoon because Number One mentioned it in a groggy comment yesterday but I will not count on her eating any. It is enough just to make the offering.
That’s what service to the dying is, and our well wishes and thanks and goodbyes. These are offerings, not for our own sakes and sometimes not even for the sake of the dying one, who may not be able to accept them. But to the Spirit that binds us all in our glorious mortality.