Along this death journey with my friend, Kate, I’ve come to realize that I’m selfish, easily frightened and a seeker of comfort. It disappoints me to think of my failings, but death has a way of showing us our short-comings in living.
I was in awe of the gentle souls I met in Kate’s last week. The nurse with teary eyes who personally requested Kate for her two shifts, then tended to her as if Kate were her beloved. Monsignor O’Neil who cheered the room with his presence, offered tangible comfort and bid her farewell because it is never goodbye. The long-time family friend who sat with me for five nights in a row and spoke lovingly to a comatose Kate and listened to my stories when I needed to talk. The best-friend of Kate’s daughter, M, who called her parents who fed me every night because that’s what they do — feed people.
In comparison, I felt fraudulent. I was so freaked out when I learned Kate had terminal cancer, I really didn’t want to see her. I had been mourning our friendship earlier because she never responded to my emails, texts, letters or phone calls. It never occurred to me that she was suffering and that communication was hard — how does one tell people, “I’m dying. I’m trying my hardest, but I’m dying.” But I forced my self to drive over to Helena to see for myself.
We had good days — chatting like friends, laughing and sharing advice for the deep things best friends share. We had bad days — Kate spiking fevers, hallucinating, unable to reason, pain, nausea, a buffet of drugs, chemo and constant stomach pumping. On the bad days I felt I had my lungs in a corset, and I’d flee to a local coffee shop and write, be among the living not the dying.
When I left, Kate had stabilized, we knew it was inevitable, but she was going home to take care of photos and her parents’ estate. Yes, she lost both parents, one after the other just a year ago. Her brother was flying in from California for a week and her daughters were helping sort all the “stuff” we accumulate. Death seemed to have plateaued.
Not for long. A successful minor surgery led to more fever which eventually led to her liver failing. Now I feared I wouldn’t make it back to Helena in time. I did. She’s stronger than giving up in a single day. I arrived in time for her to recognize me, say my name, “Charli!” with eyes wide and loving. Agitation set in hours later, followed by a gradual shutting down. A few days at the most we were told. Her eldest daughter, E, spent a fitful night with Kate and I was up for the next night.
An the next. And the next. And the next. And the next.
If it weren’t for M by day, the nurses, the clergy, the evening friend, I would have hitch-hiked back to Idaho. I’m not the compassionate person I thought I was. This was hard and I didn’t want to do this with every fiber of my being. But I did. It was the right thing to do. It was total self-sacrifice.
While disappointed with my short-comings, I did hang in there and better learned about self-sacrifice. The act of giving when it is easy is not sacrificial. The harder the act, the greater the sacrifice. I was there until the very last breath. Okay, the last two. Kate faked us out on the last breath then sucked in air noisily enough to startle M and I who were at her shoulders, our heads on Kate, crying. I later told M that her mother probably was leaving with the angels then said, “Wait a minute…” One last laugh.
I don’t recall much of the day beyond the kindness of others and the realization that I could help with her daughters and nine grandchildren. She gave them to me and I’m not sure what I think of that. I’m not the grand-motherly type. Maybe this is Kate’s last joke, I think as I bounce the baby and try to figure out how the toddler dimmed the light on my phone and tell the 10-year old to get the leaf off the dog’s butt, and I hope to God that’s just a leaf. My nose sniffles because all the little ones have the sniffles, too. I have three angsty teens I’ve told that “I’m there for you.”
Life. We fail. We try again. And again. And again. Failing is inevitable; awareness helps us make the choice to do better than we want to. Serve others. Live.
At the funeral home a sign reads, “It’s not the number of breaths we take, but the moments that take our breath away.”
The Moyie River is so beautiful, I’m breathless. I’m so uncertain of my ability to physically comfort others in the act of dying, I can’t breathe. I garden until I pant. I write until I feel I’ve run a marathon. I hold babies and toddlers and comfort motherless daughters until I think I’ll have nothing left to give, yet I find that others give in return and I breathe again. So many moments leave us breathless. It’s not all about the joyful ones or the easy breaths; the hard breathing matters, too.
July 15, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a breathless moment. Write about life.
Respond by July 21, 2015 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
I needed to come here and breathe words on the page. Thank you so much for the uplifting words left on my break post. I will comment and comment here next Monday and thereafter. You can read the obituary I wrote my friend with help and insight from her daughters: http://retzmemorials.com/obituaries/kathryn-kate-m-ferrie-age-63-of-helena/. I’ll be home after saying fare thee well.
What Had to Be Done by Charli Mills
Gus steadied his rifle to shoot the stud.
Once a well-muscled bay, now just hide and bones. For a moment, Gus saw not a dying horse, but the majestic creature that once ran swiftly among sage brush and pinion pine, father of many local ranch mustangs.
Out west, this was the worst drought in anyone’s memory. The stud outlasted most, but couldn’t rise from the crackled mud of a dry holding pond.
Gus exhaled his breath slowly, the way Pa had taught him when hunting mule deer or grouse. That had been for food. This shot was for mercy.