3-2-11, rewrite 3-15-12
In August of 2010, I comforted my Mother by massaging her for nine days before she died of pancreatic cancer.
I worked at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, four years prior to this, doing massage on the family members of patients. Before that I volunteered there, massaging dying people.
Beginning in January of 2007, every Wednesday for more than an hour, I would ride the six train from my 'hood downtown, in the East Village, eighteen stops uptown to the Bronx. When I arrived there, I felt powerful and ready to work. The lessons learned from massaging people involved with care-taking and loss has been invaluable. Working at Calvary was humbling, but I'm not ashamed to admit that I thanked God every day my shift ended, that I was able to leave and rejoin the world of the living.
While I was there, I got to see how people care for each other. Giving comfort to those who are suffering is one of the most compassionate actions a person can do. When we deal with our most vulnerable part, our own mortality, it has the potential to transform us, to bring out the best in us. At Calvary, I saw people rise to their best by being strong, sometimes even heroic, as they took the elevators to the upper floors to care for and be with their dying loved ones. Some held vigil, sleeping on cots or chairs for many nights. I felt much of their sorrow, anger, helplessness, and also their strength. What an honor it was for me to say to them "This is for you now, I'm giving my hands to you." And God I pray that if I ever go that way, I have some hunky, hot male massaging me and telling me to breathe, let go and relax.
It was also often painfully depressing to pass by the rooms and see people dying by themselves, alone. We think we feel lonely; we yearn for a lover, a dog, friends, and some sort of distraction from life's unending monotones. But real loneliness is dying all alone. Seeing all this could bring me to tears, inspire a burning need for a drink when I got home, or often, both. When I asked Jill Cooperman, a social worker, and my supervisor at the time, if she had any advice for me on how to deal with the pain of being around death and dying, she said "Keep your mouth shut." I thought this a rather odd, not to mention cold, hard answer. But Jill was an odd woman, simultaneously warm and cold. One moment (in public) she was ever-the-most charming, congenial, and comforting care-giver to the family members and patients; The next, (in private) she would be swearing like a tranny hooker at all the messages in her voice mailbox, or neurotically rushing into the room where I provided treatment, eyes obsessively scrutinizing every detail, complaining that a file folder had been moved here, a box of tissues or a potted plant moved there. After my four-year tenure, Jill was responsible for letting me go. We had a mutual feeling of discomfort in each other's presence. It was as if we were allergic to one another. It was my first experience of seeing a caring social worker up front and personal, at her very best. And worst.
At Calvary, I felt immediate fulfillment and gratification from doing massage, because I could see immediate relief from my touch. I felt people relaxing when I transported them with my hands. When I massaged people at Calvary, I lightened their load and they loved it. Doing massage in a spa or gym, is being a service person. There, massage is akin to doing manicures, facials, bikini waxing or electrolysis. To quote one of my Calvary clients, "Waiting for the last breath can be exhausting." Treatments at Calvary were beyond pampering.
At the end of my shift, I often rested by meditating in the harborage of the terrace or in one of the outdoor nooks to revive myself for the long subway ride home to the East Village. There, death and dying always seemed miles away in the non-stop action of young people, artists, tourists, bars, and bands. About the only unpleasant experience that ever happens to the majority of my very young neighbors is when they puke from drinking too much on Friday nights or during semester breaks. Occasionally a drunken one will fall off a roof.
Calvary provided me with a way to connect with my mother, when I became the family member helping her to cope with her illness. She had about thirty days from the first symptom to the end. Her illness was horrific. Pancreatic cancer is one of the most monstrous because it's often asymptomatic. By the time the patient feels something wrong, it's too late, moving with lightening speed to death. It was good that the length of her suffering was brief. She was a fighter, always athletic and active, so she insisted on trying at least one round of chemotherapy.
When I flew to Tucson, I spent the last nine days of her life with her. For her chemo, we sat in a large room at the Cancer Center on Carondelet Drive. There must have been more than 100 people in treatment. Among the easy chairs, IV's and attentive nurses, I felt hopelessness for my Mother's chances, but I didn't let on. I needed to be strong because she couldn't. Before us on the monitor, "The Call of the Wild" with Clark Gable and Loretta Young was playing, as it did every Thursday. Unlike the book, the film was mostly about Clark and Loretta, not Buck the dog's desire to reconnect with his primitive dog-self.
When the film was over, a stunning young female dancer put in a DVD of a modern, romantic comedy. She was the daughter of the forty-something patient next to us who had the same diagnosis as Mother. For her, the treatment was working. Her tumor was shrinking. Her cancer in remission.
I didn't understand the rationale of giving aggressive treatment to a person of my Mom's age and condition, but I understood how she wanted a chance to fight. Midway through the afternoon, I talked to the doctor in private. I was crying at the time, as the difference between my Mother and the other patients was so obvious. Her treatment appeared a kind of prolonged torture. "Why is she here? Why are you doing this?" I asked. "We don't chase people around with needles" said Dr. Taetle, " I had a ninety-year-old woman who got to live another year after her chemo." Point taken. But what kind of year of living was it, I wondered?
Throughout my last days with her, I often massaged her legs and feet. She loved it, although I had to be very gentle. I noticed that after a minute of massage, her edema would go down. Besides her skin being so thin, there was also seeping from some open wounds, so gloves were required. As soon as I stopped massaging her, the edema would immediately return. Her liver wasn't functioning properly. It frustrated me to see that my massage wasn't effective. But it did provide comfort. I gave her comfort when I massaged her. Giving comfort is a kind of healing, both for the comforter and the dear one. Thank God I got to see and experience that I could give that way, to her. And so lovely for her to feel it. Even when a person is too far-gone to reap any health benefits, massage can help and heal.
On the Sunday morning following the chemo, she called me into her bedroom. "I've had enough," she said. "Call that place, it's time." I called that place, Odyssey Hospice, and that afternoon around 5 o'clock, they took her away.
We went there to see her a few hours later. Those last moments remain so present in my memory; me massaging her feet…then my brother and I at her bedside...her telling us she would always love us both forever and ever...but now, she needed to be alone, to sleep.
Later, back in our mobile home, at Far Horizons East, I lay awake in the dark. Around two a.m., the phone screamed. Walking toward it I heard the last of the nurse's message and the hang up. "Her breathing's changed...it could be anytime...so if you wanted to come..." I thought it was amazing how they could tell that.
I dressed quickly feeling numb, got into the car, and drove west toward Water Street. Those long Tucson highways were so quiet. I drove with the windows down in her big maroon Buick, the wind rushing in. I felt lonely, anxious. Would I get lost and not be able to find Odyssey House in the dark? Who were the other people in those cars driving past me? Were they going to work or coming home? Were their mothers dying too? It seemed appropriate for death to come now, like some creature racing toward my Mother through the desert's darkness.
I got there at 2:30 a.m. There she was, still breathing. I gently sat next to her bed. There was no need to take her hand. Did she know I was there? She was never a very touchy-feely type of gal. I smile remembering this.
Around 3:30 a.m., I saw a small movement in her throat like the fluttering of a tiny hummingbird. She so loved watching them hover and feed on the sugar water that hung outside her trailer porch door every morning. She talked to it in baby talk. Was that fluttering in her throat her way of saying goodbye to me? Or it was just an involuntary reflex, a letting go of the muscles? The fluttering. Her breathing stopped. It was so quiet and loud. That moment when everything changes. On her face was an expression of ecstasy. Was she looking down at this earth and all the life she'd lived? Or was she looking forward to some new fabulous place? I called the nurse. We closed her eyes. For a while, I stayed with her, meditating on her. After a while I got up, moved closer, and kissed the top of her head. "Goodbye my friend" I said.
She brought me into this world. And I saw her out. It's a gift to witness the last breath of your Mother. It is sacred.