Toad in the Hole

June 15, 2007

The Way Out

Last weekend we heard a concert of Hawai’ian choral music at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. It might seem odd to have concerts in a mortuary but this one has been hosting them for a few years now, several music styles including a jazz series. Great acoustics. Julia Morgan designed the place.

Some of the old hapa songs are sentimental as all hell, and performers of all ages sing them without irony; I think the culture’s beyond irony, one thing I like about it. Damned if I didn’t break down and snivel over one of them.

Not for the obvious reasons; usually this stuff makes me smile. The song, in its English stanzas, repeated the line “You were a beautiful baby.”

In Miami, I spent time standing next to my sister Jeanne’s bed, holding her hand and telling her just that. We’d all been saying “I love you” to each other consciously and rather more often since Dad died, and maybe even more since Mom died, having all been reminded that the chances to say that are finite. I was just elaborating, I guess.

I told her how beautiful she’d been when Mom brought her home, how beautiful she’d always been to me, that I’ve loved her since the day she was born. She was unconscious as far as I could tell, but I know that apparently unconscious people often hear what’s said around them. So I said stuff like that for whatever it was worth, just in case she could take it in.

I said that at her funeral, too. I talked about how beautiful she’d always been, what a great baby, how eager and cheerful. How she’d had a milk allergy/sensitivity/lactose intolerance, who knows? that took a few weeks to diagnose, and then Mom had had to feed her a canned formula called Mull-Soy. This was in 1959, and the stuff was the only soymilk formula available, apparently.

Lord, it was nasty.

I tasted it, of course. Yeugh. I was not impressed. The baby, however, was hungry and she guzzled it as if it were real food. It gave her indigestion (though not nearly so bad as regular milk) but she thrived on it nevertheless. Just a hint of nutrition, the most grudging bitter fake improvised food, and she took it and grew and blossomed on it. It didn’t take much. She was a beautiful baby and stayed beautiful, and I wasn’t sure anyone had told her that lately… I guess I was the only one left in a position to say so. I don’t mean just looks.

There’s something else I know, though, that made it all seem more futile—and that made it hurt more, during and after. The pros call it “decathexis,” and it’s something dying people do. I’ve seen it. I think it’s a bit of biological mercy; I think it’s physical, like shock… but then I think mind, whatever that is, is physical. Nothing “mere” about that.

I’ve seen it before of course. I was a nurse back in the day. My first year out of school—that year when you learn more than school ever taught you—I was with a few dying people. And one man, an old guy dying in spite of radiation treatments for lymphoma (which treatments left him with radiation burns, and I have my own opinion of that incident), dying alone except for us because his wife was herself too ill to be with him, died while I had my stethoscope on him. Listening to his heart beat and then stop beating.

That was back when I was in the habit of writing bad poetry, and a year or three after it happened I wrote this. I’d write it differently now if I wrote it al all now, but I’m letting it stand as I wrote it thirty years ago. Never did title it.

Dying, they seem to forget
A little at a time.
He was forgetting how to breathe.
Watching a ceiling, walls, for weeks,
He had long forgotten seeing.
I touched his hot yellow paper arm;
He turned head a little, politely;
blinked but never focused.
I spoke; he nodded.

Another slow bewildered breath
When I turned his arm, exposed
The lymph map in red ink,
The radiation carbuncles strung on it.
These were scrupulously clean and dry.

I wrote his numbers down
but there’s no way to chart
The heart’s hollow, placid echo.
Another breath, whose music I described; another effortless wait.

I gave back his cool, bent hand,
Straightened sheets, dimmed the light
As if he would sleep.

All night long he labored to forget.

In mortal chivalry
Or accident, or humor,
He waited for my third return
On pointless orderly recording rounds.

That heart never stumbled.

As I listened, counted, listened,
It merely did not sound again.
The nothing I heard then

Rang behind everysound
For days.

Rings still.

Posted at June 15, 2007 06:43 PM


I remember reading an interview with a biologist (famous; name escapes me at the moment) as he neared the end of his life. He was aware of that nearness, and he said that, as he had observed in many/most people who were dying, he accepted it. He believed that there were biochemical processes in play that made the dying more peaceful, and he gave a number of examples. He also noted that the exception he'd seen--a short-circuiting of that peace--was in someone dying of rabies. Since that's how my sister died, it upset me tremendously (it still does, in some ways) to know that there's a good chance that peace wasn't available to her. I was glad, though, that my parents hadn't seen that article.

All that said, I'm glad you were able to do that with and for your sister.

Posted by: narya at June 16, 2007 02:04 AM

When my former fil, someone I loved a great deal, was dying, he told us he knew where his off switch was. All he was waiting for was permission from his wife to go first, as he'd promised her he wouldn't. After two days, she managed to tell him it was ok, if he needed to go first, she wouldn't be mad at him. He died the same day.

The body/mind connection is a fantastic thing, in a couple of senses of the word.

Posted by: VS at June 16, 2007 05:17 AM

An Ex of mine died of brain cancer last Thursday. After 10 years of absolutely no contact, I saw her twice as she was dying. She had some trouble speaking, like a stroke victim, so some of our conversation consisted of me babbling and her interjecting little comments on what I was babbling about.

The difficulties we had had with each other had been swept away by her predicament and condition.

The first time I saw her she was sleeping and then woke up as I was sitting by her bed. She smiled and said "Look at you." We started talking in the limited way I've described.

I remember a lot of things about that visit but a few things stand out. I told her that as soon as I heard about what was happening to her, any feelings that I had ever been harmed by her had been swept away; that I had immediately forgiven her for any harm she did to me. I asked her to forgive me for any harm I had done to her, and she did. We were holding hands and crying.

On the news and in movies and TV shows I've seen scenes where someone throws herself on the body of the loved one who has died or been killed, or a child maybe who's been lost, and come back.

And it was like that: I was kissing her forehead and holding her hand and weeping over her. Lost and found and gone again. I remember the moment very clearly but it's almost like I don't remember it, like I was unconscious at that moment because I was so purely just this grief for her and so outside my normal self, or so possessed completely by the grief.

Anyway, later in the same visit, I said, "You're getting a forced lesson in Buddhist ideas of letting it go and giving it up, aren't you?"

She nodded emphatically and smiled and said "Yes."

Posted by: B. Dagger Lee at June 16, 2007 04:42 PM

((( ron ))) jeanne is so entwined with your life. and as an older sister, you were responsible -- don't argue, i know you felt that way. and this was something you couldn't stop, even though you and your sibs and family tried hard, which sucks all to hell and gone.

i'm really glad you were there for jeanne -- for you, for her, because you could advocate for her, because you could tell her she was a beautiful baby, and you both knew you were tellng the truth. because you knew what was happening when her body let go, and you gave her grace, dignity, love.

what you wrote so many years ago, about someone else entirely -- it was true, is true. it is hard to find the words about jeanne, but some of it you had already said. and the words of someone else's song entirely -- you were a beautiful baby -- are also true words, the ones that let yours flow along with the tears. xoxoxo

((( b. dagger lee ))) your ex was part of you, the difficulties and long estrangement notwithstanding. how wonderful that you could see her and be with her. it was so recent; so much, so fast; you must still be in a whirl of shock. thinking of you. xoxo

Posted by: kathy a at June 17, 2007 12:33 AM

p.s. BDL -- i lost my nephew to brain cancer 5 years ago. he was only 12, but he was buddhist, which i think helped; he suffered so much, but decided he wanted to live the life he had. near the end, he lost cognitive abilities but not his joy and love.

alexander spent his last week in a coma: gentle for him, very hard for his loved ones. his mom, especially -- she was crying and telling him, "don't go," and i was in the background thinking "it's ok, it's ok to go." his closest brother was at school; it's making me cry now, thinking of pulling him out of class to tell him that his beloved brother was gone. when we got back to the house, i cornered the hospice nurse and had her get rid of as many meds as possible, because i worried that alexander's mother would try to go with him. so many emotions and memories.

you know what makes me think of him with a big grin? his favorite color blue; his birthdate, which he could remember even when he couldn't remember names; pokeman; silly jokes; puzzles; and the way he told everyone, "i love you!"

Posted by: kathy a at June 17, 2007 01:04 AM

What an honor for you to witness (be part of) the man's death. I can see where the silence of his heartbeat would stay with you for the rest of your life.

I, too, talked to my mother as she lay in a coma, dying, knowing that if she couldn't consciously hear the words, the spirit of what I was saying got through. We always had a bitter relationship, only some of it eased the last few years of her life. We did the best we could.

You and Jeanne, that beautiful baby, were blessed to have had each other. I love your stories of her.

Posted by: Sally at June 17, 2007 07:00 AM

kathy a: Thanks, you're very sweet and kind. --BDL

Posted by: B. Dagger Lee at June 17, 2007 02:03 PM

This was beautiful to read, yes, even the poem, which is nothing I would ever call "bad." Of course you would write it differently today. You're older. You have different things to say. None of this diminishes the value of your younger voice and what you had to say then.

Thanks for letting us all see and hear both you and younger you. Thanks for inviting us in.

Posted by: Sara at June 18, 2007 04:46 AM

how moving! many people who hear me say that most often, the dying make peace with it, do not believe me. they believe even less that it often brings families so close together and can be a beautiful experience. the tears do not make it any less so. why we do not remember to honour the beautiful baby in each other in our everyday lives, i do not know! thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Posted by: Kati at June 18, 2007 04:13 PM

Thank you, all of you. Posting, writing, talking about this is something I fell compelled to do for a number of reasons I can name and other reasons I know exist but can't name. It leaves me pretty useless for a few days afterwards.

I saw several deaths over the course of my brief nursing career. Sometimes I was there at the official moment, more often not. The year I burned out, we lost 13 of the kids I knew pretty well, mostly kids with cystic fibrosis. It was pretty much a coincidence as far as I can tell; they just all checked out over that 12-month period. CF survival is much better now, and more CF kids are reaching adulthood; then I knew two, just two, and they usually came to the pediatric hospital because of course the staff there knew them and the disease both.

I was around when a 10-year-old decided to stop treatment and die, and I firmly believe he was competent to do so. He knew that more of it would have bought him just a few more days, and he'd been through many rounds already. He went peacefully. I was around when one young girl decided to go home to die, and she did, receiving friends and family propped up on a mound of pillows "like a princess sitting in state, regal" as a friend described. Yes, of course; she would. Not "princess" as in "spoiled." Just with that warm dignity.

You know, the biggest change I'd make in that poem would be changing "they" to "we." I might make others, but that's the biggest.

Narya, I've thought about your sister and that haunts me. The only comfort I can think of is that suffering is finite and the end of it is relief. Also, that what we know of dying like that is only what we can observe from the outside, and that I do know from experience that what looks like agony sometimes isn't being felt at all, just shortcircuiting muscles and nerve endings. That inner retreat has happened in similar (but survived) circumstances even when one's body and voice are thrashing about uselessly.

BDL, I saw the death tanka over at Chris', and of course knew who you were writing about. I'm glad you could see her and have that personal reconciliation. It's amazing what turns out to be nonessential, even unimportant, isn't it? Even what felt like soul-crippling wounds.

And Kathy A, you're more correct about my feelings than you could know, because I haven't said the half of it. Just say that it goes back to long before this year.

Kati, I don't know about "beautiful" but it's pretty much inevitable, isn't it? And we make it the best we can, and it's crazy to let anything get in the way of that.

Thank you, all.

Posted by: Ron Sullivan at June 19, 2007 06:17 PM

And I'm thanking all of you, tonight, with a grateful heart. I ran into a young woman tonight, someone I've only met twice before, but with whom I seem to be able to find the right words on occasion. her grandmother is dying--in the next few weeks, by the sound of it. And, thanks to you, Ron, and thanks to all of you who have shared, here, now, and whose words I've been reading and whose hearts I've been feeling, you all spoke through me tonight so I could tell her to go be with her grandmother, if that's what she wanted to do, to go to her dean of students and say, "I need a month to be with my grandmother as she dies. How do I make that happen?" And that's what she needed to hear, and no one had said that to her before, and you all made that possible.

It was because all of you have shared this, here, in this (sacred, for now) space, that I even knew what to say. thank you all for helping me help her. I love you.

Posted by: narya at June 20, 2007 04:44 AM

((( narya )))

Posted by: kathy a at June 20, 2007 05:58 AM

Narya, I'm so glad it was useful. I have mentioned here, have I not? that my niece Sara's psych-nursing instructor gave her a hard time for taking part of the day off (from class, IIRC, not clinical) to go to Jeanne's funeral. "You need to get your priorities straight," this bitch actually said. Jeanne had been a big part of Sarah's life; she and Tommy had helped her through college and nursing school; Jeanne had, as Sara joked, been her "other mother" when she was growing up; they were all pretty close. Sara had spent rather a lot of time between shifts -- she's working fulltime at nursing, and a fulltime student simultaneously -- to be with and help take care of Jeanne while she was sick.

Sometimes we really do need to step off the goddamned assembly line. I hope your friend gets the accommodation she deserves from her school.

Posted by: Ron Sullivan at June 20, 2007 04:20 PM

an instructor gave that kind of shit about a funeral?? "priorities straight"???? those are some kind of messed up ideas. xoxo

ron, that doctor who was killed in tilden? she was with our family practice for over a decade, just up the road from dr. braces. she treated me and my kids, over the years. my beautiful daughter picked 20 of her best origami cranes, and we will string them on fishing line and take them over. because, we don't know wtf to think about this, what to do. peace and love can't hurt.

Posted by: kathy a at June 20, 2007 10:25 PM

A psych-nurse instructor, no less.

Damn, ouch, yes that was awful with the doc and her family. And yeah, wtf can we think about it? But I second the emotion vis-a-vis the cranes.

Posted by: Ron Sullivan at June 21, 2007 02:20 AM

"'You need to get your priorities straight,' this bitch actually said."


I think it's clear that young Sara's priorities are in perfect working order.

Posted by: Sara at June 21, 2007 03:11 PM

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