I had the blessed experience of being witness to the passing of a dear mentor and friend , a poet I have been caregiving for the past 1.5 years in Portland. She was 91 years old. It was a beautiful experience to watch her take her last 3 breaths and leave this world. It took away all my fear of dying. Thank you Jane Glazer, for being a teacher to me even in your last moments here on earth.
A Personal Reflection on a Beautiful Dying Process
There are waves of nausea moving through my body as I sit on the white couch on SW Madison for what is to be the last time. It was just last night that I was administering morphine every 4 hours to her, catching an hour or two of sleep in-between. I had heard her daughter Nancy at 4:30am tiptoe quietly past the hospital bed that was sitting in the area that had once been her dining room. And then the water coming to a boil, almost to the point of the whistle and I knew that Nancy was up for the day. That was this morning. In this moment I am preparing for another night of little sleep, another round of morphine intervals but this evening it will just be me here, alone. That was then. This is now. The Holy moment of her passing will soon change all that. A new narrative of death will be scribed into the neural pathways of my brain.
I have been grappling with all this, watching the woman I had known as a vibrant, fun 92 year old mentor to me become so lifeless, looking like a skeleton, lying there unconscious with these strong rasping breaths. But I do know now that I am feeling sick as I sit waiting for her to die, imagining it will be nights now before I get my life back. Nights of no sleep, morphine doses. I google “how long can a person live without water.” The computer responds, “a few days at most.”
Death is scary. Aging is difficult. To be with some one deteriorating is not easy and it is too easy for us in our youth and middle-age to want to push it all under the rug, not look, not be present to the inevitable. This is what I am sitting with now, on this white couch where I had spent many evenings caring for her needs. As I am grappling with the nausea in my heart area and I am trying to refocus my attention on what is most important to me to tend to now while I am still healthy, agile and have my relative youth.
I hear a different sound, something between a moan and a shriek, something I can’t pinpoint but something that says to me, “pay attention.” I get up and walk over to the dining area where she is lying, motionless except for the intense rhythm of a breath trying to find itself.
As I look on, curious, her eyes open wide, startled she shifts her gaze first to the upper right side of the room and then the left. She is seeing something, that is clear. My heart begins to pound. I am standing there frozen now. “Something is happening” I think to myself. Could this be it? What is she looking at? Some people say the angel of death comes. Is she seeing the angel of death come to get her? I wait. There is a gasp, her mouth opening wide. This must be it. I am more confident now that this is the end. Her body quiets and it looks like she is still breathing. I strain to get closer to watch but I don’t want to get too close. I wonder if I should take her hand, but “no” I think, I do not want to interfere with this event. Suppose my touch stops the process and pulls her back into her body. So I stand there, entranced, waiting to see what happens.
Another loud rasping gasp. Is she in pain? It doesn’t seem that she is. She is just in life, just doing the natural thing the body does. I am thinking of my children’s birth. I am thinking of how it is all so natural, like this. And then I am aware of my mind doing its super-drive thing. ‘What time is it? I’ve got to know the time so I can tell people what time she died. I can’t leave, butI’ve got to get to my phone.” I stand glued, and then turn, sprinting—now reaching for the phone.
It’s 8:49pm. I look back at Jane—just in time. One more gasp and I watch her come to the point of stillness. The color of her skin is taking on a blue tint. The silence is palpable except for the quiet sounds of All-Classical Portland on OPB and the loud voices in my head.
It is 8:50pm. I have just witnessed a passing. I have just witnessed a mystery beyond mysteries and I am standing in this holy moment feeling blessed.
It was a blessing to spend the last year and a half with Jane as a friend and mentor, and me as caregiver. But mostly I felt privileged to have been with her in her last moments of passing from this world. And although she had many moments of anxiety these past few months as she drew closer to this moment, she left courageously, peacefully and gracefully. And in her last moment alive on earth, she left still as teacher. She taught me that death is nothing to fear, it is easy, natural and holy.