Virginia Jean Kuehner Cory has been dying for a while, now. We all are dying, but the imminence of death differs for each human and living creature. In my mother’s case, the sense that death is close first became manifest last year. Somehow, somehow, the sense that living mattered disappeared from her, and she shifted from grasping life – mind you, with limitations – to existing. When a trip to Silverton Hospital in February 2012 lead to a diagnosis of stage four lung cancer and post-ischematic dementia, it confirmed the sense that Virginia’s dance through life was to end, and end soon.
But this isn’t about her. This is about me, and how my mother’s impending death costs me, and how it affects the way I see the world.
Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross brought grief as a process to us in “On Death and Dying.” I grew up with that book, knowing that as an only child I would have to face the deaths of my parents at some point, and that loss would be incredibly painful. My father’s death was unexpected, unfortunate, and untimely, but was also fairly conventional in its course and duration. Grief presented itself, I endured it, and it passed, with much of what passes for “normalcy” in the processes of grieving.
My experience with my mother has been entirely other. It’s far from unique – I’ve heard from friends and colleague of similar stories with their parents and grandparents. I’ve watched and walked with other friends through similar grieving with their friends and parents.
What makes this long grieving hard is that you’re constantly giving – giving one’s time, routine, and hope. There are small and great comforts along the way. For me, it’s been seeing Virginia happy when we’re together on drives in the country and walks around the grounds of Mt. Angel Towers.
At the same time, the loss of other things we’ve shared – talking about politics and society, enjoying art, books, food, and music together, and causing all sorts of trouble – feels like a void for me.
I know my mother is now beyond those things. And in a real sense, I’m grateful that she is beyond them, as being aware and perceptive enough to engage at that level would mean she is equally aware of her disease, and the diminution of her life and body.
But there’s a part of me that longs for being able to call her and hear her rant on the sordid spectacle of modern United States politics, or complain about how nursing as a profession has been ruined by the use of computers. I want to get in a car with her and go to the downtown Portland Nordstrom’s, shop for shoes and clothes, and go to lunch afterward. I want her to complain that I’m driving too fast.
One of Virginia’s friends recently told me that my mother was at peace, and was much happier as her dementia and cancer progressed. Which is fine, except that I’m most decidedly not at peace with the loss of the woman and mother that I know and love.
The price of this grieving – this constant giving up – is that there isn’t anything to replace what’s lost, at least in the short term. The small and large kindnesses and grace that I’ve encountered can’t fill the growing void that the cumulative loss creates. Yes, the balm of love and thoughts and prayers help – but they’re a balm, allowing me to keep going without ultimately healing.
What may be the highest price is that I’ve stopped growing, and stopped moving forward. I’m desperate not to get pulled into the growing void, and must keep running not to fall in – even when I have not energy to do so.