The diagnosis is given. Nothing can be done. The end is near. The family gathers. The final conversations occur. Unresolved issues and unanswered questions take place.
This is what we think happens, or at least I do, when the end of life approaches. But in my experience, it seems to be a fallacy.
In some cases, as we know, the end comes suddenly without a chance to engage in those conversations. My Dad passed away of a heart attack in his sleep in 2011. I’d spoken to him the week before as we did every week. The conversation was no different than before. How was his grandson? His daughter-in-law? Had I talked to my Mom and my brothers? What had he been doing? Who had he talked to? And then he might go on about the cost of insurance and prescriptions.
Despite these weekly conversations, there were conversations we never had. I had questions about why he had done things or what had happened that caused him to act in a certain way. He wasn’t one to explain himself as he went, but I figured over time he might help me understand. After he passed, I wrote a book, One Last Word, about my desire to have one last conversation with him, and in writing that book to try to have those last words with him.
Eleven months later, doctors diagnosed my diagnosed my Mom with Stage 4 stomach cancer and gave her one to three months to live. This time would be different. I might have missed out on those conversations with Dad, but Mom and I would have them.
That proved not to be the case.
Why? Was it a failure on my part? I had questions and I wanted answers. I tried to tactfully raise them, but she wasn’t interested in addressing the matter. She either ignored me or changed the subject.
A few weeks back I read an article by Katie Roiphe about dying and last words. The article was an excerpt from her recently published book, The Violet Hour: Great Writers At The End. Roiphe spent years researching and interviewing people about what happened in the days, weeks, and months before a person passed. Did those last conversations, as we imagine them, occur? She concludes,
“I found in the research for this book that while nearly everyone has a fantasy of a ‘last conversation,’ very few people actually have it. It is the fantasy of resolution, of a final cathartic communication that rarely materializes, because prickliness or reserve or anger that was there all along is still there, because the urgency of death does not clarify muddiness, or lift obstacles, or defuse conflicts, or force us to talk about what matters, however much we wish it would.”
In other words, the relationship carries on as it had before. Everything has changed and nothing has changed.
Mom lived four weeks and one day following her diagnosis, passing away on April 14th. In those four weeks, we talked more than we had in the previous four years, even though she lived less than five minutes from me.
She talked about our infamous trip to the Grand Canyon. We lived in Phoenix for a brief time and before we moved away, she felt it important for my brothers and I to see the Grand Canyon. On a Saturday, we drove to the Grand Canyon and spent ten minutes peering over the ridge before we drove back to Phoenix. On the way back, my brothers and I argued so much, she pulled the truck over to the side of the road and forced us to get out. Although she drove off, she did come back for us.
On occasion, she talked about the marriage to my Dad. I knew the marriage hadn’t been happy. The level ten decibel of yelling was an indicator, but I never knew that in the early years she used to bake cookies, brownies, and pies for Dad because he had a ‘sweet tooth.’ I knew about the ‘sweet tooth,’ but I didn’t know about her baking for him. I figured she’d always worked at a bank.
When it came to life and the decisions she’d made, good and bad, she wasn’t interested in revisiting them or explaining her rationale. “I’ve lived a good life. You boys turned out fine.” That’s all she had to say on the matter.
There were two things she kept telling me: one, what she wanted me to say at her funeral, and two, that she wanted no part of dealing with the doctors. I was to speak with them. She didn’t want to be burdened with it, which was in line with how she’d lived her life. Minimize the distractions. Focus on what she wanted to do and say. Let others handle the details.
One evening, she must have had a sharp pain or something in her back. She said it reminded her of the pain she felt when giving birth to me.
“How so?” I asked.
She’d experienced almost unbearable back pain and went to the doctor. The nurse told her it was normal. After all, she was nineteen and pregnant with her first child. Mom insisted on seeing the doctor, who after examining her rushed her to the hospital. I was born that day. Six weeks early.
If she hadn’t insisted on seeing the doctor…
Wait? What? I almost wasn’t born? I was born six weeks early?
Forty-two years and I’d never heard this story.
How could she have never told me about my premature birth? How had it never come up on any of my birthdays? Why?
And before I could get a question in, she was off and onto the next topic, no longer interested in addressing the matter.
Always looking forward.
She never wanted to discuss the death of her Mom, who passed away a year after being in a horrific car accident. Or her second marriage. Or the boyfriends after that. Or the multiple jobs she worked, or why. Or the time she was robbed when working one of her night jobs. The thief made her kneel down and pointed a gun at her forehead while he robbed the store. (I heard the story a few years later from Dad.)
No, instead of resolving the past, we continued on as usual. The relationship between us, with its stops and starts, it uneasiness and tensions, was the relationship we had. For better or worse.
Despite the unanswered questions, I have no regrets about that last month. In her last days, I was able to be there for her and to allow her to exit this life in the manner and place she desired.
When the end comes, the relationship is what it is and was. So, if there is a lesson in all of this, instead of waiting until the end, instead of hoping that the specter of death will somehow transform the relationship, make the relationship what you want now instead of being disappointed later.