Monday, May 30, 2005

A Lingering Death

I've been thinking about the purpose of dying.
Why am I so morbid?

I was talking to my wife this past week. We were talking about her mother's condition trying to decide if we should file a complaint with the HKHA about the bed-sores, the surly staff, the negligence and other problems we have encountered with this situation. This is a problematic question because not only would the complaint take a fairly large amount of time to file and pursue but because the Hong Kong government is good about letting you file a complaint, or have a protest march but then doing nothing to alleviate the grievance. Thus, is it worth filing a complaint about something when there is basically no chance that the system will change? It took nearly 25% of the population marching in the street two years ago to get the government to reconsider an ill-advised measure dealing with the freedom of speech. To put this into perspective imagine what would happen if sixty-million people marched to the steps of the Whitehouse. This would be considered a near revolution. Yet that is the only level of action that will cause the HK government to change. What good is one letter from a school librarian's wife?

As worthy as that topic might be of a post on this blog it is not my purpose today. My purpose is instead to think about the purpose of a lingering death. I don't know how many times I have heard people hope out loud that they do not experience a lingering death. Indeed, it seems almost a truism to say that people should die "with dignity" and without "suffering". I have, through experiencing the lingering death of my mother-in-law, come to the conclusion that her slow drawn out death serves two very real purposes. I am almost, not quite; ready to say that those who wish for a quick, painless death are both misguided and selfish.

The first purpose served by taking a long time to die was revealed to me by something my wife said. On Saturday when, with tears in her eyes she told me, "You know, I just wish she would die." I can understand the sentiment. Both my wife and her mother have had a difficult row to hoe with this final illness. My mother-in-law is obviously exhausted physically and emotionally. The bedsores, the strokes and the cancer have all taken their toll on her. My wife and her sister must spend hours each day at the hospital and it is a strain to see their mother slowly starve to death because she cannot eat. Providing the additional care that the hospital cannot or will not provide in addition to their other jobs is a very difficult position to be in.

But, I realized when my wife made the statement above that the grieving process is already well underway for her. That is a good thing. Indeed, she has already accepted that her mother will soon die. Thus, the lingering illness has helped both my wife and her sister accept the fact that their mother is about to die and allowed them see that there are things worse than death. Indeed, I am not sure that my mother-in-law is not now in a state somewhere between life and death. The release they will experience at the death of their mother will allow them to move on faster. I saw this when my paternal grandfather died after a long illness. I am seeing it again here.

I do not know of anything sadder than the people who refuse to let a loved one die. Most of us have met or heard of those people who still have their dead child's bedroom ready up stairs; or the widow who sets a place at the table for her husband dead these twenty years. My father has a 1941 Ford that he purchased from the daughter of a man killed in WWII. It was a new car when he enlisted in the Marines on December 8, 1941. The man's widow kept the car in the garage as a memorial to him until she died. She washed the car, waxed it and did what she could to keep it in good condition for the husband who would never return. When my father purchased the car it still smelled like a new car. The invoice sticker was still on the right rear window. The widow never drove it. She never remarried. She never got over her husband's death. How tragic.

Because their mother has been in the hospital for nearly three months Kim and her sister have already begun cleaning out their mother's apartment. This appears to me to be a precursor to letting their mother go and it is a good thing.

Thus, the first purpose in my mother-in-law's lingering death is actually three purposes. One it gives the family a chance to grieve and recover before having to deal with the actual death. Two, it helps them to accept the impending death and prepare for it emotionally. Three, it will help them to let go of her memory.

My wife and her sister will be able to get on with their lives after their mother dies. There will be no pinning "I wish she'd lived another three years" or "If only she could have lived to see her granddaughters get married" when my mother-in-law dies. The grieving has already been done. There will be no promises made that are still unfulfilled. That is a good thing. It is a hard thing to say.

The second purpose to a lingering death is more abstract. When I look at the amount of work that Kim and Ling have put into caring for their mother I am amazed at their love for her.

It is easy to clean a baby's bottom when they need a diaper change because babies are cute and they smile at you. They are also small and light enough to roll over with one hand. You receive pleasure from the act of cleaning a baby.

After at least six and probably eight or nine strokes it is an open question as to how much of my mother-in-law is still there. The best that my mother-in-law gives you is a vacant stare with a drooling mouth. How hard is it to love someone who cannot respond? This is the point where love and duty meet. It is a point that is often as sharpe and as capable of cutting as any sword. It defines the meaning of love into actual acts of caring. As far as I know this is only point in time where the depth of love between parents and children is tested to this depth or this clearly. How difficult it is to care this completely! How many of us would fob the job off onto a hospital staff and simply complain? How many of us would simply fail?

This point often reveals much more about us than we are comfortable letting others see. But the essence is this. To watch a loved one die a slow lingering death and to aid that person, to love that person through that process makes those of us who live better people.

I don't know if I am quite ready to wish a painful, lingering death upon myself. But I do see that such travails can serve purpose that is both beautiful and even holy.

Until next time
Fai Mao
The Blogger who is not obsessed with death

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