Tethered to Life with Steel Filament
My mother is tied to life these days by the slenderest of tethers. Her world, once full of music and passion and words and ideas, has narrowed to the width and length of a hospital bed. Once a swimmer evangelical in her belief about fitness, her last walk was the four steps from her bed to the hospital room's door.
That was two days ago. The little bird in the bed is barely recognizable as the force of nature once known as my mother, and with each ebb I wonder if this time she will finally let go her grasp on the physical and known in favor of whatever is next. Her answer so far has been: Not on your life. She is tied to this life by the slenderest of tethers, but then, so are the cocoons on milkweed that survive gale-force winds.
She has always been impossible, this hard-headed mother of ours, and feebleness and fragility have thus far produced no miraculous alteration in that trait. My sisters and I have tried for several days to have some practical conversations with her, only to be met with, "I don't want to talk about that today. We'll talk about it later. Tomorrow." Last night, inexplicably, her hearing failed and now the woman whose hearing was so keen she could hear me from the other end of the house going flat on that high C or my sister sneaking into the house five seconds after curfew can't hear a word unless you stand right in front of her and yell.
Every conversation has to be conducted at a decibel level that defeats nuance. Try discussing "durable power of attorney" and "living will" and "hospice" at essentially the same volume you'd tell the motorcyclist next door that his muffler appears to be damaged.
Regardless, she isn't having any of it. "I'm just dealing with what I need to do next," she says in response to our attempt to have her formalize her wishes for the next time her blood pressure crashes or pneumonia returns. She hates us for "making" her go to the hospital, but refuses to sign papers because "maybe I will need to come back to the hospital." She wants to be well-cared-for and she wants to be left alone. She doesn't want heroic medical intervention, but she wants anything that can be done to be done. She wants to be who she was even five years ago before the hip broke and the systems started shutting down and her able body became undependable. Impossible.
And yet, I would expect no less from her. She isn't being ornery for the sake of being ornery. When she says she is just focusing on what needs to be done next, she's being who she's always been, minus the physical resources. I learned persistence and a never-say-die attitude from her, so why would I think when it's actual Death she's facing, she'd just roll over and let it carry her away?
"Do not go gently into that good night" could be her theme song. She will rage against the dying of the light with her last breath – not with histrionics and drama because she doesn't have the energy for that anymore (though Lord knows that woman could deliver some world-class histrionics in her day). But with that set of her jaw and that deep, deliberate exhalation as she focuses all her energy into just one more bite of pudding, she will keep going because that's what she knows how to do. She doesn't know how to surrender, doesn't know how to quit.
She never has. And for that, I admire her and I despair.