I just got off the phone with my Mom. My step-father Bob is on morphine. His heart, lungs, and kidneys are failing. He's eight-one.
"Where is his pain?" I asked, knowing they only give morphine to people in severe pain.
Mom said, "Uh..."
I immediately felt stupid. If his heart, lungs, and kidneys are failing, his pain is probably all over. I get the flu and I'm crying about my aching joints. I spend four hours at the pumpkin patch with my seven-year-old and I'm complaining about my old aching bones. Of course he's in pain. He's dying.
It's weird to watch someone get old and die. I watched my brother Pat die a couple of years ago, but he was young, 49, and his death progression seemed much more sudden than Bob's. Both my brother and our step-father were drinkers and smokers. Pat drank and smoked right up to the very end of his life. I'm proud to have had the honor of helping him smoke his last cigarette. Bob gave up smoking last December when he found out the arteries surrounding his heart were all clogged up. He was still asking for a highball the last time I saw him a couple of months ago. This morning Mom said the only thing he's had to drink today is a sip of orange juice through a straw. I didn't bother to ask if the orange juice had some vodka mixed in it. At this point, give him whatever he wants to be comfortable. Same reason I helped Pat smoke his last cigarette.
It's weird to watch someone grow old and die because you see before your very eyes the cycle of life. Will's grandmother was growing old and dying when Katie was young and potty training. We used to joke about how both the toddler and the old lady had to wear diapers. Once Katie and I went over to "babysit" Will's grandma so his mom and dad, her primary caretakers, could have a night out together. Katie enjoyed feeding Grandma with a spoon the pureed food she ate like a baby.
We are born totally helpless. We live life, each year patting ourselves on the back for how self-reliant we are. Sometimes we falter and we need help from others. We get sick. Sometimes we just need a night out, away from our care-taking duties. So we gladly accept help from others. But we think it's temporary and we'll be back on our self-reliant track soon. Then we grow old and start to die. We become totally helpless once again. We need others to feed us. To change our diaper. To give us a bath. Often its our own babies who we once cared for in this way who end up taking care of us as we are dying.
That's weird. But it's also beautiful. It's like Life is trying to teach us that we need each other more than we admit. Only babies and dying people really seem to understand this lesson.
If dying is painful, does it hurt to be born? It certainly hurts to give birth to a child, but does the baby experience pain as it is being born?
I recall looking at Will on the drive to the hospital, clutching my belly, and saying, "Wow, this hurts worse than I expected it to so soon." But I'm a big baby. I'm the worst kind of patient. I think I am so tough and healthy when I feel well, but I cry and beg for sympathy the moment I feel nauseated. I cry over paper cuts. Giving birth to a human baby feels like The Universe is giving you one giant paper cut from your vagina to your asshole.
Because I have delusions of grandeur I told myself I was going to give birth "naturally". Meaning no drugs. Meaning vaginally. As things turned out, I was crying for an epidural a few hours into labor and I succumbed to a C-section when the doctor informed me that my baby was stuck and needed to be pulled out via a small incision along my "bikini line." Bikini Line. That's the term the doctor used.
Even through all the pain and panic, I laughed at the absurdity of a doctor talking about my bikini line. Like that is so important. Like she was bragging about her efficiency. Like she thought I'd be sliced, stitched, medicated, and out on the hospital lawn sunbathing just in time for the break of dawn. It was 1:30AM when the doctor told me I needed a Cesarean section, eighteen hours after I felt my first contraction. At that point I was ready to shout, "I don't care how you get her out! Just rip her out! RIGHT NOW!"
But instead, feeling defeated and exhausted, I just mustered a pathetic, "ok" as I sobbed uncontrollably. It's a horrible feeling to lose control of your own body.
That must be what it feels like to be dying. How strange that giving birth to new life feels a little like dying. I'm lucky to live in modern times, in a wealthy nation. If I were born in Grandma's time, or on another part of the globe, I could have actually died at childbirth.
"Don't come up. He won't recognize you." Mom said when I asked when we should visit.
He can't talk. He can't walk. His memory is fading. Just like a baby.
Will and I are always amazed at the things Katie, now seven, can't remember before she was about three years old.
"You don't remember Oswald?!" Will and I say to her, in unison, after she asks "Who's that?" when Will tells her the boy in the movie "The Princess Bride" is the voice of "Oswald" on Nick Jr.
"Oswald?" Katie asks and our hearts break a little. Our baby is growing up. Things that seem to us, as adults, to have happened just yesterday actually happened four years ago, back before our baby's memory was fully developed.
We told her about Oswald the Octopus. And Henry the Penguin. And Weenie, the Weenie Dog.
"Oooooooh yeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah," she said. "And Daisy. I remember Daisy."
"Yes!" Will and I shouted in unison. "Daisy!"
Our baby vaguely remembers a cartoon we used to enjoy watching together. Some day she might recall this conversation we had where we reminded her of an early childhood memory she was starting to forget. Perhaps it will be when she's talking to her own seven-year-old who is starting to forget one of her favorite early childhood memories. Perhaps it will be on her own deathbed, when she's looking back on her life. Most likely by then she won't remember much of her life at all. Her mind will be a clean slate once again. Her spirit transformed. In death, as it is in birth.