We spend so much time celebrating birth, my friend Katie said last night. We have birth plans, take classes, plan, decorate a nursery, study names and choose them with meaning. There is a lot of sensation around bringing a life into the world.
We should spend as much time, she said, planning and focusing on death. Ensure dignity, peace, surrounded by those you love and who love you. Have a detailed plan for the end of life, too. Everything thought of.
And just like when birth plans aren’t always followed to the letter, sometimes you can’t have the end of life that you want exactly as you’d pictured it. But at least you’re aware of what is important to you, what your limits are, and communicate them with those closest to you to ensure a dignified and swift transition from this world into the next.
I’ve never thought of it that way.
My second aunt and uncle arrived yesterday. My other uncle I think flew in in the night. My brother will likely arrive soon, perhaps cousins too.
My grandmother is surrounded by those she loves.
For the last decade, there have been two items in my grandmother’s wardrobe that she wore regularly: a red sweatshirt with the names of her great-grandchildren embroidered on the front, and a necklace of silver shiny child-shaped charms, one for each of her 20 great-grandchildren.
God it must have been heavy around her neck. But she wore it with such pride – and she could tell you the names and ages of every single great-grandchild.
What a legacy.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I wrote a birth plan of how I wanted it to go. I wanted no interventions, as I was delivering in the birthing center. I wanted a peaceful, natural birth and I wanted my baby with me the whole time – no whisking away to the nursery, no hidden bottle feedings once I fell asleep.
I spent so much time on that birth plan, carefully writing the values that were important to me as a mother and as a woman. I wanted to protect my daughter’s entrance into the world and keep her close.
Of course, not everything went as planned. She came so fast, my midwife wasn’t even there and two residents stood at the door of my room as she popped out into the world, the nurse catching her.
There wasn’t time to read the birth plan.
Looking back, I realize I wrote it more for myself, to know what I was shooting for, and for my family, to understand the kind of environment I hoped to have when my baby arrived.
So writing a plan for end of life? We all know it can’t always happen as hoped. But at least we can say when we’ve had enough, when it’s time to just rest, surrounded by those most important to us, and ease into final slumber.
I’ve told my children that when my grandmother is gone, we will rest in the knowledge that she is finally at peace and no longer has to suffer. That way, they won’t fear the anticipation, the what-ifs, the what-is-this-phone-call-about. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go.
My aunt tells me that my grandfather wasn’t afraid to die just before his time came. He held on until my niece, his first great-grandchild, was born, and then he stopped fighting. Though he never saw Hannah, he knew she was here, he knew he was a great-grandfather.
So when he went, he was ready.
It’s always hardest for the living. We’re the ones letting go of someone dear.
Last night, I called Katie because at times like these, the voice of a lifelong friend is the kind of reassuring hug that you need.
She said it best: “Talking to you is like coming home.” No matter that I haven’t seen her in months; it’s those touchstones in our lives, the people and places that comfort when we most need comforting.
In times like these, we can’t be super-human. Thank God for my husband, who does the laundry, cleans up the dishes, even made the kids’ lunches all week. I just can’t focus. Forget about getting exercise; everything is blurry, as I drive from work to hospital to work to hospital to kids and back.
It’s a gray morning, a perfect backdrop for uncertainty. We have no idea what will happen next. No crystal ball.
So we walk onward, into the gloaming, so many hands to hold, so many hugs to give and receive, so many tears of anticipation and grief and what-if wetting the corners of our eyes.