Jean had returned to the nursing home after a week-long stint in the hospital. She was sitting in her chair, reading a romance novel, when we’d squeezed through the doorway of her room. Ben had wanted to gauge how much clarity her Alzheimer’s would allow during our visit, so he had asked. “What were you in the hospital for?”
She sat up in her chair, leaned right into death with her spine straight. “I’m dying.”
I was speechless, awed by the insistence in her voice and the power in her posture. I’d anticipated being my usual joking-around self, in response to her usual joking-around self. Her pronouncement rendered chit-chat irrelevant, as it cut through grief, leaving I’m sorry stuck in my throat. We sat across from her, on the bed, my toe tips bumping up against hers. From the television room around the corner, conversation rose, then faded, clearing space for what she needed to say. I paid attention.
Sometimes when I meditate, a place is reached—emptiness is the best description I can conjure. If a car goes by when emptiness is present, I hear the car, but the sound has no label attached. Attention is paid, and there is respite. Jean’s announcement was a meditation, and I felt the presence of a divine emptiness.
Her doctor had found cancer, the decision made to provide comfort rather than cure. Hospice had been called. I wondered if she was afraid. “I’ve had a long life,” she said. “But what comes next?” She sat back in the chair. “I won’t see my kids any more.”
Ben knelt beside her. “You’ll see Mom.”
“Yes,” she said.
Maybe she was remembering. She'd been in hospice care before. Last year, close to death, she had seen her mother. The dead and the living had mingled at her bedside, confusing her when she was conscious. We had prepared to let her go, but she’d recovered, full of piss and vinegar. And now she’d circled back; this time her mind understood.
She turned a dial on the oxygen tank next to the chair. “What if God doesn’t let me in? I wasn’t too bad.” She adjusted the transparent tubes that looped around her ears. “I wasn’t too bad.” She reached for Ben’s hand. “I think I’m scared. I don’t want to die.”
Sometimes, I think I want to die. There are mornings I wake up sighing. Resigned. Still here. I feel like a character in a movie that’s gone on too long. The screenwriter didn’t know how to end the story and kept writing repetitious scenes. But if the emptiness returns when I meditate, my movie review is silenced.
I listened quietly to the back and forth between Ben and Jean. There was nothing to add. I paid attention. “I’m dying,” she’d said, and I’d found respite in her words. She had proclaimed the only truth about her life—and mine.