The house is quiet. The hospice nurse is here to check on Mary, my mother-in-law. The rattling in Mary’s chest is bad. She is talking gibberish in her sleep, too, which the nurse says is common among those who are dying.
Earlier this morning one of the aunts stopped by. But Mary was sleeping.
“Can I sneak in and look at her?” asked the aunt as tears dripped from her cheekbones.
The aunt peeked into the bedroom and was confronted with the modern machinery of medical care. An oxygen machine that sounded like a small lawnmower, with long tubes going to Mary’s nasal cannula.
The aunt covered her mouth and cried. “Oh, bless her.”
But the strange thing is, nobody wore the kinds of faces you’d associate with grief—those faces will come later. Right now everyone wears a warm face. Ours are the faces of people tangled up in nostalgia.
“Who’s she talking to?” said the aunt, dabbing her eyes.
“Don’t know,” said my wife. “She’s been talking in her sleep all day. She’s talking to someone.”
“Maybe it’s God.”
We all wept.
When the aunt left the house, everything went quiet again. And this is the oddest part of dying. The quiet. I’m not used to this house being so unearthly silent.
Long ago, this house used to be the loudest place on the block. When my father-in-law was alive, these walls vibrated with 24-hour cable news. After he died, my mother-in-law blared non-stop HGTV. She bled Chip-and-Joanna blue. But now.
Now it’s radio silence.
The caregivers sit nearby, clad in scrubs, killing time on phones. My wife is reading a hospice pamphlet. I hear a clock ticking. The refrigerator hums. It’s like a library in here.
More relatives pay a visit. They enter with smiling and tearful faces. And I’m noticing a trend here. Those faces again. Nobody wears the forlorn expressions of pity, they wear looks I can’t quite explain. I’m trying to think of how to describe what I’m talking about.
Try this. You know the nurse who sits in the hospital maternity ward nursery with all the babies? Think of the warm face she wears when she holds a newborn. Now splash some tears on her cheeks. That’s the face.
It’s a loving face. Nobody ever told me death could be so affectionate.
When the house finally empties, I decide to creep into the bedroom to sit beside my mother-in-law while she sleeps. This woman who once welcomed an awkward, lanky redheaded fool into her family many years ago. Occasionally she opens her eyes to see me sitting at the foot of her bed.
“Oh, it’s you,” she mumbles with a hoarse voice.
Her chest rattles. “What are you doing?”
“I’m just keeping an eye on you.”
“Making sure I don’t start causing trouble?”
“Something like that.”
She tries to smile, but it only leads to more hacking. She closes her eyes again and falls into a fitful sleep. She resumes muttering.
The hospice nurses tell me that people leave this world by degrees. A little bit at a time. They straddle two realms. They ride the fence between here and the hereafter. Right now, it seems as though Mary has one foot in this world, and one foot in the next.
I overhear her talking aloud to deceased relatives and ghosts. I hear tidbits of one-sided conversations. I hear her converse with her mother. With her late husband. With her father. With a woman named Jenny.
And I start to sense a kind of magic filling this bedroom. A heavy, warm, mysterious air. The hair on my neck stands up. My eyes are wet. And although I realize what I’m about to say will sound pretty far-fetched, it feels as though there is something in this room with us. You can almost hear the rustling of wings.
When Mary’s eyes open, she smiles. She says through labored breathing, “Was I… Talking in my… Sleep again?”
“It’s okay. Are you in pain?”
“Are you scared?”
Before she finishes speaking she’s sleeping once more. Eyes closed tightly. She begins talking to someone again. Part of me wishes I could see what she’s seeing because whatever it is, I know it must be magnificent.
After another hour she pops awake once more. We lock eyes. I can tell she is trying to remember me. Nothing is said at first, but then something special passes between us. And finally she speaks.
“He’s here talking to me.”
And somehow I have this feeling He’s talking to me too.