We’ve been waiting. That’s pretty much all our family does now. It’s our full-time job. We wait.
My mother-in-law, Mary, lies on her deathbed, breathing labored breaths. She has been unresponsive for a long time. Hospice remains closeby, administering end-of-life care. She hasn’t eaten anything or swallowed any liquids in six days.
And yet her pulse continues.
“I’ve never seen a heart this strong,” said the nurse. “She’s an anomaly.”
The nurses have been telling us that Mary might pass any day now, and they’ve been saying this for three weeks.
For three arduous weeks the family has camped in this house and lived beside Mary’s bed. We have spent hours, days and sleepless nights amidst humming oxygen machines, plastic medical tubes, orphaned roller walkers and abandoned wheelchairs.
And Mary’s rugged heart keeps defying modern medicine.
There have been moments when we thought it was going to happen. When we all gathered around her because we were certain death was visiting this house.
Mary’s stats would plummet. Her pulse would become irregular, her oxygen levels would drop. And we would all brace for impact.
Last night this happened. It looked like the end. So we assumed our battle stations. Her children held her hands, stroked her hair, kissed her forehead and told her it was okay to leave. I stood in the background with my arm around Miss Sandra, one of the caregivers. There were hot tears in my eyes.
Mary’s breathing became weak. The rattling in her chest grew louder. This was it, we were all thinking. “Goodbye,” we were all saying in our own ways. “Be free,” said her daughter. “We all love you,” said her son.
Two hours passed.
I started getting a charley horse in my left calf muscle.
Four. Five. Six hours.
Eventually, everyone started to laugh. At first, this laughter felt incredibly irreverent—this was, after all, a woman’s deathbed. But we had to laugh, of course, because tension must be released somehow. Plus, trying not to laugh only makes it impossible not to.
Then we flicked tears from our eyes, left the room and resumed waiting.
We eat. We sleep. We wait. Each morning we awake in wait mode. We stagger to the coffee pot, waiting, asking each other how the patient is doing. We all lead with the same question:
The answer is always: “Nope. All we can do is wait.”
Then we exchange a look of mock disbelief and laugh again because what else is there to do? It’s not up to us. This isn’t our barrel race. A woman has the right to die on her own terms, and that’s what Mary is doing. Our only job is to stay out of her way.
The strange thing about all this is that you’d think the mood in this house would be dark and somber. You’d think everyone would be moping around and feeling poorly. But it’s the opposite.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we’re skipping around and whistling happy tunes. It’s not like that. But the feeling here has become fraternal. There is a distinct we-are-all-in-this-together attitude. A greater sense of family.
I think this is because the truth is finally hitting us. Until now, you see, we’ve always just been The Children. No matter what our ages, no matter how much life experience we have, in this family we have always been the kids. The elders were always in charge. This was their world, not ours. But now.
Now our elders are dying. This family belongs to us. It’s up to us to decide what to do with this family. It’s up to us to decide how we’ll care for it. Now we are the ones who plan the cookouts. It’s our job to retell the funny stories. Weird as it may seem, we are the elders now.
Sometimes in the evenings I wander into the patient’s room to check on her. Usually, I find one of Mary’s daughters lying beside her in bed. Often I’ll find a caregiver in the corner chair, dozing.
But occasionally I’ll have the room to myself. So I’ll sit at my mother-in-law’s bedside and touch her warm hand, marveling at how her chest continues to rise and fall.
I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know why, either. But when I take her pulse, I must laugh to myself because although this woman is dying, her pulse isn’t. Not even a little.
And I think I’m starting to realize what’s happening here. Maybe she’s showing us something. Perhaps this woman is demonstrating something remarkable about herself which she couldn’t before. Something we knew all along, but never took the time to tell her. She was and is an anomaly.