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May 1, 2012

Today, I met an old woman who was dying.

As I walked into her room, she turned in the hospital bed and I paused, for a brief moment shocked by her.  She was smiling.  Her cheeks sunken but rosy, wrinkles around her eyes and mouth.  Her white, fluffy hair was full and curly.  In fact, she was quite a pretty woman.

She shook my hand; it was firm and the touch was full of a lifetime of meaning.  As the nurse continued to speak with the patient’s daughter about her mother’s care, the happy old lady turned to me, cupped her hand around her mouth as if about to yell something into the distance.  Instead she whispered, “Are you learning things?  I’m not!”  She smiled.  Ninety years old.  Dying.  And in the middle of loved ones speaking openly in front of her about her own death, she jokes with me, who is a complete stranger.

We spent our visit chatting about her first husband, who was a “real cowboy” and no less handsome than John Wayne himself.  She talked on her life, her home, her children, “It has been a good life.  I’m not scared.”  I noticed her daughter had begun to cry.

As our visit neared the end, I approached her to say goodbye.  I shook her hand once more but this time she held it tightly, not letting go.  I looked at her face.  Her eyes were bright and excited.  I waited for her to say something to me, something profound and full of curious wonder.  But she didn’t.  She just smiled at me through those gloriously alive eyes.

She looked so happy.  Much more happy than I look most days of my life and I’m not in half as bad a condition as her.  She was dying and looked more happy than me?  Something was wrong about that.  I realized this when I walked out of her room and for a brief moment I had the urge to run back in and hug her tightly, to ask her how she’s feeling now and how she’s always felt throughout her life.  To ask her how she fell in love.  How she hated and how she hurt.  It was just one touch from her.  Those bright, glittering eyes.  It made me want to know a whole person.

Isn’t it odd how death does that.  Or rather, how life does that.  That old woman who gave me a memory for a lifetime.  She had been overexposed to radiation therapy in the 80s.  On the upside, it got rid of the cancer she was suffering from at that time.  On the downside, it gave her a much more aggressive cancer, one that was killing her in the present.  She had no control over her bowel or bladder.  An hour did not pass where she didn’t soil the bed with blood; she was internally bleeding to death.  She did not survive long after leaving the hospital.