Once you watch a few people die, you realize that death doesn’t give a damn about your dignity. Dignity is a human invention, and if we want someone to have dignity in death we’d better manufacture some. I’m writing this with the assistance of my friend tequila, but we’ll try to produce some dignity without too many structural defects.
My mom died last night after a long illness, if you consider 20 years a long time. The illness itself was elusive. She had lots of symptoms, some debilitating, but together they didn’t seem to mean anything. Every year or so a new doctor assured her that he’d flush out her illness like he was some kind of highly educated English Pointer with a huge ego. They all soon slunk away, ears down.
After a decade-plus of this she was put on dialysis. I’d heard about dialysis—it was something you went to a couple times a week to get your blood cleaned. I soon found out it’s really an endless ass whipping that devours your life. People generally last about three years on dialysis before they die. My mom lasted almost six. No one who was with her when she started dialysis is still alive. She reacted to the grueling routine of dialysis by making friends with everyone at the clinic, both patients and employees. Whenever she arrived, three times a week, she wheeled all the way around the room visiting with each person. The employees soon fawned over her to an embarrassing extent.
A few months ago my mom broke her leg. Describing the subsequent cascade of physical failures would hardly preserve her dignity, apart from saying it was like a bridge collapsing girder by girder into the sea. My mom proved to me that someone really can crumble to sand while you watch them. She died in the hospital. She would have preferred to die at home among her stuff. She loved her stuff, even more than I love my stuff. But it didn’t work out that way.
She raised me, of course, and our relationship was sometimes problematic. The fate of parents is that children ignore the lessons their parents try to teach, and embrace the things parents do without thinking. My mom taught me by example to be thoughtful. She taught me to be vigilant out of necessity.
My mom had the normal complement of faults and strengths, and I could describe them. I could make fun stories and sad stories from her life. But I don’t think any of that would particularly celebrate her dignity. I’ll just relate one event. A few months ago I visited the hospital to find her and her pulverized femur in bed. Morphine had hit her like a feather locomotive, and the room reeked with the question of whether she’d walk again. In the midst of this, she fuzzily berated my father about bringing a particular painted wooden box from home.
He brought the box the next day, conjuring squeals and smiles from my mom. My mom showed my curious self that the box was full of greeting cards, as organized as any filing cabinet. She explained that she always sent birthday cards with a few dollars to the children of her friends at the dialysis clinic, and the idea that she might miss some birthdays distressed her. Her morphine-assisted handwriting looked like someone had sneezed ink on a page, so I made out the cards and sealed in the money for my father to deliver. Accomplishing that seemed to give my mom more relief than morphine.
Towards the end, my mom’s doctors banned morphine and all other painkillers, for reasons too arcane to express. They did not at the same time ban the broken places in her body. When your body is dying and the pain sits fully upon you, with no chance for relief, your dignity faces a great challenge. During those days, she only asked for help from her husband and her mother. Since one of those people was in fact alive and present, that seems a pretty dignified act of will to me. In a similar place I might just call on beings who are dead, or even imaginary.
Part of our dignity grows from how we face the idea of our death. A lot of people describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. My mom was spiritual in a heartfelt, disorderly way, and she despised religion as something that leads to shouting about Hell and to spiteful old women gossiping in the pews. She believed that she’d go on after death in some form, although the details always seemed fuzzy to me. She certainly didn’t believe that her new form would be much like the one she just left, with sneaky diseases and lots of stuff to love. She asked to be cremated, so that my father’s ashes can sit beside hers, and she made us promise there wouldn’t be any funeral or memorial service.
Everything ends, even us.