Caring for my mother until her death left a spot of bright pain inside of me that I don't feel daily but I have access to. She wanted to die at home versus in a hospital setting (though part of me knew the hospital was an easier way through this for me). I exited a graduate program and moved from NY to LA to become something I had no experience in: a hospice caregiver. And like all things hard, I was profoundly changed and wish I could have a second chance at doing it better.
I sat by my mother's side through suffering, euphoria, drug-induced words that came like poetry, organs turning off sequentially like light switches, and the final few days of passageways closing that lead to the last hours of what is aptly described as the death rattle. Day to day, I had no idea what was happening except a cursory understanding gathered from pamphlets, blogs, and the nurse who would pop in and barely spoke english. I held my mother's hands fearfully until they turned cold and the ineffable dulling of the eyes closed the final door. Her body marched through this process in my childhood twin bed. I have witnessed the birth of two children, and now while sleeping at my mother's feet for a few weeks, I beheld death. One afternoon, as I caught my mother crying into a piece of toast, I held her hand and explained, in words that sounded more like a command than an offering, "do not for one second feel bad that I gave up something to be here. It is an honor to be here. I don't know what I'm doing but I'm grateful. I love you, and I am not leaving." She looked into my eyes and we both sat there crying.
The most painful realization I had in the final weeks of my mother's fight with breast cancer was the shroud of aloneness mortality covers you in, and the distinction between primordial aloneness and our usual ho-hum loneliness. With me, my dog, my partner, my mother's family and neighbors visiting, she was not lonely; she was alone. I could feel the solitude surrounding her as though she were partially in another world and scared. I could hear in her voice when she spoke about the moon coming in her window during a night of insomnia that there was another dimension none of us could understand. She seemed to be in a place not a desolate hiker nor companionless astronaut knows. I would catch her looking into this world, my eyes following her line of vision, but I saw nothing.
After my mother passed, I began to think about myself with a preparedness we usually reserve for earthquakes. Am I prepared to die well and have I lived well? If you have been fraudulent with yourself, or carried anger, self-inflicted aloneness will reveal where. And so I went to an island to practice being stripped down. I went to an island to practice being alone.