When my mother was dying of cancer, she did not want us to cry.
So we didn’t. We had her at home in hospice for nearly six weeks and we did not cry. Almost.
My sister called me. “I started crying today, at the kitchen table.” My mother was in another room in the hospital bed. “Everyone left. No one stayed with me. Everyone left.”
I didn’t cry but when people called to say how were things, I couldn’t speak. I sat there with the phone, silent. Because what I wanted to say was my truth and I knew very well that that was not what they were calling to hear. So I did not speak.
After my mother died, time passed. I felt…. many things, but the strongest one was “I wish my mother had let me cry.” We did what she wanted. But I wanted to cry.
My sister got cancer and fought it ferociously. She refused hospice until the last week. I flew down three times in the last two months.
Six days before she died, her friend and I were helping her. “I’m sad!” said my sister.
“Don’t be sad.” said the friend.
“It’s ok to be sad.” I said. “What are you sad about?”
My sister started crying: “I won’t be at my daughter’s high school graduation! I won’t see her get ready for prom! I don’t want to leave her!”
“You won’t leave her.” I said. “You will be there. Not in this form.” I meant it absolutely.
“I want to stay!” she said.
“I know.” I said. “I am so sorry.”
With my sister, I did not do what she wanted. I thought of my mother and that I wished she had let me cry. With my sister, I tried to listen to what she wanted and listen to what I wanted. I tried to be honest with her. She even got mad!
But… I watched her go in the cancer bubble. Where fewer and fewer people were being honest. They were afraid. They did what she wanted. They wanted her to be happy. And she tried so hard….
When I had arrived for the last visit with my sister, she was sitting with my cousin. I hugged her. She was not speaking much. I asked if she would like me to sing something and she nodded. I started singing “I gave my love a cherry”, a sweet lullaby. My sister shook her head, angry and fierce. I studied her. “How about Samuel Hall?” I said. My sister smiled and nodded. I started singing “My name is Samuel Hall.” It is about a man who is going to the gallows for killing someone and he is entirely unrepentant and angry. My cousin looked at me, startled. “I haven’t thought of that song in years,” he said. We both sang it to my sister. “To the gallows I must go, with my friends all down below, damn your eyes, damn your eyes.” That was the right song, angry, resisting, raging. “Hope to see you all in hell, hope to hell you sizzle well, damn your eyes, damn your eyes.”
I flew back to work three days before my sister died. I am told that she was scared when she died. “I said, don’t be scared.” said a friend.
Why not? I thought. Why can’t the dying be scared, be anxious, be angry? Why are we afraid to let them? I would have said, Why are you scared? And I would have said, I am scared too. And sad. And angry.
I told my counselor once that my husband was on the couch, angry, and I had to leave the room.
“Why?” she said.
“I am afraid.” I said.
“Why?” she said.
“I am afraid he’s angry at me.” I said.
“So what?” she said.
I thought, so what? “I want to fix him. I want him to not be angry.” Even if it isn’t at me.
“Why can’t you stay in the room?” she said.
I practiced. I stayed in the room. He was angry, grumpy, acting out. It’s not my anger. I don’t have to fix it. It may be just or unjust. Does it really matter? It is his anger not mine. I can stay present.
A friend said that his friend was dying leaving small children. “He was so angry that almost all his friends stopped visiting.”
A man and his sister are not speaking four years after their father died because they disagreed so strongly about how his lung cancer should be treated.
An elderly woman in the hospital agrees to go home for care with her son when he is present and with her daughter when she is present. When neither is present she will not make a decision.
A woman says to me that she is angry that hospice didn’t tell her which drug to give at the end to keep her friend from being anxious.
I hope that we learn to stay present for the dying and for the living. For all of the “negative” emotions. I see most of my hospice patients want LESS medicine rather than more. As their kidneys fail, the medicines last longer. They do not want to be asleep. They may cry. They may be angry. They may be unreasonable. Why should they be reasonable or nice or peaceful?
We want most to be loved entirely. Even when we are sad or whiney or angry or anxious. Who wants to be left alone when they are afraid? I hope we all learn to stay present.
And when we were alone, in that last three days, my sister said “I’m bad!” I said, “You are not bad. You’ve done some really bad things.” She said, “I’m sorry.” I said, “I love you anyway.” And she lit up like a buddhist monk, like an angel. And we both cried and I am so glad I was there.