Everything happened so fast. Theresa had been in and out of the hospital since our wedding; no one was denying that her health was a concern. We just thought we had more time. We were sure we had more time.
At about 730 pm Tuesday night, my husband was faced with the gut wrenching decision of whether or not to authorize doctors to perform potentially life saving procedures on his mother. I’ve had many conversations with many different people about these types of decisions. I must say, the hypothetical discussion does nothing to prepare you for the real thing. I’ll never forget the desperation on his face when he turned to me and pleaded, “What should I do?” I must say I have never felt so inadequate as a partner as I did in that moment.
It’s easy to think that you would never let anyone suffer; no one will become a vegetable on your watch. But what about the alternative? What about telling a doctor, “No, do not take measures to possibly save the life of my loved one.” No one ever tells you how counterintuitive it is to the surface level of our humanity to let someone die. When you’re in it, you have to find your way down to a level of human kindness that upon reaching, you realize you are completely unfamiliar with.
Forget the judgment you might feel coming from the doctors- you know, the ones who took an oath to do whatever is in their power to save the life. Forget the burden you know is imminent-owning that it was YOUR decision to let your loved one go. Forget your basic instincts to not give up, to fight for life with the tenacity of a ravenous bulldog.
All of this has to go. It must be stripped away to provide clarity and focus solely on the wishes of your loved one. The decision demands a type of selflessness that I’m now sure not everyone is capable of.
Quite quickly after my husband was forced to ride this traumatic wave, we learned it was all for naught. An infection had taken over Theresa’s body. She died at 1251AM Wednesday morning.
I feel privileged to say that having known Theresa the past 4 years and having experienced her passing, I’ve gained a new outlook on life, on aging, and on death.
Theresa was a no-nonsense New York lady who never minced words. One of the first times my husband Mikey and I hung out, he told me he had to pick some things up for her at the store, and asked if I wanted to go with him. Honestly, I didn’t. I wanted to say, “It’s a little early for me to be meeting your mom, why don’t you give me a call when you’re done.” Instead, I found myself nodding my head and mumbling, “Sure.”
A sucker for an accent (an attribute I pray my hubby never loses) I spent the next couple hours completely delighted and engaged in conversation with Theresa. There were moments during our visit where I felt compelled to look over my shoulder then return in disbelief, “who me?” She peppered me with questions and took such a genuine interest in my life and in my opinions.
I was just as curious about her. A lover of but still a novice to the city, I relished the opportunity to see parts of its history through the eyes of someone who’d lived here her whole life. She had such admiration and curiosity for the architecture of the city; an endearing quality she passed on to my husband. Take a ride in a cab with either of them and you’ll hear, “you know, they had to build that building that way because…” or “it took them this many years to build that bridge.”
Our desire to learn about each other grew throughout the years; it never subsided. She was proud of me. It makes me emotional to write that. I didn’t have to do anything spectacular, she was just proud. I work in film production and the way she talked, you’d think I was a leading lady. I’m an accountant.
Theresa made me value the elderly in a completely different way. Ashamed as I am to admit, I used to spend more time figuring out how I could maneuver myself around a slow senior on the sidewalk, than I did considering the wealth of wisdom and experience they had to offer. With the exception of my parents, there was an entire population I was missing out on. She plugged me in and made me aware of how valuable it is to connect to all different types of people.
An ignorance of my youth, I sometimes generalized that the elderly mind slows just as the body does. Today I’m not sure if that misconception was ignorance or hope. I think anyone who has ever walked through a nursing home can agree that it is not a place you ever want to be. Before Theresa’s battle, it was too painful for me to imagine that all of the people in these homes were unhappy to be there; it was more comfortable for me to imagine that you reach a certain age and your mind just goes to LaLa land. Wishful thinking supposed the head would get so far up in the air, it lost sight to care of where the body resided.
I learned different from my mother-in-law. For 4 months we watched her struggle and get frustrated as her mind and her body failed her. The hardest part for me was her consciousness of it all. She would say something completely off the wall and then look at us and nervously ask, “That didn’t make any sense, did it?” She consistently expressed her frustration and anger with being in the nursing home. She told us, “I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to be alive, I am of no use to anyone.”
That stuck in my mind, her not wanting to live if she could not be of use to anyone. It made sense to me. I began to see that the ability to serve and to be useful to other people is easily taken for granted. It’s also our lifeblood. Until that ability is gone we don’t realize that it solidifies the very structure of who we are as human beings. We are all here for each other. If somehow, we stop being able to participate in that exchange of help and compassion, we feel lost and alone. I desperately wanted to take that feeling away from Theresa. Instead, she would look at me as if to say, “don’t you see kid, it takes two- you can’t do this for me.”
The moments after the phone call that told us she had passed brought a huge shift of energy. It’s common to hear people say that it is a relief that the deceased is now at peace. Although I was struck with sadness when I knew she was gone, I was also struck with calm. I felt her spirit immediately. She wasn’t stuck in that nursing home anymore; she was free; she was with us. She got it back- that sense of usefulness. She was no longer confined by the limitations of her body and mind that were failing her in the physical world. In just these revelatory moments, death stopped being so scary to me.
The past few weeks have changed my life completely; this post barely skims the surface in trying to process what has happened and how different life looks. I feel different about my husband. I feel different about marriage. I feel different about just who it is I really want to be. I’ll keep reflecting on these changes here. It helps me feel like I’m walking through each new door with some sort of grace—while I’m quite sure that in reality, I’m being dragged around, hanging on by the skin of my teeth. Hang on with me, if you’d like. It’d make me feel quite useful.