There is a grief that precedes tragedy, when loss is on the horizon. But there are people whose work, by design, embraces loss. I wanted to lean on the words of one such person today, as we contemplate the uncertainty ahead. Heather is a mentally ill artist and a reiki practitioner. She is also a former sex worker and a death midwife. We have worked together and written together, and today, I am grateful to share one of her reflections.
One of my hospice patients is actively dying. When I arrived for my visit yesterday there was a chaplain with her, I think he was surprised that I was a hospice volunteer with my high heeled boots, faux fur coat, and bright red hair. But I dress up for these visits because the residents love sequins, glitter, fake fur. When I walk through the halls they pet me like a cat. And I think for those who have a hard time remembering, these things help keep me memorable. Janice does not remember me most of the time, but the first thing she always says to me is, “You have red hair.” I had touched up my hair that morning with this in mind.
In my hospice training and death midwife course I learned what the signs are that someone is actively dying. It is different to write these things down in a notebook than it is to experience them. I sit next to her and stroke her forehead, she is almost bald but what hair she still has is brushed to the side and fastened with a pin. Her head is feverish but her hands are cold and bruise-colored. I polished her nails around Halloween, some chipped blue still remains. She lays perfectly still and then intermittently trembles and balls her fists, surprisingly strong. There is a rattle in her throat that seems disconnected from her breathing. I wonder at all the involuntary things our bodies do, the struggle between that energy that has always been here will always be here and the vehicle where it is currently trapped.
I stay with her for as long as I can, passing the time by looking around her room. She has two roommates. One has some artwork with her name written in glitter on a shamrock. Her bedside dresser is covered in beanie babies, snow globes, and those ceramic figures of bonneted girls that were really popular around the time I was born. The other dresser is almost completely empty. There is an old black and white photo of a couple on their wedding day. People’s faces look different now. Men don’t have those heavy-lidded eyes, women don’t have those healthy round faces. Or maybe it’s just the black and white that makes them seem otherworldly. There is a cross hanging over her bed. I think about all of the things I have and imagine trying to decide which few things I would take with me if I had to go live in a room with two strangers against my will. I couldn’t imagine what I would bring, I couldn’t imagine that happening to me.
Then I remember it already happened when I was put in the mental hospital in 4th grade.
Maybe that’s why none of this is as upsetting to me as I feel like it should be.
As I am leaving I kiss her on the forehead knowing I may never see her again. I wish I could stay longer. I wish I had more time.
On my way out I run into a resident who is not one of my hospice patients but who likes to pet my clothes. She is wearing mittens which means she was probably trying to scratch one of the nurses. I’ve been warned to be careful around her because she bites. I love her.
“I remember you” she says. “I was there the day you were born,” she says and claps her hands together, the sound muffled by her mittens. I say goodbye and she keeps clapping. “I’ve been here forever,” she calls after me. “I’ve been here forever.”