During the last months of my life mate/soul mate’s life, his brain was so riddled with cancer, he lost the ability to hold a thought long to enough to have a conversation, so his communications seemed more like lectures than exchanges. I remember bristling during those lectures — gritting my teeth and clenching my fists. It seemed as if he were being paternalistic, as if he didn’t trust me to take care of myself.
I knew he was ill, of course, though at the time, I didn’t know how bad off he really was. He’d been ailing for so long, I thought that’s the way it would always be, his getting weaker and weaker, maybe for many more years. But he died, shocking me to my core. And then guilt and regret descended on me. How could I not have listened to every single word he spoke during the time of his dying? How could I not have treasured his concern for me? How could I have been so impatient, so irritable, so resistant to what he had to say?
In the five years since Jeff’s death, I’ve worked through my guilt and regrets, even came to the realization that it wasn’t he I was resisting but his dying. Still, it wasn’t until my father’s death when my personal history repeated itself that I truly understood the dynamics of what had happened between Jeff and me. (In the case of my father’s last days, he wasn’t lecturing me so much as expecting to be waited on, and I simply did not want to do for him what he could do for himself.)
In my writing, I’ve been calling the last months of both men’s lives “the time of his dying,” but it was only their “dying” in retrospect. It was actually still a time of living for them, which makes my less than perfect behavior understandable. We were still involved in our relationships and roles, and it was only death that made my reactions seem horrific. If they both had continued to live, of course I could not have tolerated spending many years being lectured to or being expected to wait on someone who was able to do things for himself. These are just normal conflicts of living. And though they dying, they were still alive. Still living. And so was I.
I remember crying to the hospice social worker after Jeff died, lamenting his ill health. “He never had much of a life,” I wailed. She said, “He had a life. Being sick was his life.”
It seemed like such a terrible thing to say, but now I understand what she meant — that he was alive until he wasn’t.
This is one case where understanding can’t change anything. If I am ever thrust into such a situation again, I’d still do the same thing — carry on as if the person were alive and going to be alive for a long time. The one change will be that I won’t have regrets. Although my regrets over Jeff loomed large, I have no regrets over anything I did or did not do for my father. We were involved in playing out our roles the best way we could up to the end. And there is nothing to regret in that, nothing to feel guilty about.
I did learn something from both men, though, and that is to live until the very end. As long as we are alive, we are alive.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.