Illusions While Dying

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In the hospital one afternoon, after unsuccessful surgery to remove her tumor, my mother drifted in and out of sleep. I sat on a sofa in her room with light from the window streaming in as I read email. My mother began talking to someone. I looked up.

My mother was an attorney. She dealt in realities. For most of my life, I knew her as a woman with few illusions. She did not kid herself, and she did not let me kid myself. She told my sister and me, when we complained about a situation, “Life isn’t fair.” So when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, my mother approached it matter-of-factly because it was a matter of fact no one disputed. She researched pancreatic cancer online, came to terms with her odds and spent the next seven months maintaining as much control as she could.

Yet illusions sometimes came to her in those months. In that hospital room, she wasn’t talking to me but to people standing on the other side of her hospital bed, people invisible to me. They weren’t there, but she saw them. I couldn’t make out my mother’s words, only that there existed a pleasant back-and-forth going on. I was the first witness to her illusions.

I knew that, as a child, my mother had spent many days in the hospital for surgeries to correct bilateral club foot so she could walk. Her memories of that time included an imaginary friend whom she named after the model of hospital bed in which she had lain. As I watched her that day, I wondered whether John Standard had returned to her after all those years.

A few minutes later, my mother turned to me, fully alert. I asked whether she remembered the conversation she’d just had. Friends she hadn’t seen in a long time, she said, without going into detail. Then she tilted her head and added, “But they weren’t really here, were they?” I admitted that, no, they hadn’t been here. She said, “Well, it was a good conversation.”

My mother’s illusions were not delusions. She was not misled. The word “illusion” comes from the Latin “ludere” meaning “to play.” The word has longstanding negative connotations, as in a deception. But my mother’s illusions were her mind at play.

How different that was from my father’s delusions years earlier, when he was in the hospital undergoing cancer treatment. His gift balloon had become a spaceship, and he described to my mother a terrible war around him. He was caught up in it, afraid. One of the medications he’d been prescribed caused the delusions, and they subsided once it was stopped. But he said the scene had been so real that he couldn’t not believe it at the time. It still felt real after he knew it wasn’t. My mother could deal with anything in the physical world but couldn’t imagine how she would manage if my father lost his mind. By that, she meant his mind losing touch with reality. And she meant that his physical deterioration was enough for her to bear.

Later in her illness, at home, my mother began seeing medieval people on a hillside in her own bedroom. She enjoyed watching them, robed in their dresses and breeches, and she especially enjoyed the music they played. Flutes and mandolins. They even brushed large ostrich feathers and long veils over her skin. She didn’t know when these musicians would show up, but she welcomed them whenever it happened. She knew no one else saw these people or heard this music, and she didn’t care that it wasn’t real. I had some concerns but didn’t know what to do with them. I didn’t talk about these illusions in my book “Tumor” because I didn’t yet know how. There are so many concerns when someone is dying of cancer.

My mother and I talked with her oncologist about this new development, wondering whether such a thing was common in patients with cancer, perhaps the result of wasting or dehydration, two serious physical concerns at that point, or perhaps a side effect of one of the medications or chemo drugs. The oncologist asked several questions.

“No,” my mother said. “I’m not afraid of them. No, they don’t try to harm me. No, they don’t make me do things.”

The midsummer-night’s-dream people never talked to her and she never talked to them. She explained this arrangement as if such conversation would be crazy. Then, she said, “The music makes me happy.”

The three of us — my mother, her oncologist and I — decided this illusion was the least of our worries, that, in fact, medieval singers on a hillside were no worry at all. She had nothing to lose by listening, as long as she could hear the rest of us too. I was surprisingly relieved the oncologist did not want to treat this cognitive symptom because often physicians want to correct what deviates from the norm. He considered the larger context, the limited time, and told my mother to let him know if she stopped enjoying these visions.

This illusion, of course, might be considered a hallucination. The word “hallucination” comes from the Latin meaning “to wander in the mind,” originally akin to dreaming or allowing one’s thoughts to ramble. Hallucinations are now considered deceptions, not merely stray thoughts or daydreaming. To be sure, they can result from serious illness such as schizophrenia, dementia, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease or migraines and make it difficult to function day to day. So hallucinations also came to be defined medically as distortions of sensory perceptions that the person experiencing them takes as real experiences. My mother, then, wasn’t really hallucinating because, though she accepted her experiences as real in her mind, she knew the people she saw and heard were not real in the world. She liked the touch of ostrich feather on her skin but didn’t think it existed in the world beyond her imagination.

Here was a woman who’d always shopped for a new outfit by picking what was paired on the rack because she was unable to imagine original combinations on her own. When my mother’s body weakened, when her body betrayed her, her mind said, “Let loose and enjoy the music.”

Even in that first observation of my mother’s conversation with friends who were not there, I was not upset that my mother was losing touch with reality or becoming less herself because she seemed at ease. Though they were unexpected and out of the ordinary, I became grateful for the odd joy my mother’s illusions gave her. What a practical thing for her mind to have done. I wish I knew how she did it. Any of us may someday face a similar illness. How fortunate my mother was able to conjure up happiness all on her own without denying the harsh reality of her condition. May we each find or conjure some music in our minds when we need most to hear it.

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