By Hilary Harper
A friend talked to me recently about his wife’s dying. Not her death, though it’s close, but the process of her dying, which has been going on for years and has undergone many changes. They have four children, and it is hard. It’s cancer, and it’s not being kind. It has metastasised into her brain, affecting her memory. She can’t walk more than a few metres. It stills her hands when she wants to draw or play music. But what made his tears well up was not the hard things, but what they were learning as her dying unfolded.
“It’s …” he hesitated. “It’s beautiful.” He seemed surprised, as if he ought to be ashamed of saying something so antithetical to how people imagine dying is. We think it’s dark and ugly; embarrassing, like poverty or bad breath. It’s inescapably physical: you can’t buy your way out of it or network yourself away from it or neutralise it with intellect. It’s not aspirational. It’s the ultimate failure, the inability to hold onto something most of us take for granted every time we inhale.
The terrain of dying is so swampy, too. We’re afraid of getting drawn into the quicksand of offence and emotion. What if we say the wrong thing? What if we accidentally tell the truth about something it might be kinder to lie about, at the end? I lost two babies mid-pregnancy, and after that, something fell away from me, some weight about death. Now I feel like a strange emotional carrion crow, settling my wings next to the grieving or bereaved, comfortable in the miasma of sadness and loss. I’m much better at listening. I was happy to talk to my friend about his wife’s dying, because he wanted to talk about it, and because it is a beautiful story, but also because it calls out to my grief, which has softened but not diminished.
He still works a few days, and he’s organised a roster of friends and neighbours who make sure his wife is OK and has everything she needs within arm’s reach. The kids spend a lot of time at home, experiencing their mother’s long last days. Part of his wonder and gratitude come from the fact that the family is sharing their experience. My friend knows that people who care are there when he can’t be, and that life, in some sense, is going on. Music is being played, and heard.
And the rest of the joy I saw sprang from his sense that his wife was stripping back the unnecessary things from life, the pettinesses and distractions, and becoming more prepared for death. She was remembering old arguments and tensions, wondering why she’d ever thought them worth the effort, and letting them go. “It’s like we’re falling in love all over again,” he said. It’s tempting to think of this as a parable for death being able to renew life, to spark a fresh fire of living even in those close to it. But the truth is that death and life are the same music, played for the same ears, but heard differently depending where you’re sitting. Some only hear the tuning up. My friend and his wife are hearing the whole orchestra, swelling to the climax.
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