Learning To Love You More




Assignment #31
Spend time with a dying person.

Ann Arbor, Michigan USA



Max, Monte Rio, CA. February, 2000, 3:30 PM.
I spent several months hanging out with Max when I worked for an organization which matched volunteers with people with HIV and AIDS. On his better days, we drank coffee together, rode the San Francisco ferry, read his plays together, walked around town, and once, a few weeks before he died, took a very slow, very painstaking, cane-aided walk through the park at Jack London's residence.
Near the end, I didn't see him so much. I had just moved about an hour away, and it always seemed like just too much effort to get over there to see him. I didn't know he was dying. One day the case worker called me and told me. I drove the hour to his house, nervous and scared. What do you do when someone is dying? Can you talk to them? Can they talk to you? Do you sit in silence? Lamely, I brought a book, thinking that I might read to him. Stories by Jack London, I think.
When I arrived at his cabin, the house was packed. Hospice workers, a nurse, his mother, family friends, all were gathered in the living room. I remember what was most strange was the opposition between a kind of strange calmness -- no crying, no visible grief, just the practical activities of changing Max, wiping him down, getting his IV in place -- and a kind of invisible frenzy underneath the surface.
Where was the key to Max's file box? Did he tell anyone where it was? Could it be in his bedroom or in the living room? Could they use a crowbar to open it? I guess it contained his will. I didn't understand why they were worried about this now. I still don't understand.
It took them a while to notice I was there, but after a while, somebody -- a hospice worker? -- led me in to see Max. There was nowhere to sit. With all the chaos of dying, no one had thought to pull a chair up beside him. I kneeled on the floor instead and took his hand.
Before that day, I had always thought that there was life and there was death -- black and white. That day I discovered that there is something in between, a state different than consciousness but yet not fully unconscious. Max seemed -- I don't know how I knew -- to know that I was there, or maybe not know, maybe just sense or feel my presence. His breathing changed. It was so slow, punctuated occasionally by a kind of gasp. When I took his hand and talked to him, he gasped more, moved his head a little. A lot of the head movement I think was unconscious, but it was more frequent when I sat with him.
I still didn't know what to do. On the one hand, his journey toward death seemed so private -- something no one could understand or participate in... it made me want to sit silently and let him go, to not interfere. On the other hand, I wanted him to know -- no, I wanted me to know -- what he had meant to me. I talked a little. Random words circling about themselves. Jack London park. The fountain in the skyscraper we saw in San Francisco. Water cascading from the ceiling -- so high up you couldn't see where it was coming from. You're floating now, Max, moving toward the water, flying, I can hardly see you.
The nurse came in and checked his breathing and pulse. As she returned to the living room, I heard her say something like "he's actively dying now". I wondered what that meant. I had always thought dying a passive process, a ceasing -- but sitting here with him, gasping, moving his head side to side, I understood -- it was active, it was something he was doing, it was an activity he was undertaking that would take him far from us. I wondered if it was hard. I wondered if it hurt, to leave. I won't know until it happens to me. His process was something I couldn't share, that nobody could share.
His mother came in and talked to him, watched him. I felt -- extraneous. Should I -- I who had known Max for only eight months, be here with his mother whom he had shared his entire life with?
I decided -- the cowardly option -- I realized later -- to leave. The caseworker called me the next day and said Max had died fifteen minutes after I left. It haunts me now that I didn't stay.