It was Martha’s birthday yesterday. Even Elihu had almost lost track of how old she was. Day before yesterday she was once again admitted to the hospital, and although her condition had been reported the worst yet, when we went to visit her we found her very much on top of things, sitting upright in her chair and eating lunch, a birthday card and new African violet plant on the table beside her tray.
She was 86. She had been born in the hospital in Binghamton, New York, and although it seemed more than likely it was not an air conditioned place in 1926, I had to confirm it for myself. “Was it hot?” I asked her, unable to wrap my head around giving birth in a stuffy, un-air conditioned room in the middle of July. “My birthdays have always been on one of the hottest days of the year” she announced as she lifted the fork to her mouth. I watched the lone silver bracelet dangle from her arm as she spoke. I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t see Martha wearing that bangle. Guess she probably didn’t wear it while she was driving the tractor all those years ago. Maybe she wore it when she taught music at Skidmore. Where did it come from? Did her mother once wear it too? Did it sit inside the bedside table drawer at the Binghamton Hospital while her mother gave birth to her eighty-six years ago?
I pressed her for more details. All she knew about the day of her birth, besides that it was very hot, was that as her father turned to walk away down the hall from the delivery room the doctor had shouted after him to come back – and asked if he would mind helping. So he did. “I don’t know why the men weren’t allowed in the delivery rooms back then, but they weren’t. This was unusual” she informed us. Yes, I thought, this seemed like it would have been around the time when men – except the doctors of the patients themselves – were first officially shunned from the birthing rooms. (My mother told me that the ob/gyn doc who delivered me wasn’t even allowed in the room for the birth of his own child because he was a man! Absolutely insane.) So her dad had helped deliver her. This was something. And I wanted something – because I was increasingly aware that I needed to start collecting all the personal history I could from her now, while she was still very much the Martha I knew. It’s easy to think it will always be thus, but one day she will turn the corner. One day she will be too weak to talk. One day she will die. Impossible to imagine right now, seeing her here like this, very much in control of her world. But she’ll die too. We all will. Yup. We’re all headed there eventually. But you never really believe it. Not until it happens.
This morning I’d decided to call my cousin, the one whom I’d hoped to visit in Philly soon. I felt a little foolish that I’d blogged about going to see him when I hadn’t actually spoken to him in a long time. I also knew that it was just an outline of a hoped-for intinerary – and that the visit might not happen. But in a flash of unmeditated inspiration, I simply picked up the phone and dialed his number.
I got his wife, whom I’d never met nor spoken to before, but within minutes I was being briefed on the recent and surprise decline of my other cousins’s health. She told me of her husband’s sister, my cousin, who lived in Florida with her 86 year old mother, my aunt. About a month ago she’d had a stroke. (I made a quick inventory: I thought to myself she wasn’t much older than me – but then again, I realized once more, I’m older than I think I am. Old enough to have a stroke it seems.) Today she was close to death. My cousin’s wife and I stayed on the phone for almost an hour while she recounted for me the events of the past month. In contrast, I pictured Martha, a long, good life behind her and death well-earned but yet not arriving, sitting in her chair, her silver bracelet dangling from her arm. None of it seemed fair.
My cousin, at the time of our speaking, was failing fast after four weeks of a crazy, unforseen downward spiral. Her skin was now mottled, her lips blue, her kidneys had failed, her blood pressure was a shadow of its former self. As we spoke, another level of my awareness was marveling at the strangeness of it all: one minute my long-lost cousins are distant family, living only in dim memories from my youngest years, the next minute I’m witness to family intimacies I’ve hardly earned in my years of absence. But I stayed on the phone, listening, giving this in-charge yet nonetheless distraught woman my audience, my witness. A small voice inside told me just to listen. She’d been through more than I understood these past few weeks, and somehow, by marriage alone, yes, but somehow – she was my family. I had to be there. So I listened, dumbstruck as she recounted for me how my cousin had gone from a viable person to a dying waif inside of mere weeks.
We discussed whether my own 86 year old aunt should be there to witness her daughter’s passing or not. My vote was yes, unquestionably. My cousins’s wife, an ICU nurse for many years, was inclined to vote no. She advised that people look pretty horrible in those final moments – that they look much better after being cleaned up at the mortuary later on. But I still thought to myself – if Elihu were dying, it would be my deepest desire to be there, holding his hand, telling him I loved him and giving him my blessings to go. We talked, she talked, I interjected here and there, but mostly I listened. I tried to understand what her husband, my cousin, could possibly be feeling right now. I tried to imagine if Andrew were dying. My baby brother? I might begin to understand, yet it was different. He and I had hardly a civil relationship. My cousins knew each other as adults, as people. I tried to imagine relating to his heartbreak – but from where I sat I really couldn’t. I was beginning to feel I wasn’t relevant in this moment, and sensed our conversation was coming to its natural close when I heard the woman’s cell phone ring. She answered it while I, witnessing from the home phone in her other hand, listened.
I was standing in the kitchen hall when I heard her voice repeat the words she’d just been told. The clear, strong and in-command nurse I’d just been speaking to for the past hour evaporated, and a heartbroken woman responded in her place…”She’s passed?” she questioned in a weak, broken voice. My cousin had just died.
I don’t remember how I concluded the conversation – but I almost wished I could have simply hung up. I felt a bit like a voyeur now. They had serious heartbreak to deal with here. I had to go, but how? What do you say? I think I ended up saying something lame like “hang in there” – but what I’d really wanted to say was “I love you”. True, I didn’t know this woman at all really, but that seemed irrelevant. I wanted to hand over my love to her, to comfort her, to help in some way. My cousin had just died, while we were speaking, in fact, and yet my heart wasn’t broken, hers was. The only thing that would help now was the passage of time, and the return of far-flung family members. True, I was family, but I had no role in this event save to offer my love and support from afar.
Mid-summer, mid-life I sit here, wondering at it all. This is such a friggin hard planet to live on. Wealth and poverty sit side-by-side, death comes too early for some, too late for others. My father has no reason to get out of bed; simply living is a chore he does not need or even want, yet he goes on. Living. My cousin dies while her mother holds her hand and watches her go. How is any of this just? I keep to my belief that it all happens as it’s supposed to – while my more agnostic friends will smile and shake their heads at me – and yet it doesn’t make this crap easier to swallow. It doesn’t feel right, regardless of whether there are lessons here or not. Regardless of whether God is actively challenging our faith or not. Some find comfort believing everything is simply a scientific event with no moral, spiritual or ethical motivation behind it. Some find comfort in just the opposite way of thinking. Right now I’m apt to say none of it really matters.
This life is a hard one, and that we know. Nobody would argue that. It takes a lot of resolve, a good sense of humor and some common sense to make it through. That, and a moment every now and again to pause and reflect, to the best of our limited ability, on the wonder of it all.