Today marks five years since my mother-in-law’s passing.
A few nights ago, I dreamed she was still living. No hospital bed, no morphine or catheter bag. Unbeknownst to me, Jeanne had gotten her own place and wasn’t using a walker or wearing oxygen. Here I’d published a book about my mother-in-law’s decline and her dying, but somehow I’d been wrong; Jeanne had gotten better. I felt a little embarrassed—but even in the dream my book sales were holding steady, and Jeanne’s feelings weren’t hurt.
I’ve dreamed this dream more than once, though this is the first time since the release of The Fifth Season. During the long month of hospice care in our home—“long” only because the hospice doctor thought Jeanne would live just a week or ten days—my mother-in-law asked, “Do they know for sure I’m dying?” and “Why is this taking so long?”
We had a nurse visiting every day and a full-time rotation of paid caregivers to assist. I dosed morphine around the clock to prevent a pain crisis—the pain my stoic mother-in-law had rated a 9 before hospice brought in the morphine—and yet I wondered myself what would happen if we stopped dosing her, if she might just wake up out of the morphine haze and use the bathroom on her own, eat a good breakfast, take a walk in the autumn sunshine.
Then I watched the nurse tenderly changing the dressings on Jeanne’s bedsores. I saw the catheter bag full of blood and remembered how relieved Jeanne had been to say yes to gentle hospice care after months of crying out when the nurses couldn’t find a vein for a blood draw and cringing as the blood pressure cuff inflated. “Oh, it hurts so,” Jeanne whispered the very last time her blood pressure was taken.
All I’d known was life, and now I was learning how death comes. With or without morphine, Jeanne’s body was all used up. “Treatment” had become torture. We had finally come to understand what the doctors hadn’t been willing to tell us—that Jeanne was at the end of her life, and that the painful treatments were doing nothing. We hadn’t known the right questions to ask, and Jeanne endured a lot of pain and discouragement submitting to the medical establishment’s fight for immortality. When she made the decision to receive hospice care at home, Jeanne was visibly relieved. “I am ready,” she said.
Today I mopped my floors and thought of Jeanne. I boiled pasta and whisked flour into milk and assembled a macaroni and cheese casserole for tomorrow night—for Sunday night. Jeanne died on a Sunday five years ago. It was early morning and the household was quiet when Jeanne took that deep, final breath, when she exhaled, and let go.