You think you understand death, what it looks like. You don't. When you think of death you think of what TV has taught you, of cowboys clutching their hearts and falling from horses, of terse final words being spoken from clenched teeth, of the phrase "at peace." No one tells you that the death rattle is real, a rasping, desperate sound that fills the entire room. They don't tell you that it sometimes lasts for days, with the dying person's chest rising and falling laboriously as if life is being forced through them against their will. They don't tell you about the netherworld between when they lose their cogency and when they draw their final breath. They don't tell you about diseases that grip you and break you down part by component part years before you get to leave, about the slow and thorough loss of dignity and freedom. Until you sit by the side of the dying, you don't realize that, really, death looks like a lot of hard work.
Last month I shared my aunt's last hours of life. Now my grandmother is in hospice care. I am unraveling her oxygen tubes, fixing her meals, balancing her checkbook. I am a thirty-one year old woman who eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast and someone made the grave mistake of putting me in charge of another adult human being.
Death is making my life really, really real, and I don't have the time or desire to write dick jokes anymore. Do I still have plenty of witty insights, insults, bon mots and ideas? Yes. But just I don't have time to share them anymore. Better to put the blog to bed.
Gram doesn't want to be cared for. When the opiates dull her pain enough she can be gentle and she allows me to stroke her hand and tell jokes. But the rest of the time she's snapping at me to brush my hair or use a coaster or lose five pounds. I'm a guest in her home, and she wants me to know it. She was a child of the Depression, a single mother in the '50s, and a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, well-dressed and sassy widow for the entire time I have known her. She has never not been in control of her own life.
In one of her gentle, dopey moments she asked me how, exactly, one becomes a patient. How do you allow yourself to be cared for?
I told her a story about getting food poisoning and shitting my pants in Thailand (I didn't say shitting) and being nursed back to health by an older Thai lady. The lady wanted nothing in return: no money, nothing. I told my grandmother that being cared for is a service we can do for others, that it feels good to take care of the people we love, to be of service.
And you know, sometimes it does. Sometimes it feels good to kneel there, to stroke her hand and to tell her I love her. I look down at her and feel the love radiating from me, more love than I ever thought I was capable of. Then there are other times when I really want to watch Mad Men and she raps on the wall with her cane and demands that I come in and scratch her back. Those are the times that resentment boils up in me. I resent that this is my job, that there is no one else available to do it, that she took such poor care of her health her entire life and because of that I'm to surrender my own health to take care of her.
So I take a deep breath for myself and wait and will the self-pity away. And usually when I do that the great, strong love inside me resurfaces. Self-pity, I know, is the enemy of usefulness. And if I can't be anything else—if I can't be pretty, if I can't be smart, if I can't be kind—I at least want to be useful.
When I started Humboldt Bachelorette I was ready to give up my writing career. I didn't really think anything would come out of my embarrassing dating stories except a few chortles. I told you about everything: bad dates, bathing suits, cursed underwear, vacation flings, quitting smoking, gaining weight, homesickness, old flames, existentialism, elopement. The love I got wasn't unconditional, but it was enough to make me want to give you more, and more and more. And the more I put into the blog, the more I got back. Editors took notice. My writing career took off. I formed a better idea of who I am and what I believe in. I formed a better group of friends. I formed a healthier taste in men. My trust in the universe strengthened. I owe it to you, readers. You helped me get ready for life to wash over me, wave after wave after wave: grief, lust, longing, doubt and redemption, to let it all happen without fighting. You helped me arrive in this place, where I can sit by my grandmother's bed in the middle of the night, take her hand and talk about shitting my pants with complete honesty. Because you taught me to trust honesty, I can watch it enter and transform her, watch her calm down, stop fighting, breath easier, fall asleep. Miracles are never what we think they'll be. Our relationship with the world isn't what we think it is. We are not heroes or antiheroes. All we get is the opportunity to play our part, to serve. The world is so much bigger than me. I am just a small, flawed part of it. I'm brave enough to be that small, flawed part, to be battered and shaped and smoothed into something beautiful. I know that the process won't be painless. I am more than ready--I am grateful.