By Rick Skwiot
(First published in PortFolio Weekly as “The Crossing.”)
The call I’d been waiting for came in the middle of the night, waking me from a dead sleep.
“This is Nurse Something-or-Other from the Good Samaritan Home…Your mother’s passed away…Would you like to come down and see her?”
I’d been wanting her to die for some time, actually praying for it. More than that, I ordered it, told them to remove the feeding tube.
But it didn’t hit me until later, when I got the death certificate in the mail. My eyes went to the Cause of Death, where the doctor had written: “Dehydration.”
I sat staring at the word. Here was the woman who had borne me, nursed me, and spoon-fed me, who, in her delusional days after the stroke, had wanted to fix me dinner from her hospital bed, to feed and nurture me. And I had let her die of thirst, had sat by for three days as she parched, unwilling to extend to her what anyone would to a desiccated houseplant: a cup of water.
But when I told them to let her die, I’d been so beaten down by the years of her steady deterioration, by her endless operations, humiliations, and pain, by the ugliness and stench of it all, that I never asked any questions, just told them to do it, as she had stipulated.
But even as she is leaving you, others are taking her from you. When you visit it’s obvious that you’re the outsider, and that those who feed her, bathe her, and count out her pills have a greater claim on her. As much as she may love you, you are now but a mere diversion, a sporadic provider of rare luxuries, and these workers, along with the other old women winding down around her, this is her family.
You, however, are the chronicler of her deterioration—the sole constant witness among the passing parade of generalists, specialists, nurses, and neighbors—as she moves in and out of hospitals and hospices, and into wards providing steadily increasing care and decreasing independence.
You come to note the routines, the rules, the subterfuge of the House of Death. You mark the perverse, chirpy denial of death practiced by doctors and nurses, and come to practice it yourself. You perceive the protocols of death, as when you ride down the elevator with an aged man strapped to a gurney, his mouth open, eyes aglaze, obviously dead, but without the white sheet pulled up to conceal his face, so as to pretend old John’s merely off to the hospital for some miracle cure.
You note, too, the customary cheeriness and helpfulness of the orderlies and nurses who feed, bathe, cradle, and carry the useless, festering, and unaesthetic old bodies, who change the soiled diapers and the soiled sheets of these old women—all the ugly chores the women’s own children wish to avoid, seemingly at any cost.
You see how basic, and base, are our needs. In your darker moments you view human beings not as noble, Godlike creatures, but as devouring organisms putrefying plant and animal matter, infernal machines for producing feces. For that is the smell of any death house: feces ineptly masked by chemical disinfectant. It’s that odor you dread most, even more than the images of the defeated bodies, the wild cacklings of the demented, or the confused gazes of the old women you pass, sitting in their wheelchairs, thinking you their doctor or son. You can’t get the stench out of your head and your sinuses for hours after leaving, and miraculously it reappears days later as you once again approach the death house.
You note the etiquette for seating guests, the stares, and the stage whispers in the dining room, where you take Christmas dinner with your mother and a table of strangers. Out tall windows you see the brown river rushing by like irretrievable time, and across it black-trunked trees growing from bottomland like bruised fingers of Death.
But what you notice most are the old women eating alone, those without kin who care to visit. Why ruin a holiday with the smell of death, with awkward silences and mediocre food? You endure it but then, before sunset, rush away to bolt good liquor with cheerful friends, to kill the taste and dull the ache.
I understand how some people get worked up over capital punishment or abortion. But I think they’re missing the boat, the biggest boat, on which we all have a ticket. In places like the House of Death, it happens all the time, with everyone’s complicity—doctors, nurses, patients, and heirs.
It makes perfect sense in the abstract: Why keep alive folks for whom there is little hope of healing or even regaining consciousness, draining away life savings they’ve earmarked for their children?
The physical reality, though, is another story. In retrospect, I would have rather walked into my mother’s room and shot her, or something, just to know that she wasn’t wandering parched and demented in an endless desert for her last days as I stood by and watched.
Yet even now, five years since she’s gone, I think to telephone her with good news or a query about the past, then catch myself. That impulse to call tells me that she’s not fully gone and won’t be until I too cross the river.