Sometime life challenges us by forcing us to accept things that just don’t make sense to us. I experienced this in a very profound way watching close friends struggle against terminal cancer at the same time that my mother – much older than all of them – was suffering from living too long.
Within a few years, four close friends were diagnosed with cancer. Each of them chose the most aggressive treatment options because they desperately wanted to live. They chose chemotherapy that caused relentless nausea, weakness, skin infections, and often kept them away from the people with whom they most wanted to spend time – their children, grandchildren and friends. They were in their late 50s, 60s and early 70s. Not young, but by today’s standards, definitely not old. During this period my mother was in her mid-90s and having a hard time.
My mother’s depression was probably rooted in my father’s death after a long decline from Alzheimer’s disease. But for some reason, she could not admit this, not even to herself. Instead, she convinced herself and all of her friends in her retirement community that she was dying. She wouldn’t get out of bed and had doctors convinced that she was suffering from some sort of physical condition. When test after test revealed that she was actually quite healthy, she refused to believe it.
When I would cheerfully tell her how great it was that the tests found nothing wrong, she would reply that the doctors were wrong. One day she told me she knew they were wrong and that she was going to die soon because she wanted to die. She told me she was tired of living; that she had lived long enough and that all she wanted to do was die and go to heaven.
When I forced to get out of bed, to eat and to shower, she said she couldn’t understand how I could be so cruel to her. Why didn’t I just let her stay in bed and die, she asked.
At the time, the question made me very sad, but more than that, very angry. I had friends who wanted desperately to live, who still had reasons to live; who were not, in any way, ready to die. And they were all dying. Yet my mother, at 94, was eager to die. She was finished with life and ready to let go.
I spent a lot of hours during those years wishing I could trade my mother’s life for the life of one of my friends. That is embarrassing to admit, but true. As each one of them died, I noted with some bitterness that my mother was still alive and she didn’t want to be.
Mom is now 97 and hanging on pretty well. She has lived with me and my husband for the last three years. Being with family ( and a good dose of anti-depressants) has changed her outlook. She no longer says she wants to die, but she has expressed complete peace of mind about it. Whenever it happens, it will be okay with her. If she lives to be 100, that is okay too.
Bearing witness to the death of those who struggle and suffer to stay alive has taught me about the strength of the life force within us. Bearing witness to my mother’s desire to die and her eventual acceptance that she is very much alive has taught me about the effect of grief and loneliness on that same life force.
But most of all, it has taught me about the space between life and death. We all will dwell in that space some day.
It is a space that can be filled with the love of life and the desire to live it fully, even as the body is letting go of physical life.
It is a space where a battle can be waged by a healthy body determined to continue even when the desire for life is gone.
If one is lucky, it is a space that can be one of acceptance and serenity, knowing that the love that ties us to our life never dies. The love lives on beyond the space that we call life and the one that we call death.
It is a space that beckons all of us to look through its window with compassion and understanding for those confined in it, no matter what the circumstances.
It is where my mother lives, more of a home to her now than our house is. She lives in the space between and she lives there well.
Do you know anyone living in the space between? How has it affected you?