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Watching Beth

I’ve debated making this post, but after sitting with it for over a month, I’ve decided that I want to give voice to what I’m witnessing from an ocean and continent away: my sister’s death process, or rather my process of the end of her life.

Last year at this time I received a phone call from my sister, and she informed me that she had liver cancer. From the moment I saw her request to return her call, I knew, and I knew that this was bad. I knew that I’d be hearing that she was dying, and I knew that I’d be witnessing this from a distance.

I returned her call and yes, it was bad. She said she’d do a round of two of chemo and that should take the tumor out. By late summer the call came again: surgery was scheduled for as soon as she could build up the body strength to withstand said ordeal.

The tumor was gigantic; it was the size of a small watermelon! That thing now out of her body, she settled in for recovery and did some traveling to see kids. She ended the year feeling OK.

January rolled around and she wasn’t feeling OK. The liver had been invaded with nasty cancer cells, and once again she began an aggressive treatment. This time it was worse, and by the end of February, with the protocol not working, she elected to check into hospice care.

This is where things are now. I talk to my younger brother these days and let him tell me where things are. Why do I do this?

I talk to him because she is now so drugged up that she can’t talk. My last conversation with her was no more than three minutes. This isn’t about me meeting my needs: this is about me allowing her the space and freedom to die and to not cause suffering.

Saying Goodbye

I’ve now had two conversations with her. The first one was a conversation in which I wanted to tell her that I loved her. As she shared her story of making the decision to die, I understood two things: this really wasn’t about me and I needed to respect whatever she wanted me to do. All she asked was that I not call too often. I could do that. 

There are times when we revisit the “if only” space; I didn’t want this process to involve a revisit. Closure means saying what is important and realizing that if we do that, we’ll be OK. Closure also means that we allow for others to be in their own space with their own needs. For Beth it means granting her space to sleep, to decline phone calls, and to die in a dignified manner.

My part is to make peace with what she wants on my time. I hung up from the first phone call at peace. The next day I was depressed. This process is difficult and raises challenges for everyone. I realized that this would be my process: engagement and needing to be sad while managing feelings around knowing she is suffering. I went through this in 1991. The difference is that I was caretaking for my father and had moved back into my family home to be there for him and my mother. Seeing it in person is easier than witnessing a loved one’s death an ocean and continent away.

To Travel or Not to Travel?

Should I board a flight to see someone who is dying? As I thought about this, I have weighed cost, what my goal would be, my needs, her needs, and pandemic safety issues. I could not justify doing a flight to the U.S. on any level.

Will I regret this choice? I don’t think so.  Which leads me to the next point of thought.

Certainty vs. Uncertainty

As I have grown as a person, I’ve faced the fact that nothing in this life is certain. It has also caused me to rethink death and what lies beyond. While I want to believe that life goes on in some form, I also understand that this type of knowing is not knowable.

Do we go off to a heaven? I don’t know. Do we become a part of the cosmos and continue on in energy form? I don’t know.  Do we shut down and cease to exist? I hope not, and yet I don’t know. My life experience tells me that anything is possible. My seeing death up close and personal allows me to hold space for all options.

For a person of faith, the above might sound a wee bit odd, yet I hold the belief that we won’t know until we know, and so I sit with a wee bit of healthy existential uncertainty and curiosity. As my mother used to say to me, “Life is not certain, eat dessert first.” While I don’t really do that, but see the humor in the saying, the fact is that sitting with Beth’s approaching death serves as a reminder that as much as I want to have that certainty, it can’t be had.

I engage the possibility of life and death on multiple levels. I’ve found that in doing this, I’m driven to live the best life I can and to do the best I can do while I’m here on this planet. Watching Beth challenges me to hope and to hold all options open.

As I type these words, I understand that I’m fine with her leaving because I’ve said the one thing I needed to convey to her: my love.

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