The Alchemy of Tending a Soul at Death’s Door
She claws at me, tearing at my skin.
Fierce! How can an 85 pound woman be so strong?
I learn quickly, shifting my angle to avoid her piercing nails, only to find her teeth lashing out, nipping my skin.
How did she learn to fight like this? Did she have to do this to protect herself, or is this completely instinctual?
I force myself to lean INTO her field, past the quick, feral arms, and whisper softly to her ear.
She’s scared, disoriented. I have to talk to her, stroke her, reassure her, let her know it’s OK.
This woman I barely know is dying.
The same woman who gave life to my beloved, and had used her life and death-giving powers to withhold love and physical affection when he needed it most.
This is my mother-in-law, and I am here to love her so she knows she is not alone.
She remembers his other wives, not me.
I do not mind, other than wishing I had the power to bring her comfort through a familiar countenance.
The fog of pain lifts for a few exquisite moments.
Discovering I AM his wife, she asks delightedly, “Are you going to have babies?!” Never mind the fact that he is 67 years old and I am, well, closed for business.
I answer we already have children and are not likely to have more. Her eyes glaze for a moment, but now she is inviting me to play. With a whisper, she declares, “I think there’s money over there!”
I join in, searching the hidden spots she chooses, peeking behind pictures, under furniture, lifting my arms, shrugging my shoulders theatrically, shaking my head, “No.”
She gives me an insider’s smile and directs me onward to her bag of warm clothes. She asks again, I search, answering “no.” She surprises me, asking “But is it warm? Will it make you warm?” I say yes! She smiles and says “well that’s worth a whole LOT of money, isn’t it?!”
Sweet alchemy. How could I have been so arrogant as to assume she didn’t have things to teach me, even with advanced dementia?
Now she moves on and speaks of her past loves and her unborn child. Deep conversations transpire with a man I cannot see. I hang on her words as she awaits his answer.
The family secrets are not secret anymore. No matter. Anybody who would mind is already dead. It helps me see her humanness. It helps me understand.
I take her hands gently in mine, offering steady, warm breaths to ease the chill.
She drifts off and my breath catches. I am struck by her sleeping form. She is a twin to my grandmother at death’s door, years ago.
Memories flood me. The iron-handed matriarch of my family scarcely contained within a fragile shell, demanding “Where is my God-Damned Light?!”
Wisps of hair, tightly stretched skin, lips pulled over the teeth of her open mouth….and the hollow…sunken in at her throat as though I could look straight through into the realm beyond.
And along with these memories, gratitude.
Gratitude for being granted this gift of being with her now. Watching, listening with, learning from and witnessing this woman who is larger than life in my beloved’s mind.
For in this witnessing, I feel the bitterness in my heart melting away. I recognize her no longer as simply the woman who could not share the love and affection that was lifeblood to her son, but as a complex and extraordinary person in her own right.
Unbidden, I feel a touch of wisdom settling inside, integral to me, opening my awareness and shifting the way I see the world.
I came here to serve her, after all, unaware of the alchemical changes sweeping through me as I tend this soul at death’s door. I am now privy to the most intimate of secrets, splayed open with an aching rawness to the beauty inside each of us, accepted as daughter to a mother I never knew.