The Tale of Us Against the Monster: Many Kinds of Good-Byes
My cousin Edward was beautiful: well over six feet tall, blonde, blue-eyed, built like a marble statue of a Greek god. However, more than physically beautiful, he was funny, intelligent, full of love, and wonderfully kind…to me anyways. He was beautiful inside and out. When he moved to BC from Manitoba, he used to pop over to Vancouver Island to visit me occasionally. When he first visited, he thought he might like to live on Vancouver Island, and slept on my couch while he scouted out the prospects for carpentry work. In the evenings we had lots of time to catch up, hang out, get reacquainted, and reminisce about childhood memories of our grandparents.
Eventually, unable to find work as a carpenter on the Island, he settled on something in the Interior of BC. I was sorry he couldn’t be closer. The last time we saw each other, he told me he thought I was a great gal, and thanked me for my hospitality. Said he always had a great time in Victoria and would be back to visit again really soon. A few weeks later, on his way to work, some time around dawn, he hit a patch of black ice, swerved into the other lane, and crashed head on with a big truck. The driver said that Edward saw it coming. Trembling still, he told the police that the look of utter disbelief on Edward’s face would haunt him forever. After the collision, Edward moved slightly, and then not again. Quietly, tearlessly, he died a short time later.
My sister phoned to tell me the terrible news, and all I could think in that moment was that Edward had left his grey knit pullover at my place. I’d called him and asked if he wanted me to send it, but he told me to just hang on to it, and he would get it next time he was on the Island. I wept for a long time. The waves of grief and incredulity in my large connected family, that our Edward, so dynamic and larger than life, could be gone forever, was devastating. Edward’s sudden death at such a young age—he was only in his 30s—shattered his father, my uncle, and he was never the same again. How could Edward be dead when he was so fully alive? How could he be so fragile when he was so big and strong and young and healthy? And how do we negotiate the instantaneousness and permanence of the emotional transition from Edward “is” to Edward “was.” Things undecided. Arguments unresolved. Parting words flippant and presumptuous. Edward and people like him disappear in the very middle of their lives—they leave the bath running and the kettle whistling on the stove. It’s agonizing and surreal. The “sudden good-bye” is in its own category of sorrows.
There is also the “short good-bye” where you know the person is going to die after a heart attack or sudden illness and they are not expected to survive. In my experience, this is usually the way with old people. My grandmother was 92 years old when she fell ill and died within a few weeks. We all had time to rearrange our schedules and get to her bedside to take our leave of her. It was very sad, but it was fairly quick, and she was not in an enormous amount of pain. I was with her when she died; her breathing became labored over the last hour and then silence. She slipped noiselessly into eternity—here one moment and gone in the next. I held her hand as she died, smoothed her hair back, and kissed her forehead.
I didn’t shed a vast amount of tears when my grandmother died—not that I didn’t love her deeply because I certainly did—but because I knew she died “finished,” her life complete, her leave taken, and with her friends, most of her family, and her husband having gone on before her. It was her time, and there was no feeling of being robbed of her too soon. I expected that, at 92, she would leave us. It was not shocking when she took to her bed the last time, because she was already frail and confused in her mind.
The nurse and I bathed her body after she passed, and dressed her in a linen nightgown. I took my grandmother’s jewelry off her body and combed out her hair. Then, I tucked her into a freshly made bed, and sat with her, holding her still warm hand as the dawn approached. I felt that I needed to stay with her as she waited to embark on the final leg of her journey on this earth. Again, I was gripped by the finality of death, and the nurse told me very kindly, that there was nothing more for me to do. She said I could go home and I had done all I could do—there was nothing more to do. Because, quite simply, there was nothing left. She wasn’t there anymore.
It was a strange, strange feeling to look at my grandmother, whom I knew and loved so much, and come to the understanding that the familiar form lying still in that bed was no longer the person I knew. The total “gone-ness” of her body, the echoing silence in that room, the shiver at Death’s dissipating presence, and the futility of mortality, brought upon me a cold “aha” moment. So this is the end of life. It was a sad and unwelcome Knowing, but nonetheless, a short good-bye. I left the room with a sigh, stepped into the light of morning, and called my parents to let them know she was gone.
The “long good-bye”… In the case of my husband and me, we are trapped in the long good-bye, held in pendulating suspension by the Monster. We can neither stop nor go, turn right nor left, sit or stand…we are in a holding pattern where we don’t know what to do. Or what we are able to do. It’s like the text we got from his sister in Ottawa this morning… She gave her best dates this Fall for us to visit, because my husband would dearly love to visit Ottawa. He has family to see there, and this might be his last opportunity to go before he gets too weak and sick to travel. I’d like to book the tickets and plan the days around his cycle of medication, but then, how can we be sure his week of travel will be a good week? What if he is too ill to go on a trip? Can we cancel our tickets at the last minute without losing our money? What if he gets sick in Ottawa and needs his doctor? What if he hurts himself en route to Ottawa? Everything is so “up-in-the-air” that we are both suffering from a bizarre type of vertigo.
You see, we have put all our affairs in order: wills, living wills, investments, insurances, funeral arrangements, last wishes, etc. We’ve filled out all the forms. Everyone that needs to know, knows. All we have left to do is to put a Power of Attorney in place—and that will be done next week. We have discovered resentfully that it is a complicated and expensive process to die in Canada. But now, as all is said and done, we wait…and we try to reinvent the days and weeks and months we have left into a semblance of real living where we can still glean happiness and quality. Now it is time, while there is still time, to visit family and friends—to make a final appearance. It’s time now for my husband to sit with his sisters, look at old photos, and recall the sweet abandon of childhood; it’s time to say words that will, in coming years, be repeated back and forth in bittersweet moments. The gloomy limbo of the long good-bye has begun.
For now, my eyes have dried and I have become numb. And weary. I’m too tired to be angry and emotionality is so exhausting. My husband and I sleep in a lot. Unashamedly too. There was a time when we would’ve hidden the embarrassment of over-sleeping. We’d pretend that we’d been up for hours—even on our days off. Now we don’t care. It is what it is. Best to call ahead now because it’s 11:00 in the morning but there is no guarantee that we are up and around yet. We let things go now because nothing really seems to matter anymore.
The long good-bye skews our priorities, or rather, rearranges them, and together, my husband and I are transformed into weightlessness, attached only to each other. It is frustrating, I suppose. If only we could have known this type of intimacy during our healthy years—we always thought we were joined at the hip, but now we are learning true closeness that is only known as life begins to draw away from our grasping fingertips. We are one, but now we comprehend the implications of our oneness. Eventually, one of us must live on as half. Now, as I wait to do just that, I have time to memorize my husband’s face, every line and curve, and contemplate half-ness.
It is the constant pending sadness that gives an unbearable feeling of endlessness to the long good-bye. I have been to the cancer clinic with my husband, and I have seen the partners of the Monster’s victims, and the gray hair, and the darkness under the eyes, and now I understand. The Monster sucks life from everybody it touches. You, who are grappling with the long good-bye, sleep all you want. I know well your lethargy and lack of appetite for everything. There’s no shame in not wanting any more of what life is presently giving you. So rest now. Let yourself be quiet.
Thus, I am going to book a short trip to a very nice hotel in Tofino for next week. My husband and I will sit in front of a fireplace and watch the storming ocean through floor to ceiling windows while snacking on chocolate covered strawberries. We’ll take lots of pictures. Perhaps watch some television. Most of all, we will sink between the crisp white Egyptian cotton sheets of a pillow top king size bed, and sleep some of the endlessness away. We aren’t sure what phase of this journey we are in, but we can wander aimlessly through it, snuggled together as the fire roars in the hearth of a splendid seaside room in a five-star hotel.