by Siri Liv Myhrom
Raymond hasn’t eaten in five days. He will go on dying of dehydration, starvation, and cancer for five more days, and we’ll take turns keeping vigil by his bedside, watching him incrementally disappear until we wish him gone, for his sake and ours.
It will finally happen on a stormy, slate-sky Tuesday afternoon, six people surrounding him, earnestly resting flushed hands on his sallow rawboned limbs.
He’ll breathe in—we’ll wait, holding our own living breath—but no exhale will come. And that will be his exit: mouth slightly agape, eyes steady and skyward, a Renaissance saint in rapture. I will sit for an hour beside him afterwards, almost more in awe of this terrible beauty than in grief, wonder for weeks what he saw, wonder still.
Outside, the crab apple trees will be at their fullest, the arching, wind-blown branches crowded and busy with sturdy white blossoms that keep shaking off the rain.
Four months later, it will be my mother. Some floodgate will open in her brain, some explosion of light and blood at the base of her skull, a bright flash. She will look at my brother and say, I feel so tired. He’ll say, Come in the living room and sit down. She’ll say, But it’s so far, even though she’s only ten feet away from the chair.
Then the blood tide will rise too fast and strong in her brain, and she will drown right there in my brother’s living room, ninety seconds from start to finish.
I’ll sit with her in the hospital room, every part of her that mattered already snuffed out, but in the absence of her, I’ll cling to what’s left: those artist’s hands, the soft flesh of her upper arms, the long, warm space between jaw and collar bone. I’ll sing to her all the hymns I know by heart, the ones she loved, because it is the only way I can figure out what to say to her about what I am witnessing.
Even after the breathing tube is pulled, she will work so hard to die, for hours, through the entire night and into the morning, her whole sternum heaving, the gurgling inhalations and the sour exhalations fluttering and halting. This is a sound, along with my father’s muffled sobbing into her chest, that will relentlessly revisit me in memory.
The last moment will be just that: a moment. She’ll let her breath all out, finally letting go, her ribcage depressed, my ribcage on fire. Nothing but white and the faint beeping in the room. I’ll think, Even if this is it, even if there is no heaven, this painless quiet is enough. The blazing blue September sky outside the window, and all the embered trees, will bow in agreement.
Jeff will choose to die at home. We will take turns sitting with him during the night, having our own surreal and mundane conversations about ordering pizza, feeding the cat, washing dishes—all this brash talk of living things in the presence of the dying.
Finally, his breath will soften and slow. He will bring his teeth lightly together with each inhale, his mouth barely open, like he is tasting and chewing the very last of life. His new bride, Marti, will put her head on his chest, will hold his wounded head—the source of all this misery, the surgeries and still the insistent tentacles of tumor. She will kiss him over and over, will give him permission to finish this one last meal of air.
And he’ll listen. That last breath will be a holy trailing thread that holds him here one moment and then just releases him into the embrace of some soft compelling Invitation. It will be so tender a passing that she will have to ask, Is he gone? Did he go?
Then in the brittle winter morning light, we will wash his still-warm skin with cloths dipped in a metal bowl of steaming soapy water and lavender oil, a sacred offering on this All Saint’s Day. We’ll dress him, awkwardly heft his bony body from bed to wooden coffin. We’ll weight his eyes with quarters, tie his jaw, arrange his arms and legs, line his body with ice packs, line the coffin with sunflowers and lilies, adorn the room with a summer’s worth of flowers. Other than the rare whispered question, we’ll move mostly in silence, so gently, so gently, knowing we are inside a consecrated moment, that we have stood at the temple door between Here and Not Here.
On a warm June evening, I will open the garage door to get the reel mower, and I will see a baby robin with his head tucked under his wing. I will know something is amiss when he doesn’t startle or try to escape at my approach, when he lets me pick him up with little protest. I won't know how he got in or how long he's been there.
I will take him out in the back yard, hoping the fresh air and close light will revive him. I’ll give him a few eye droppers of water, which he will quietly drink.
My three-year-old will hold him so gently and say, He looks tired. Maybe his momma will come get him soon and snuggle with him. I think she will. But his breathing will be getting erratic by this time, and he’ll keep closing his eyes, and because I believe in telling her the truth about these things, I’ll talk about the fact that he is probably dying. She’ll take this news with a kind of sagely acceptance: it is what it is.
Is his brain hurt? she’ll ask, reaching back almost nine months to the conversations I had with her, when she was two, about my mother. I’ll marvel again at how kids don't miss a thing—and how they resurrect moments and make connections in the weirdest, most clairvoyant ways.
She will go inside to take a bath, and I’ll hold him again, press him up to the warmth and pulse of my neck.
And how can I not think of every creature I have ever loved, every being I’ve held as it left, everyone I love right now with such a ferocity that I hardly know what to do with it? As soon as I commit to sitting in one small moment where I’m paying attention and not flinching or distracting or numbing myself, I’ve committed to sitting with all of it, and it's always a little bit like drowning.
I’ll make a bed for him in the mulchy leaves under the dense hosta. His eyes will be closed and his feet curled, though his chest will still be moving—but I will know by now when there's nothing left to do. There's so much I can't do a thing about except be a witness. And it will seem strange to me, since so much of life is letting go—most of it, really—that it is still such an awfully hard thing to do.
Siri Liv Myhrom is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis, MN with her husband and two young daughters. "Vanishing" is part of a larger nonfiction collection of conversations with grief. She can be found as an occasional guest contributor to the OnBeing blog.