She’s so thin. Her eyes enormous, dominating, but they’ve lost colour, fading-faded from the blue green they were to the colour of pussy willow buds, silvery green.
Ketamine has made her kooky and she hallucinates that I am a blonde dog, flashing past her in the hospital room on my way out to open the door a crack. I don’t want to put the light on in the room to see some rosary beads she’d put in my hand.
“Ooooh look! Did you see that?” She asks my daughter Lizzie. “A dog, a blonde dog!” Lizzie smiles her sphinxy smile. Sarah asks,”Did I hallucinate that?”
“Yes, you did but it was a lovely one.” Lizzie says softly.
The day before, the hospital moved her into a spectacular room with a view of the sea, a little lounge, kitchenette and balcony. She wants to go out, look over the sea, looking for the ship to come in for her, so we wrap and pad her, she rests snug in her armchair, gazing and vaping. We chat comfortably about this and that, light stuff, the nice things we’d done together, music, people, I praised her daughter, her old dad was a delight. Emphatically she agrees, fuck yes!
Sarah’s chest is a little exposed and I cover the bones erupting like teeth from tightening skin. She thanks me. She always thanks people, so polite. Even dying, Sarah has exquisite manners. Later when I wash her, after she insisted on tottering, assisted, to the bathroom, she thanks me profusely, embarrassingly kind to me. So when I ask if she can manage to wash her own bum she says, “Yes I can, thank you…thank you for being sensitive, woman to a woman who knows.” She can barely manage the actions but I leave it. She doesn’t need the fuss. Does she want her head washed? Oh yes please! I wipe her bald head with a warm soapy cloth, she cries out softly with pleasure at every dab and wipe. She cleans her teeth, spits carefully into the cup and we pop her back into a newly made and padded bed. She gives a great sigh of relief and is comfortable. She wants to sleep and we leave with kisses.
The next day it is not this way. She asks us if she can get up on all fours. “Of course! Do anything you want!” I say. She is trying to relieve the pain in her back and rocks like a woman in labour moaning for deliverance. The bones in her neck are sticking out like some tiny stegosaurus. We’ve rubbed her back many times and I didn’t think that she could get thinner but she has. The depressions between her ribs are rills and runnels I can put a fingertip in.The pelvis that cradled her daughter Jemima some thirty years ago has become a sharp adze that cuts out the hard ground underneath her, preparing the way. Her flesh has gone and skin softly droops down on thighs that harbour four drivers in veins, delivering what becomes a maximum dosage of the many pain killers that seem not to work consistently. The pain is awful to see and worse for her each day. Gnawing stabbing aching throbbing, every bloody animal that spits and claws and bites inside.
The nurses are kind, efficient and have the gentle touch our lovely Sarah needs. They come and go concerned at her continued pain and give her a shot of morphine as a breakthrough pain now bordering on unbearable. She goes out after a bit and we leave promising to come back later and when we do, she is reclining, deeply asleep in bed with her daughter, dad and brother by her side. We stay an awkward few minutes and come back later, no-one is there. She is awake, lucid and chatty.
We talk of death, her funeral and what she wants done with her stuff. She is pragmatic. “Look I wanted an eco-burial but they cost too much and the shroud thing isn’t going to work either. I don’t want to be burned, too much pollution. But in the end, it’s whatever is cheapest and easiest. Go that. I just want to confirm it with you.”
I agree, not caring too much whether I am fried or dried I say. She laughs. “About my stuff, well after the family has taken what they want, open the house and the cupboards up. People can take whatever.” She’s never held tightly onto stuff. Stuff is just that and she cares about people, country. Dogs. Cats. Birds. Plants and trees. Spirit but not in any conventional sense. We both tried that in the past and it was in fact how we met, at church. A divine appointment I guess. She told me we had sung together once at church but I barely remember that, too many notes under the bridge. She cares a lot about the oppressed, the dis-empowered, those to whom life hasn’t been kind; Sarah is a kindred spirit. We both swear a lot about how everything is fucked up, “It’s so fucking FUCKED!” Cancer is fucked too. I know- I had it and now feel vaguely guilty that the dice rolled in my favour not hers.
Lizzie, my beautiful sensitive genius of a daughter, is also Sarah’s friend. They played a lot of music together over the years and she is so sweet now in these last days of Sarah’s inhabitation of this particular body in this particular time space and material manifestation that I am again struck what a miracle she is. Sarah feels like this about Jemima her girl. Blessed. Absolutely blessed.
I worried I was in the way. I worried I wasn’t doing enough. I worried I was doing too much, being too exhausting, being too much for our fast fading friend so we decided to leave her to her family and inner circle of friends and the process. The last night we saw her, I gave her three or four teaspoons of bone broth chicken soup I made, she’d oooh’d and ahh’d with the pleasure of having real food, jiving to the taste and one of her faves playing in the background, an early Bowie. Then all night I worried it would make a problem with the naso gastric tube inserted after a huge bout of faecal vomiting some days before. When we hugged and said goodbye she was very direct. “You probably won’t see me again…my advice. Do what you want to do and don’t waste time.”
Dying is hard work. The body is wound up like some perpetual motion machine and the heart, if it is strong, just wants to keep ticking. Sarah’s heart was huge and strong, dying was hard for her. As an Aged Care nurse and nursing relatives and friends, I have seen a number of people die but not like this. Not at all. It was brutal and unkind in every way.
Some people need permission to stop fighting, to stop caring for others, to stop seeing into the world outside them and go inside. It is a circle. Life begins in a storm of blood and shit and tears. It ends this way too one way or another. This woman had lived a big life in a small place and next weekend in Moruya there will be a memorial to her of all those mad sad bad lovely lovely people she touched with her fierce love and boundless kindness. I will not be there, I don’t need to be. She is still here, she loves us all.