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DIANNE KLEIN

It's Often Living, Not Death, That Exacts the Greatest Toll

June 27, 1993|DIANNE KLEIN

The doctors had been saying that death would claim her soon and still she lived, in a manner of speaking.

Over the months, soon became relative, untrustworthy as an adjective, cruelly chimerical as a vehicle for hope. It was her family that was hoping for her death, for passage to that better place they believed in. And they wanted relief here on Earth.

But she was afraid.

What scared her was not more pain. She was almost used to that. The cancer had staked its expansionist claim to nearly every field of her body.

When they turned her over in bed at the nursing home, her leg broke. Crumbled might be more apt.

I would hear about all this over the telephone. I would ask how she was, and her family would tell me in anguished and exasperated tones. The news was always so bad that you couldn't dwell on it long. You just wanted it to be done.

Her daughter-in-law would say that she would never, ever want to die this way herself. She would say that she would prefer suicide, or euthanasia. She would say there ought to be a law.

Her son wouldn't say much at all, out loud.

She could hardly talk for herself. In person, she would try by placing her mouth directly to her daughter-in-law's ear. Over the phone, the nurses would do the talking for her. They would tell her family to come at once. They would say they thought it was "time."

Her family lost count of the number of these phone calls by the time that, finally, she died.

This was on a Sunday, not long before dawn, earlier this month. The nurse the family had hired to sit with her in the darkness rather than argue her belief that death came to its victims only in private, had just ended her shift. Her family had been with her Saturday night.

This is what she had been afraid of. Death abducted her when she was alone, squeezing into this place that smelled of human decay, between shifts, its own visitor's punch card in hand.

She had been afraid of a journey to the unknown and afraid, too, that there might be no journey. This might simply be the end.

In any case, she wasn't sure she believed in this concept of an allotted time to die. Who draws up the schedule? God? She wasn't ready to find out if God exists.

Her daughter-in-law remembered the last time that she saw her alive, in a manner of speaking. Tubes ran to her nostrils, and into her arms. Her eyes spoke of a terror she could never have put into words.

Her daughter-in-law was haunted by this image. It appeared to her again and again. So she asked the mortuary if she could see her body before it was turned to ash.

The mortician knew how to employ that certain kindness reserved for the bereaved. He rolled her out on a gurney and folded the sheet back to uncover her head. He said he had been so impressed by the fine texture of her skin.

Her daughter-in-law hoped that, somehow, she could hear this now. Her skin, nurtured for years with expensive creams, had been her pride.

Then the daughter-in-law saw that this woman she had come to pity, and love, had been seemingly reborn. Her body had been freed. She was bathed, and her hair no longer stuck to her head in damp clumps. She looked restfully asleep, her lips revealing a hint of a pleasant dream.

Her daughter-in-law said she couldn't remember her ever looking this good.

But other images haunt the family now.

The daughter-in-law thinks of her own death, 50 years from now, 20, fewer than that? She says that it doesn't matter, that anything can happen, that we must all be prepared.

She asks me to help kill her if technology and bad luck conspire to prolong an inevitably miserable end. Her voice does not reveal even the slightest strain of a joke.

There are, too, other consuming matters of the here and now. A high-tech death costs a lot, assets are wiped out.

This woman who had been a mother and a wife died destitute, as per the Medi-Cal plan. If a catastrophic illness doesn't kill you, surviving it just might make you wish that it did.

This is a story without names because the names are interchangeable, and because the pain of this tragedy is too fresh. I have heard variations of it many times, from strangers mostly, and friends.

I imagine I will hear it again.

Dianne Klein's column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Readers may reach Klein by writing to her at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7406.

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