When my children have those landmark birthdays, I tend to spend some time reflecting on the days they were born, moreso than in other years, and so yesterday I considered where I was in childbirth at a certain time of day. I remembered that relaxing seemed counter-intuitive, even though I knew that was the purpose of the Lamaze technique I had studied so purposefully. I succeeded in relaxing from the waist up, by which I mean my arms were loose and limber, but my legs were clenched right to the end.
In the afternoon, I got a call asking me to come to the hospital and sit with a church member whose mother-in-law was dying. We sat beside the bed and watched her breathe, touched her hair, stroked her hands and feet although they were under the covers. We celebrated their relationship, for when I first visited with Mrs. C, she described Younger Mrs. C as her daughter, not her daughter-in-law. We rejoiced that a granddaughter had been in to visit while Mrs. C was still aware, bringing the news that a great-grandchild is on the way.
The staff had predicted imminent death as early as 9:30 that morning, but here it was 4:30 in the afternoon. Was she waiting for someone to come, or waiting for us to leave?
We talked about how dying is hard work, just as birthing is.
Breathing came hard yesterday. There are no tricks to take the mind away from the task at hand, no training that prepares us for breathing our last breaths, no experience that approximates sitting at the bedside and wondering if this gap in respiration is the last one. You begin to watch the pulsing of a neck vein in the silence.
And you talk of what a hard worker this beloved woman was, how she seems to be giving the same effort to her ending that she gave to everything along the way. It’s hard to take your rest when you aren’t accustomed to it.
I went home to feed the children, then returned to the hospital to sit with the Mrs. C’s again. The shifts changed, and about 7:30 the evening nurse came in, touching Mrs. C gently and telling us she had nursed her the previous night as well. It was a gift to see her caring action and hear her kind voice. Prayers had been said already, but the nurse’s arrival gave Younger Mrs. C the permission she needed to go home.
“Don’t do anymore than you absolutely feel you must,” I whispered to her as I said goodbye.
Her labor complete, Mrs. C died a few hours later.