This Is What Happens When Someone Is Dying

This is what happens when someone is dying. In the hospital room everything glows that same, sick yellow. The walls, the sheets, her skin, her eyes. “I’m dying,” she shouts, thrusting her arms toward the ceiling, a dramatic gesture toward her god. The skin on the back of her arms wobbles as she shakes the air in front of her like she was shaking the face of an invisible child.

If life could rewind 24 hours you would see her in the living room, you would see her laughing, you would see her eating cheese on cubes from toothpicks, that same arm-wobble being kneaded like dough by Pia’s little girl hands — great granddaughter hands. “This is how I know you are old,” Pia says, stretching and pulling the old woman’s skin in her fingers. “Little girls don’t have this.”

Estoy muriendo,” she shouts again. It is now. “I’m dying.”

“Well we’re all dying,” Lala says. “Just none of us today.” Lala walks across the hospital room, goes to the table, and resumes her job of pouring water into Dixie cups. It’s important to keep our hysterical patient hydrated. If we’ve learned anything today we’ve learned that. “And besides, if you were truly dying would you have the strength to shout like that?”

She fell, you see. It was a twist, a scream, a misstep. It was the type of fall that later in the waiting room when we’re huddled together drinking cafecitos in the air conditioner chill we will say, “that fall was so stupid. So silly. We could have prevented it. We could have caught her.”

In our minds we all still see her laid out and screaming on the terracotta floor. Her shoes still perfectly on. Her right foot twisted wrong. Her hip so clearly shattered. “It didn’t need to happen like that,” we’ll say. But such is life when you’re crawling toward 100, every moment can be deadly. But perhaps, such is life at any age.

Here in the hospital room a bag of someone else’s O+ hangs above her bed — an island of red in our yellow sea. The blood drips through tubes into her veins and now she’s sure death is coming. Now when even her own blood isn’t enough to keep her strong. “I’m dying,” she shouts again. Wobble. “Not today,” we say again. And this time she just shakes her hands toward the sky. No noise.

“You’ve broken bones before,” we remind her. “You know what it’s like. It’s just something broken, something hurt that needs to heal.”

“Dying!” she says.

“Bodies break, hearts break, spirits break, and they mend,” we say.

“Dying,” she says. But she’s listening, we can tell.

“This happens to so many people,” we say. “And they move forward. You might even walk! You’re strong. You’re well.”

“Celeste’s grandmother had this very same thing,” says Lala. “She is 95 and she fell like you. Now she is home. She walks. She gardens on Sundays.” Our grandmother starts to lower her arms and we can tell that she is listening hard, though she’d never admit to it. “Yes,” we say again. The chorus of the younger generation. “Bones break, doctors heal them, accidents happen, this is life.” But what do we know?

Her ears are still open and we can tell because she’s also opened one eye too, just a sliver, just enough so that we can see where the rich brown of her once-color blends to meet the outer rim of weepy blue that comes with age. 93 years, but who’s counting?

“Is it time for water?” we ask her and Lala has laid out a tray of perfectly half-filled Dixie cups. No one can say our patient died of thirst. Lala reaches a cup toward our grandmother who opens her second eye to peer suspiciously at it before stretching a trembling arm toward the miniature drink. She sips. She calms. No wobble.

“Why don’t you tell us a story,” Lala says. She is searching for distraction. “Why don’t you tell us about Cuba?”

“Oh I don’t remember Cuba,” she says. But there in her eye, where the brown meets the blue, we can see she’s thinking. She’s like a child that way. Say the right combination of words at the right moment and her mind will turn.

“Why don’t you tell us about Cifuentes,” we say, and when we name her hometown she assumes a look of peace. If you sneezed, you’d miss it. “Didn’t you break a bone before?” we ask. She sighs. Her grandchildren have calmed her and she knows it and perhaps she wishes it weren’t true. Hysteria fills holes. “What was it? A foot? A rib?”

“A wrist,” she says.

“Ah yes, a wrist,” we say.

“And what were you doing?” we ask. “Climbing a tree? Wrestling a brother?”

She sighs. “Ay, I was roller skating.” Her forehead is ironing out, she is breathing at the right pace now, but the rattle is still wrong. Sick she might not be, but old she is, we can’t pretend she isn’t. “I was 12 and I was roller skating. My sister had taken the skate key and I was chasing her. It was 1933,” she says. “I was wearing a white dress I’d made — I was so proud of that dress. But I was skating, I hit a tree root, I fell, I broke my wrist. It was that simple.” The story softens her face.

“Did you wear a cast?” we ask.

“Yes,” she says, “but life was different. It’s different when you break as a girl. I drank milk every day and my bones grew strong, I learned to skate with one arm in a sling. At school they had another girl help me write the lessons. It’s not the same now.”

“It is though,” we say.

“It’s not,” she says. She’s right.

Lala strokes her leg, in marker the doctors have written on her calves. One calf says “yes,” the other says “no.” “For the surgeon,” we explained to her. But it felt like she didn’t believe us. Lala strokes her leg and she closes her eyes again.

“Your grandfather used to stroke my leg,” she says. We’ve unlocked the story box now; she always leaves it partially opened. “At night if I couldn’t sleep, I would shake him awake. ‘Gustavo,’ I’d say. ‘I’m awake and I need you.’ Then he’d stroke my leg like you’re doing now. He’d stroke my arm or comb my hair with his fingers. When I was pregnant and I couldn’t touch my toes he would tickle them to remind me they were still there. ‘That’s a good man,’ I always thought. ‘Someone who will remind you of all the pieces of yourself that you just can’t see.’” She lets out one chuckle at the memory of being young and in love, she pats our faces and for a moment she is herself.

“But he too died in a bed like this,” she says snapping to. “With tubes and blood in bags and remotes with buttons that keep you alive.”

“You’re not dying,” we say. “You broke a bone, nothing more. You’re going home in a week. They just need you to get strong, they need you to learn to stand, to walk, to enter a room.”

“This is what happens,” she says. “This is how life fools you.” She’s despairing again. “You are lucky to live so long, but what is the reward? Your husband: dead. Your siblings: dead. Your friends: dead. And you lying in a bed that’s not even yours thinking back on a life that feels so foreign you swear it belonged to someone else. You opening your memories to a room full of people who look half like you when you were young, people who can’t imagine you as anyone but the oldest person they know.”

She starts raising her arms to the sky again but we stop her this time. We stroke her legs. We hold her hands. We breathe slow to set the example. “Tell us another memory,” we say. “The first thing you can think of. Anything,” we say. “Take your mind somewhere else.” She fusses with the corner of her sheet. “Tell us,” we say. She fusses more. “Please,” we say.

“I remember the trip to Havana to see the opera,” she says. “It was winter in Cuba and we wore monkey fur. I had a new dress and my daughters stayed home and I remember worrying, but the best kind of worrying.” She coughs. She stirs. “I was young and beautiful and at the opera with my husband and I was worrying about my little girls and whether they were warm enough, and if they’d eaten dinner, and I was praying for them to have good dreams.”

“Keep going,” we say when her pause lasts too long.

“I remember being 19 and it was pouring rain and I was running through town with a pile of books in my arms. The books were so wet they were crumbling and bending, and by the time I got home they were nearly mush. I hated to run but you always end up missing the things life no longer lets you do.”

“Another,” we say.

“I remember my mother dressing me for school, buttoning my blouse, tying back my hair. I remember the tickle in my throat during my wedding ceremony and thinking ‘dear god just don’t let me cough, don’t let me faint, let me remember all of this until I am very old.’ I remember my daughters’ first steps and the little bedroom we all shared when we moved to Florida. I remember seeing snow. I remember my bangs when I was a girl and how I wanted them flat and all they wanted to do was curl. I remember the ocean from so many different windows, and breakfast in so many rooms, and the first kiss with the man I knew I’d kiss from then on out.” She stops but we coax her on. “I remember rainstorms that seemed like they’d tear the world right open. I remember looking into mirrors and thinking ‘one day I’ll be an old woman’ and hardly being able to believe it. I remember lying in bed and thinking ‘one day I’ll die,’ and the chill of dread that thought brought moved from my toes all the way to my ears.”

At this point she lifts her fingers to her temples. She rubs them in circles, her arms they wobble, she is old. She doesn’t know what to do now and neither do we so we put our hands on her leg — the “no” leg.

The bag pumping blood into her veins is crumpled dry; her eyes are back to being closed. We don’t know what to do so we hope just breathing is enough. Just being there. Just holding hands and saying words that sooth and coaxing memories that take us out of the yellow room, if only for a minute.

“Oh god,” she says and she shakes her hands towards him. “I have done it all. Why can’t you let me leave this life in peace?”

This is what happens when someone is dying.

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