Life, Death and Wonder.
Every morning Maggie wobbles toward me on three legs, off balance, staring, seeming to ask me something. I don’t know what. I’m thankful for that, because each day I awake and wonder if this is the day when I must put her down. Asleep. Euthanize her. Kill my dog. I’m not doing the chemo on her. I already had a lung removed and, next, a mushroom-sized growth on her paw.
“This is third time around for this little baby,” said the vet, I’m sorry.” Bone cancer. The reason she suspends her hind leg, the reason all muscle mass has atrophied, the reason our games of “Good One Maggie” have narrowed in scope — so as not to strain her leg further. Now, I only throw the ball so far, within three feet of her nose, to be exact. Sometimes she plays the game, sometimes not, these days.
It’s the same with my mother.
They call Alzheimer’s the long good bye. It’s a tired euphemism, and according to new thinking, a poor one. It’s not the long part I’m questioning — that’s the simplest and most accurate word in this case. It’s been a decade. Looking back, I can see clearly when the early onset occurred. It’s the goodbye part that’s dead wrong. Usually when a person says goodbye, they leave. They don’t linger. Well, that’s not completely true. My sister, for example, can turn any departing moment into a new conversation, one that creates long stories from non sequiturs and opens up the possibility of an all-nighter, even after the hosts have started the universal signal for “time to go home now” by brewing coffee. At midnight. So perhaps this disease is indeed the start of a departure, the last chapter in my mother’s life, it’s just not a good bye. It’s a perpetual state of wonder.
For me it has been wondering not when she will pass, but why she won’t. That sounds particularly harsh coming from a son. Perhaps it’s best to remember at this moment that the author here is one who awakes each day contemplating killing his dog. So, I pull no punches. I say to myself, and sometimes to friends and family, “what is she hanging on to?” She can’t talk. Yes, she can hear, but I wonder — what words does she hear? Are our voices all just like the grown ups in A Charlie Brown Christmas who quack syllables that carry no literal meaning? Or do all words go in perfectly and process just as they did in most of the ninety years of her life, until this final twist in which she has been struck dumb? Even more frustrating, is she just doing her selective listening thing? Is she hearing what she wants to hear, not what we’re trying to say? Is she pulling a Shirley — still? Even after this horrible wake up call from her brain that she will no longer be allowed to use it the way she has before?
New thinking on the disease says that the person is “alive inside” and “still here.” Alzheimer’s is not just major memory malfunction. It’s debilitating — no one disputes that. But it’s not the descent of a healthy, spiritual human into a robot state of on-off, up-down, eat, shit and stare at Anderson Cooper 360. So what is it? No one living has taken this journey and reported back to explain it in rational terms. It’s not like that famous TedTalk where the brain expert unravels her feelings of Nirvana and whole-living and richness in life, experienced when she temporarily lost half her thinker to a stroke. (Forty years of emotional baggage — gone! she expounds. Tempting.) For Jill Bolte Taylor, therapy and time and the unrelenting hope of a loving mother brought her back to tell us all her tale. I have yet to find a story of a near miss with Alzheimer’s, nor of even a little experiment with it after which the guinea pig rebounded. So, I wonder. What’s going on in there? What are you thinking, mom? When will you let go? Are you not ready to go yet? Is this your choice, or your fate?
Your life looks exhausting, to all of us watching, and we do not know how to help.
Then Maggie wags her tail. Yes, dad, she seems to say, this lame leg sucks. I know you can’t fix it. But I’m thanking you now for stopping the Tramadol. How many times did I have to spit out those damn white poisoney things before you stopped sneaking them into pill pockets and then forcing them down my little throat with peanut butter? I hate peanut butter! But I love “Good One, Maggie.” So let’s play.
I’ll go see mom again today. I’ll see the body of mom. The eyes of her. The smile that says, “I’m still here, and you have reached me!” That will be a wonder — if I can reach her, before she says “good bye.”