Longitudes of Home
“The zero-degree parallel of latitude is fixed by the laws of nature, while the zero-degree meridian of longitude shifts like the sands of time.” ― Dava Sobel
I settle into the curve of the road when I drive to her place out past Glanville where the station transformers take power into the hills. I’ve been stopped and ticketed by the police twice already on different occasions following this road, learned to use my cruise control as a result, and enjoy the increased sensation of drift immensely. Wet straw inhale like hollow tubes channeling the history of the loess makes me almost weep, the thick strong sense of home I get driving through wheat fields, not entirely different than those amongst which we drove to my grandparents’ houses in Saskatchewan so long ago. I do body and energy work for clients on hospice and I’m driving to see Pam.
The half mile straight stretch of gravel I turn onto from the main highway is my favorite passage out of the mundane and into surreal. I cannot see her house from here, but neither can I see the asphalt behind me. The secondary drive carries my Subaru rumbling into the Palouse hills themselves. I’ll make several more turns, gravel eroding to dirt before I come to her daughter’s house on a clearing, the big shop looming first, the German Shepard next. Every move into the tertiaries a deepening of my contract.
Pam is 84 and dying of cancer. Most older hospice clients are dying of cancer. She had tumors in the bowel that metastasized to the bone. There is something unique about the feeling of a person with mets in the very matrix of their skeleton. Tessellated pockets of emptiness, a hungering away of tissue, there is at once a heaviness with lack that typifies the palpable communication of loss to my fingers. And because she is already on hospice, already in the final stages of dying no matter what we do, we have talked about the pros and cons of deeper pressure alongside her spine. On the one hand, no one really knows yet if deep muscular pressure can increase rates of metastasis. On the other, the pain in her back is sometimes so excruciating that her meds are not enough for relief. The call is for her to make.
She loves the pressure, wants bare skin on skin; my hands to smooth instead of probe, balancing the way she necessarily receives IV’s and changes of catheters.
Flesh is a multilayered universe. Before contact is made with epidermis, a tangible ring of emotion broadcasts itself. I am sad today. I am content. I am confused or mourning. The most compassionate and efficient way to touch begins with acknowledging this overall state. We think, as Americans removed from so much basic contact with one another, that this type of discussion is New Age rhetoric, but the sensitivity with which we feel one another comes from a long animal past; an incredible evolutionary history that allowed us to determine the state of being of our kin, our enemies, our allies. Dogs often are the first to sense cancer in their people, and certainly are the ones to lay day and night by our sides when they feel our emotional or physical pain. Humans are no different in our potential to feel one another at this level. Some of us just practice more regularly and refine our conscious discernment as a result.
At our very origins, the finely layered epidermal cells that are to become part of our first interaction with our environment have already bathed with the origins of the nervous system — skin and nerves both derived from the cells of the ectoderm — sharing sensory wholeness before differentiating into layers of conversation. Pam likes the feel of the lotion on her skin. As with the induction of sweat that increases our arousal during sex, the lotion itself changes the nature of the interaction between the cells of my palm and the flesh of her back to increase permeability of sensation for each of us. Though I often begin with my hands over a person’s clothes or hospital gown, allowing for a more neutral zone to develop familiarity between our sensory bodies, the first sigh is almost always expressed upon the application of lotion. A long exhale into two worlds now blended.
She is days away from death. It appears our rates of decay shift at recognizable levels, because it is not uncommon for the entire hospice team to get the same feelings about a person’s time left on hospice.
She is days away from death and sinks quickly and easily into a state I do not even try to access. My time with Pam has become as much about Pam as it is about her daughter, Maggie, and the resulting conversations we have while Pam drifts, I massage and Maggie quilts.
“My mother is an artist,” Maggie explains, lifting the footer of the machine to rotate the piece she is stitching. “She painted landscapes, even after she came to live with us, before she was too weak to get out of bed.”
Families feel you too. They know when they can trust you with words, with touch, with the care of their parents, spouses, children. I never mean harm, but I can’t say I am not amazed whenever a family accepts me into the fray. This is everything sacred, and I am a stranger.
But then I’m not. We are not. Together we are not only all dying, but we are all also trying to figure out what that means. I don’t know that I have any preconceived notions, but I certainly have senses about it I have developed by being on site, in person with imminent death. And I think of the many houses I have been invited into.
Low-income apartments in rural Idaho, one floor, one bedroom, rented when one’s spouse got sick. Hospital equipment dominating the living room where a husband lies on the couch until discomfort transitions him to rented hospital bed.
Houses made from hand-hewn wooden beams, canning jars lining counters, grandchildren’s old sleds, toys and boardgames at the periphery, a country woman walking wood floors until the end.
Television and junk food dominated kitchen/living room combos with photos of family from floor to ceiling and a sense of celebration in space, small arguments in the kitchen, smoking on the front step and a woman fading in and out in a backroom.
Sterile spaces. Motor homes. Hospital rooms.
I think of the map of deaths laid out over the Palouse, the reaches of regional care limits often extended because we are a small community and how can we say no to someone living just outside a reachable limit?
I cannot pass the power station on Highway 9 without becoming the ten acres of land inhabited by Pam as she died, her daughter and son-in-law as they mourned, the turns in the road that implicated neighbors and cattle alike, and the ever watchful gaze of a German Shepard. The overhead power lines lead me right to where Pam stood next to her own bed before she died. Not literally; her body was bed bound and nearly comatose. She was at the point of restless oscillation between consciousness and that other realm that seems to indicate a kind of personal discussion with death. She would occasionally open her eyes, speak a few words to her family or ask for basic needs like water and reassurance and then sink into hours of body jolts and moans, lessening lucid moments and the tether to life.
Still, I sat on the edge of Pam’s bed the last time I would see her and just held my hands at her ankles. I let my eyes soften, my expectations recede, and there she was, some aspect of her being standing beside her body just watching. I felt her body’s breath slow and calm as it moved down her legs. She didn’t do or say anything. She didn’t seem to know I was watching. She just stood there and took in the scene and then she was gone.
Pam died a few days later.
Maggie told me she seemed peaceful. That Maggie herself, and her husband and their children were able to say goodbye.
The longitudes of death that reach across the Palouse are inlays to my own sense of place through community, longevity and impermanence; a marked integument of a land and people I have been permitted to touch and be touched by. Especially when it rains or morning dew and summer warmed midnight moisture settles in, when the snows slow time and open up doorways of redolence, all I have to do is breathe to know immanence.
Surrender to the lay of the land and be carried home.