Birth,  death,  Faith,  Grief,  hope,  Life

Not To Go Gentle

Today marks seven years since my mother died. Seven.

There was a time I thought it impossible to get to one.

Seven years without her voice, without a cuddle on the couch, without arguing over politics, without hearing her exasperated scoff in my direction, without the smile that made my whole body feel warm and safe.

The night she died I slipped away from anything like light. I have never perceived a darkness so all-consuming.

Part of it was that I had some expectation of how her death was supposed to go. Soft and gentle. Peacefully embracing Jesus. I had heard enough stories about dying people suddenly opening their eyes and smiling at some invisible presence or saying the name of a long-dead relative to build a supposition. The hospice nurses shared their firsthand accounts of weird and miraculous things, which gave families comfort that their person had gone wherever he or she needed to go and was okay (a fundamental human need if there are any).

We set up her dying space and it felt eerily similar to the birthing space she helped set up for me three times. We lit candles, played music, rubbed her feet, told stories at the threshold of being, tacked up the veil between Here and There.

And I let myself imagine that because we were losing her far too early to a cancer that took her piece by piece—I mean to say, since we had already been through hell—the cosmic scales would tilt in the direction of comfort for us, too.

They’ve been through enough, the universe might say to its counsel, let us throw them a bone. And everyone would agree.

It helped that she was eager to be with Jesus and her grandparents and her Aunt Bunny and all the people she had known who had gone before her (dogs, too). “I’m going to decorate your mansion,” she told me. “I’m going to get it ready for you.”

The previous two years had been confusing and terrifying. They had been full of new stressors every month that taunted a final, horrible blow. You could observe the effects on our bodies as caretakers—I was losing hair, my face gaunt—to say nothing of her once golden tan and bright eyes and white smile. Cancer takes so much before it takes one’s breath.

This, I decided, would be calm. She would be comfortable. We would have assurances. She would be surrounded by those who loved her most and leave in peace. Even though most of what I thought about God was fairly deconstructed at that point, I had hope for this. I had trust for this.

And I was wrong.

The poet Dylan Thomas famously wrote:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

My mother raged.

She was not afraid and I am not so bitter that I do not know that is a gift. It’s one thing to lose someone you love. It’s another to watch them be afraid as they go. My mother was not afraid. She approached death with her signature faith in an unreasonable measure of Goodness for her circumstances. But she entered death fighting to stay.

And for a long time I hated God for that.

But dying is a lot like birthing. And in the months preceding the births of all my children, I imagined something peaceful, too. I saw videos on YouTube of women singing during labor, swaying gently through contractions, smiling as they pushed their baby into the world in quiet awe.

And every time, I have raged.

I have moaned and cried and passed out and screamed. I have kicked my legs and squeezed my hands and tangled my hair in my efforts to bring a life across that threshold. I’ve ripped at the veil with exhausting vigor, expelling every morsel of energy and self through sweat and blood and tears, beating against the earth itself to let this one in.

Birth can be a rebellious enterprise.

So can death.

And when the actual moment comes, it is never quite as cinematic as I expect. It comes without bells ringing or trumpets blaring or angels singing. Just the echoes of my own thrashing.

In birth, a brand new life waits to be held. There is no permission, no ceremony, no ritual. It is just me deciding to reach my own arms for a strange little being. In death, a lived life waits to be buried and there is no permission, ceremony, or ritual in that moment either. Just me deciding to reach my arms for a familiar being now strange and gone.

My mother was at peace with dying, but it didn’t mean she wanted to go. She gave us the gift of her faith and the stories she was walking into, but she also told us in no uncertain terms that she would not leave now if she didn’t have to. She spoke of watching my little sons grow and dancing at my daughter’s wedding. She wanted to live near me and help with my day-to-day life. I will never know if it would have happened, but I get to know she wanted it to.

I was mad that God would let her death be anything but angels singing, but as I sat in the quiet of the morning that marks seven years too many, reflecting on that terrible night, I saw a treasure in it. I understand these words from the famous poet.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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