Thursday, May 22, 2008

Suffering and Charity

My mother in law is dying.

Right around the time my dad was diagnosed with his cancer last fall, so was she with hers. The alarm of the "C" word notwithstanding, we weren't surprised that she was sick; she hadn't been to a doctor since my wife was born, and frankly never really took great care of herself. We were all a bit worried most of the time about how she was doing: her knees, her diet, her habits, etc. There was talk about diabetes, for example, but it went in and out of family talk like a bad rumor. When you asked about this or anything else health-related, you'd get the patented topic change my mom-in-law has always been the master of. Even now, days after hospice care has begun, we're scrambling to notify cousins because she insisted everyone be kept in the dark. If it's true that you're only as sick as your secrets, this woman has been doomed a very long time.

At first, she, and to some extent, everyone else (except my father in law, who by now has probably worried himself into his own health crisis), pretended that everything would be fine. What with the family practice of denial in full effect, and my dad's rapid and obvious decline going on at the same time, it was hard not to. Indeed, at first it seemed everything would be fine. She made it through three rounds of progressively ass-kicking chemotherapy, and survived. She made it through a mastectomy, related 'body work,' and subsequent rehabilitation, and survived. In fact, she not only survived these steps, she was recovering. Hair returning, alert and volatile as ever, her prospects were good as little as a week ago.

And then something changed. Whether it was a creeping problem that only just crossed the line into dangerous, or something new and truly awful, we'll probably never know. She was no longer lucid and her body began to shut down. Discussions were had, decisions were made, and now it's this sad, terrible waiting game. Everyone's sort of on call for...the inevitable...and this makes everyday life hard to get through. Work, kids' school schedules and homework, a pending 17th birthday, and everything else routine about your life fades into the background of this looming event, not to mention the effort to make every last minute count for something. I know from my own experience that even the dull, mundane moments spent with a dying loved one become monumental (at least in memory) after the person passes, and I'm making every effort to afford my wife as many of them as she can stand. It's a terrible way to exist, and a terrible way to die.

Dhiara, our Indonesian exchange student, and my third daughter, told me that her culture, which is predominantly Muslim, has very different views on this existence. When you're struggling to make every day count, and seem as normal as possible to three small kids, and operate your own life because you really have no choice, without allowing the impending death to take over your life, you're pretending. It's the kind of pretending that children do, and it necessarily involves selective denial of hard fact and emotional distress to facilitate "normal mode." There's something terrible and unnatural to it, and yet everyone must do it at some point. Despite my inner discomfort with the whole idea, before Dhiara said this, it never once occurred to me that anyone would do anything different. Although I'm not yet clear on the Muslim/Indonesian way, I do believe it may be worth looking into. I don't care how much suffering and endurance are part of the Christian way of doing living (and, ahem, dying), there must be a better way to care for yourself and your dying loved one.

And yet, everything is not terrible. Normal mode is a welcome relief sometimes, even with selective denial nagging at my conscience. I'm lucky enough to have a job and boss that is family-friendly, and well aware that the only reason we all come to work is to gain means to provide a quality life for ourselves and our families; job fulfillment is a desirable side effect but not necessarily the goal. And church has kicked in, today letting me know that there's a committee of women organizing dinner for the next week for our family. Of course, it's much more than some committee: it's people we've known for years, people we've trusted with the care of our children, people we've cried and laughed with, people whose children I've read to and made snacks for and played trains with on Sunday mornings.

It's sort of sad that it takes an event like this for me to realize that our family is not completely alone, that it's okay to need, or at least accept, help. It opens my eyes to things my worldly experience makes me forget: charity, kindness, friendship. It's only a short step away to remember that these are all expressions of love, and that's something I am still learning how to accept and express in many ways. For now, I will simply appreciate it and be thankful, and direct the energy it saves me to my wife, who is about to undergo a very painful experience, and will need all the love I can give her.

Your prayers are appreciated.