Saying goodbye

This weekend we travelled several hours west to visit Ilona’s mother. We drove past the house that used to belong to one of my sisters (within a few hundred feet of it), which stirred up my memories of her.

Kathy led a paradoxical life. There is a marked history of mental illness in my family, and Kathy struggled with it terribly at various seasons. Even so, she was the funniest person I have ever known — by far.

Any time the family gathered, Kathy kept us laughing. She liked to tell jokes, but mostly she told stories about her own life — the “rotten” things that constantly happened to her. She saw the humour in every situation. No doubt it was a survival skill learned at a considerable cost.

Kathy was also a practical joker. When she got together with another of my sisters, and they started drinking, look out!

The practical jokes were merely outrageous, never malicious. The time they stuck a toilet plunger to the plate glass window of a neighbouring house, for example — it illustrates the spirit of their pranks. (The next morning, when they were sober again, they seriously considered ringing the neighbour’s doorbell to ask for Kathy’s plunger back.) Or the many late-night phone calls to women in the family to ask embarrassing questions about bodily functions. Or the rubber chicken that would turn up in your luggage or the trunk of your car after a family gathering.

My favourite practical joke involved a sign that hung on a neighbour’s door. It was a small wooden cow, painted black and white, hanging via chains from a welcome sign. Kathy snitched it on impulse one evening, and then she and my sister wondered what to do with it. They decided to send it all across Canada and send photos back to its owner:

Having a lovely time visiting Toronto. Had dinner in the restaurant atop the CN Tower — see enclosed photo. Wish you were here to share a Kahlua and milk with me.
To put the plan into effect, they had to enlist any family member or friend who was travelling that summer. The finishing touch was provided an aunt who dutifully took the cow to Japan with her.

It was particularly funny because the neighbour had been chosen completely at random. Kathy had no real relationship with them, so there was no reason to suspect her of stealing their cow and sending it off to such exotic locales. Naturally, they would be questioning their family and friends. And they would never be able to pin it on any of the likely suspects, since all of their family and friends were genuinely innocent.

After about three months of holidaying and partying — one picture was taken after a long night of debauchery, with the cow lying on a table littered with empty wine and liquor bottles — the cow was returned without further explanation to its post on the door.

How tragic that a person who could be so much fun should suffer so intensely.

Kathy suffered a marital crisis toward the end of her life, and she was plunged into depression. It was a very difficult time for other family members, who rallied to pull her through. And then, after two years of desperate struggle, Kathy was diagnosed with abdominal cancer.

She succumbed to the cancer very rapidly. The sad truth is, Kathy’s will to live was weak; I think she was grateful for an honourable way out.

The last time I saw her, Kathy was at her son’s house. I wasn’t expecting to see her there (the plan was to visit at her house, later in the day), and I didn’t immediately recognize her. She had wasted away in a matter of weeks. I did a double take and had to look closer to verify that it was, in fact, my sister.

After a brief visit, Kathy was tired and she went into the house to take a nap. I went in after her, told her I loved her, embraced her, and kissed her on the top of her head. When I walked out to my car, I knew I would never see her alive again.

That her death was imminent was obvious for two reasons. First, her appearance was radically altered. Second, she had nothing funny to say. It was the only time I ever visited Kathy without laughing.

She was fifty-four years old, and she was dead in about a week.

I am profoundly grateful that I had that opportunity to say goodbye. Families often talk about the importance of this gesture, and it’s true. It’s part of the process of letting go:  of accepting the death of a loved one by stages.

When I think of her now, as I did this weekend, my thoughts always turn to that final interaction between us:  the spoken words, the embrace, the kiss. There was nothing more I could do for her.

Except let her go.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. snaars
    Jun 21, 2005 @ 15:44:00

    My grandmother’s death was similarly rapid after she was diagnosed with liver cancer. She needed structure; everything had to be in its proper place at the proper time. She set her affairs in order first, and then notified the family. Then she had her going-away party.

    Being able to say goodbye to her is one of my most cherished memories.

    Thank you for sharing this story.


  2. Mary P.
    Jun 22, 2005 @ 07:56:00

    There was nothing more I could do for her.
    Except let her go.

    Letting go can be the best gift you give.

    My mother-in-law died of cancer after a long, dreary battle that saw it start at her breast, spread into her bones, and finally into her brain. A dreadful way to go. Until the very, very end, her family stood round her with words of encouragement – “keep fighting”, and “you can beat this thing”.

    It took my daughter, then 15, to look past her own needs and care for her grandmother. She took hold of her gramma’s hand and told her “Grandma, Jesus is waiting for you. It’s time. If you want to go, we’ll all be just fine.”

    She died four hours later.


  3. Q
    Jun 22, 2005 @ 09:05:00

    What is the dynamic between mind and body as death approaches, I wonder?

    I don’t believe that people have complete control over the timing of their deaths. But I do think there’s a season, before the body has completely broken down, where people can hasten or delay their own deaths.

    Snaars, your grandmother’s death was a “good” death (if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron for people to swallow). She knew it was coming, she was practical enough to make good use of the interval before her death, and then (presumably) she accepted death and went in peace.

    Mary P., your mother-in-law’s death was a “bad” one by this measure. Her family had a responsibility to help her accept death: to let her know that it was OK to give up the fight, assure her that she had fulfilled all her responsibilities to them and to herself, and remind her of the tenets of her own faith.

    Your daughter acted selflessly when she encouraged her grandmother to go in peace.

    This was Kubler-Ross’s great mission when she wrote On Death And Dying. She observed that we’ve set out to de-medicalize birth and make it a positive experience, and she argued that we need to make the same mental adjustment about death.


  4. Doctor Bean
    Jun 22, 2005 @ 19:19:00

    Beautifully written. My sincere condolences. May her memory be a blessing to you.


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