Monday, February 5, 2007


Death has moved in to my house. Seriously, she has. She hasn't yet shown her complete self, but I have caught glimpses of her. I've never had to live so close to her before. We all know that we will meet death one day, but we never think about her hiding out in our house, like a ghost just waiting for the exact moment to fully appear and then suddenly disappear--leaving us talking about her for weeks, months and years.

My mother-in-law, Laura, is home from the hospital. She has an aggressive lung cancer that is terminal. She is going to die. The doctor said it could be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. The cancerous mass on her lung is too large to remove, plus she's not a good surgical candidate. Chemo and radiation might provide another couple of months for her, but the side effects would make the rest of the months depressing. She decided to not treat the cancer.

She has started hospice care. For those of you who don't know what that is, it's basically a nursing service that is specifically designed to ease the pain and suffering of those who are dying. They can help manage pain by providing Morphine and Ativan (those drugs that the not-dying seek and find it so difficult to get). We got her a hospital bed so that she can elevate her head and legs, whatever it takes to make her comfortable. Oxygen tubing is wound around her face, providing her with a direct source of air, something that is difficult for her to retrieve on her own.

I do not handle death well. I'm very confused, amazed and afraid of it. I find it very perplexing how a person (or an animal) can be alive one second and dead the next. The activity that takes place in the space of those two seconds is so powerful: It has the ability to change lives, even the course of history. Many movies have dealt with time-altering plots--how dropping a napkin saved a person from being shot because she leaned down to pick it up, thereby missing the bullet that was fired from the car speeding down the road, or, how not hitting the snooze button a second time could've saved the man's life because he would've left for work earlier, thereby missing the traffic accident that took the lives of all involved. All of these play with the idea of space and time and chance and how it relates to life and death.

Just the fact that we even exist is quite amazing. Imagine all of the possibilities--what if our parents had had sex the previous day, twenty minutes prior, or the following day, we might not be here. The sperm cell that won the race had drive, strength and tenacity. Isn't it funny how we all start out like that--being the winner of that million-sperm-cell race and then some people end up as TSA agents at the airport? C'mon, how do you think that happened? What changed in them, causing them to go from the speed-demon, determined sperm cell champion to the gum-chomping, fake-nailed, smartass that lazily looks at you and your ticket while she discusses the latest episode of Divorce Court with her identical twins sitting across from her and behind her and everywhere else within shouting distance? Something seems physiologically wrong here.

So, the fact that we're even alive is quite a feat. How can life be taken so quickly, and callously at times? For example, a couple of weeks ago, I helped organize an actor/director meet-n-greet for The Woman's Angle. One of the actors that came was Robert Smith. I personally do not know him. We exchanged glances a few times, acknowledging each other's presence and maybe thinking that the other looked somewhat familiar. He spoke to a friend who sat next to me. A couple of days later he was dead. Robert had been driving to an audition and was killed in a car accident. A truck traveling in the opposite direction crossed the medium and crashed into Robert's car. I found out about his death on a local film forum ( I frequent. Upon learning about it I was shocked. I had just seen him a couple of days prior--as though that somehow made it not true. You can read more about the accident here. What if he had stopped to get a drink or fill up with gas a couple of miles before the accident? If he had only left 10 minutes later, perhaps he would still be alive today. Why did he have to be at exactly that spot and his life have to end at that exact moment? He was too young.

Do you think cats and dogs know they are going to die? I tend to think they only know it right before it happens. What do you think it would be like to live your life not knowing you were going die? Do you think you would live it any differently? What is the purpose of knowing and/or not knowing? Why would humans know but dogs not know of their eventual fate? Does knowing that you're going to die help you choose the way you live your life? I'm reminded of an episode of The Simpsons when Homer is told he is going to die. He immediately goes through the different stages (anger, denial, etc.) and at the end of the episode Homer is told he is actually not going to die--that he still has a long life ahead of him. Homer is happy and elated and states that "from here on out, [he's] gonna live life to its fullest." The closing scene is Homer sitting on the couch in his underwear watching TV and eating potato chips. What's so funny is that that is living life to its fullest for Homer. What could be better than totally relaxing and fulfilling your lowest appetites?

Anyway, I realize this blog has gone on forever so I feel the need to wrap it up. So, it is only a matter of time before death shows herself to us and takes Laura. I've lost quite a few family members throughout my life but they've always been away from me--in another state or something. I've never had to watch a loved one die one day at a time. I was having quite a rough time of it on Friday. Laura lives in an in-law suite in the bottom of the house. It's a very nice set up. She has her own entrance, living room, bedroom, big kitchen, washer/dryer, etc... It's a very nice one-bedroom apartment down there. Mike (my husband) had moved her regular bed out of her bedroom and into her living room, as to make room for the hospital bed and also for visiting family members coming to say their final goodbyes. When I went downstairs and saw how different things were, it just kind of hit me. The bed being delivered is the bed Laura will die in. Her room is now death accessible. I cried several times, just as I'm doing now, but it didn't help. What did help was seeing Laura in her room. I was in class when she was delivered by the ambulance, but I got home very shortly afterward. She is completely aware of everything that is happening and she's accepted the fact that she is going to die. She's dealing with it so much better than Mike and I. It's almost like she feels relieved--since she's not felt comfortable in her body since the stroke three years ago. I just wish I knew why everything has to happen the way it does. Maybe there's no reason at all. Maybe we create reasons to comfort ourselves or just to help us deal with things. Who knows?

Here are some quotes from some great minds:

I do not believe that any man fears to be dead, but only the stroke of death. ~Thomas Browne, An Essay on Death

I wouldn't mind dying - it's the business of having to stay dead that scares the shit out of me. ~R. Geis

Life and death are balanced on the edge of a razor. ~Homer, Iliad

Our death is not an end if we can live on in our children and the younger generation. For they are us, our bodies are only wilted leaves on the tree of life. ~Albert Einstein

And finally, from one of the best books,

Boy, when you're dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody. ~J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1945

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