Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Sometimes it feels like everything is dying. As I write this, nearly the whole West Coast of America has been burning for days, swept by raging wildfires from Southern California to the northern U.S. border. The invisible Corona virus COVID19 has been sweeping across the nation, leaving dead or damaged bodies in its wake. Churches, schools, and all kinds of businesses have had their casualties, some closing permanently.
But personal and most devastating to me has been the death of my mother, caught in the quarantine of a nursing home, for months isolated from my sister and me, until her body was so ravaged by her non-COVID illness that she could no longer speak. She was blind, so we couldn’t visit by waving through her window or by Zoom. She was deaf and even with hearing aids had trouble understanding us on the phone. When family was finally able to visit the patients — outside, fully masked and 6 feet away, for no more than 30 minutes once a week — she was visibly nearing the end of her life. Her body had wasted down to 79 pounds; she was so weak she could no longer hold the phone, or a cup, or feed herself; and she could barely speak enough to be understood. But because her “vital signs” (blood pressure, heart rate, and lungs) always showed “normal” the staff insisted she was not at the end of life, so we were not allowed into her room to be close to her.
Week by week she grew more and more frail, but her heart remained strong, and their judgment continued to be that she wasn’t ill enough to let us close to her because “she isn’t at the end of life.” Finally one nurse, recognizing that not everyone dies in the same way with the same indicators of failure and that this really was the end of life for our mother, pushed the point with the staff and got us admitted to her room. The next day she was able to take communion from the hospice chaplain. She lasted two more days. We were able to touch her, whisper into her ear, sit by her bed and pray with her. But by that time she no longer had control of her muscles, including her tongue, and could only send a puff of air. It was painful beyond telling to see how much she wanted to speak to us, but couldn’t.
We were more fortunate than many others who haven’t been able to be with their dying loved ones at all, and I’m grateful for the precious little time we had with her. But there was so much more that I longed to share with her and it was just too late. She’d been in quarantine and away from us since COVID restrictions hit all the nursing homes in March and this was the beginning of September. After 6 months, it was too little, too late.
I hate this hateful virus. I hate the overly rigid rules of care facilities that treat family like the enemy of the dying person’s well-being. (I’m grateful for the tender, diligent care of the nurses and aides who loved and cared for Mother, and for their kindness to us, but I do hate the rules that constrain them.)
I hate how hard dying is when it’s long, slow, and painfully strips everything from you.
How hard Mother clung to her life! That fierce will to live that gave us the blessing of 96 years with her became her torment at the end. She did not go gently, my brave, fierce, gentle, wonderful mother.