No, Mom isn’t dying. Not yet, and not for a long time, from what I can see. She’s gradually inching her way into what most people picture when they hear the word dementia: confusion, short-term memory loss, a shuffling gait, a more tenuous hold on what the rest of us call “reality.” But she’s not dying.
Her niece, my cousin, is dying.
Tell me: why would a 71-year-old woman – a loving, courageous, creative part of our caregiving team — be dying of cancer, while her 92-year-old aunt lives on with dementia?
Actually . . . don’t tell me. Forget I asked. I’ve come to accept that there is no grand reason for any of this. It’s just life.
The closer death gets, the more I feel its presence, the more I see how precious each day is with the people I love. I know that’s a cliché. I can’t help it. I’m not trying to be maudlin or sentimental. I’m just realizing that my time is short, and that everything I had hoped to accomplish in one lifetime may not get done. I have to choose what matters each day, do the best I can to complete it, and forgive myself when I fail.
I’m not going to cure cancer. If I could, I wouldn’t be sitting in this hospice room listening to my cousin’s labored breathing as she naps. I’m not going to revolutionize dementia care, but other people are working on that, and I do envision a better future for all of us who face cognitive decline. I’m not going to solve all the world’s problems. All I can do is my small part.
While I live, I can treat other people – and even myself (radical thought!) – with kindness. I can practice gratitude. I can pay attention to the present moment. I can admit my faults and try to overcome them, knowing that I’ll always be flawed.
I can take an honest look at my loved ones and see them for the remarkable human beings they are, every single one of them. I am beyond fortunate to share life and death, even cancer and dementia, with these people. I can choose to remind myself of that good fortune, every day.
As I was writing, a couple of paragraphs ago, my cousin woke up. I told her I was meditating on how fortunate I am. With an IV port in her hand and an oxygen tube in her nostrils, she gently laughed and said, “Atta girl!”
See the good, my friends. Life is too short — and too long — to do otherwise.