Your mom is going to die. Your dad is also going to die.
Here's the scenario: You'll be going about your day, brushing your teeth, maybe, or taking the kids to soccer practice, and you'll get a terrible phone call. Or you'll witness a long, slow decline over years of medical appointments and hospital coffee. Either way, you will be shocked.
I was, anyway. My mom was 61 when she died. She had been sick all my life—32 years at that point—with severe rheumatoid arthritis. She'd also survived breast cancer and endured type 2 diabetes and scores of surgeries. Her death should not have surprised me. But it did, and when I looked around for guidance in the moment, I found nothing that felt authentic. I wasn't thinking clearly enough at the time to make a comprehensive search, but the pamphlets I read and conversations I had were often full of the standard euphemisms many people lean on at such a time.
You won't find any euphemisms here. I'm going to take you on a tour of one of the shittiest experiences you will have, from the nursing home to the hospital to the funeral home. It's a series of places that are no place at all, like airports or bus stations. Lots of people pass through, but no one stays too long. We're going to notice the absurd and darkly humorous exhibits in particular. We'll glance at the emotionally crushing, yawning abyss of mortality, but we won't spend much time there. It's too early in the day to start drinking.
For the sake of this tour, let's assume a few things: You are not estranged from your parents, and their deaths would cause you grief instead of joy; you are old enough that society considers you an adult, but not so old that the death of a parent has become commonplace in your circle of friends; you are a regular person who has to muddle through horrible circumstances like the rest of us, meaning you are not so rich that you can order your personal assistant to send flowers to your dying mother at her convalescent spa while you fly to Gstaad.
I'm also not going to tell you what a power of attorney is, or how to create a living will. You'll need to look elsewhere for advice about paying for nursing homes and long-term care, or whether your parents' debts will become your own. Those are important things to learn about, but there's a formula to them. Once you figure out what to do, you just do it. You will save yourself a lot of heartache and arguments with your brothers and sisters if you have an honest conversation with your parents about how they want to be treated as they're dying. Do it today.
Instead, in this space, I'm going to tell you about the mess of emotions and the limitless no-good choices you'll encounter when it's your turn to watch the people who have loved you for your entire life cease to exist.
This is like a college dorm, but worse. Your father will definitely have a roommate who will piss him off constantly, simply because the roomie's existence will remind your dad of his own decrepitude. Then that guy will die, and someone else will move in. Your father will hate him even more.
The room will be spartan. Anything to spruce up the place will be your own responsibility. Television, photos, books, tchotchkes. Know that some of those things are going to disappear. That's just the way it is. Maybe someone will steal a pair of your dad's shoes. Maybe his lucky coffee mug will get knocked off the dresser and break into a million pieces that get swept into the trash. Here's what you don't do when that happens: You don't get all Jack McCoy going after a hostile witness on the stand. All earthly things shall pass away, and that includes your dad's Jitterbug phone. You were a dummy for bringing it in the first place.
Embrace the chaos. We made sure to label all of my mom's clothes in big letters, but when the laundry came back clean, she always ended up with one pair of pants from Gladys Hornbacher, or whomever. It didn't matter. Neither Mom nor Gladys was going to dance out of that place, in her own pants or anyone else's. You need to be thankful that your mom's clothes are clean. That she is fed. That there's a staff of nurses who monitor her health and give her the correct medication. That's the big picture here.
The people who work in nursing homes deal with an impossibly complex mix of patients. There are people who are rehabbing from surgery and hoping to go home. There are people who are just running out the clock. Some of them are simply old, and they just need extra care. Many of them are profoundly unreachable. They are mute or prone to outbursts or given to wandering the halls, pushing their wheelchair along with one foot while staring at the floor. Everyone requires a different combination of medicine. Ambulances are always delivering or removing residents. It must be a nightmare to keep all of that straight.
Much of the time, the staff at these places do a decent job without a huge amount of funding, but nursing-home neglect is a real thing. Do some thorough research to find a place with a good rating. Call in a family favor if you know someone who works there. And most importantly: Visit. I know. It sucks. If you are young and vital, a nursing home is a terrible place to be. You work long hours, and the kids are great one minute and raging in a tantrum the next, and you barely have anything left in the tank at the end of the day. Visit anyway. If it's possible, get your dad out of there for an early-bird dinner at Cracker Barrel or something. Bring your kids to the nursing home—but look out for them. A cute kid in the common room is like a baby wildebeest playing among a pride of lions. That shit can turn into a swarm before you know it.
My parents had been divorced for decades when my mother was dying, but if yours are still together, you're going to live in a double world throughout this journey. If it's your mom who's dying, you'll feel anxiety and grief over that, but you'll have to act as a kind of parent and friend to your healthy father. Relationships between adult children and their parents can simmer at infuriating for years, so it's easy let things boil over at this stage. Do what you can to avoid that. Get together with your siblings and come up with a plan to bring Dad to see Mom as often as possible. Outside of those visits, make sure he keeps up his established routine. The last thing you want is for your dad to cut himself off from neighbors and friends because he can't imagine living without your mom.
You've been here before, but this is the last visit. This time, after your mom gets into a room, someone will bring you a form requesting the name of your preferred funeral home. (I don't know the mechanism by which this form is deemed necessary. Perhaps a doctor places a big frowny-face sticker on your mom's chart. Perhaps the nurses, in all of their terrible and banal experience, see immediately how this visit will end.) Your mind will race: "What was the name of that place we went to when Great Aunt Mildred died?" Get out your phone and Google around until something rings a bell. If you had taken my advice at the start of this, you'd know the name of the funeral home, you slacker.
The hospital room will likely be a bit nicer than the one in the nursing home. It'll be a private room, first of all. Everything will seem new and clean, but everything will also be as ugly as is possible, from the water pitcher to the reclining chair where you'll be sleeping. The piece-of-crap overbed table will never adjust properly. (Protip: Take the ugly water pitcher off the table before adjusting, otherwise it will spill everywhere.) The devices attached to the IV pole will beep incessantly about nothing life-threatening. The television will only get basic cable, which is just the worst.
If your mom lives long enough, you'll notice how the nurses' shifts repeat. Many of them work something crazy, like three 12-hour days. A new nurse arrives with oddly stacked regularity, if that makes any sense. The doctors, though, are unpredictable. No matter how early in the day you arrive at the hospital, you will find out that your mom's surgeon already did rounds. The infectious-diseases specialist might be by later in the day, but none of the nurses knows when. It'll be exactly the time you run down to the cafeteria, no matter what time that is. You will never see all of the specialists together.
If you're lucky, though, your mom's primary care group will be full of good people who do rounds when normal people are awake, and they'll be able to synthesize all the various opinions from specialists. See if a primary-care doctor will give you her cell number, and if you get it, use it wisely. Don't piss her off with silly questions, and take her advice seriously. A doctor looks at this kind of patient with something like cyborg vision. She sees a person, but she also sees a bag of organs, each with its own probability of failure. She might suggest a procedure to get more information about those probabilities, but she might also admit that the procedure won't do anything to keep your mother alive. In that case, don't do it. Really, just don't.
Twenty-first century Americans do a terrible job of dying because we have such good medical care. My mom was born in 1949. It was a world without pacemakers or artificial hearts or organ transplants. We didn't even know what DNA looked like in 1949. Now, it's nothing to send a patient down the hall for an MRI scan. It's true that the healthcare system is costly and rife with inequality and heartless decisions. Despite that, there are often tons of machines and tests available to us. That situation makes it very easy to miss the forest for the trees, ordering an EKG even as the patient struggles to breathe. In your mind and in the doctor's mind and even in your mom's mind, there's this thought: Maybe there's something else we can do. There is not. Death is coming. Bring in hospice. Allow your mom to die.
This isn't the time for you to seek absolution for being a terrible teenager. Forget about her tendency to criticize you. Move past her problems with your partner. Do what you can to make your mom comfortable, to ease her anxiety. Speak honestly and with love. Pretty soon, you will hear her last words. It would be good if those words were something like, "I love you," and not something that will echo around inside your brain forever.
Do what you can to help your mother transcend the space. If she likes to be pampered, do her nails or fix her hair. Bring in some books or magazines or a deck of playing cards or an iPod with her favorite music on it. We kept choral music going around the clock in my mom's room, even after she slipped into unconsciousness. She could no longer communicate, but who knows what she could hear? That music was still playing in the middle of the night when a nurse woke me to say, "She's changing." At first, I was so disoriented, I thought, "Changing into what?" Then I understood.
There's no mistaking the moment when someone dies. It's not like the movies. The essential vitality of a breathing person—even one struggling to breathe in a hospital bed—is entirely different from the flatness of a person who has ceased to breathe. The light leaves her face. Her chest remains still. Her hands lose their warmth. Her hair becomes dull. She is gone.
The nurses will leave you alone to sob and apologize again and again. It's not that you did anything wrong; it will be the only thing that feels right to say. Take as much time as you need. Before you leave the room, look around. It will be uglier by a factor of infinity, but force yourself to locate and gather up all of your stuff—and all of your mom's stuff, too. The last thing you want to have to do is call the hospital and ask if they would mind looking for her watch in the nightstand drawer. You'll never want to go inside that hospital again. You'll never even want to see it from the street.
It'll be quiet when you get there. It's poor form to schedule a freshly grieving family during a memorial service. The hearses will be behind the building. If the cemetery is on site, the excavation equipment will be in a giant garage someplace. Walk through the front door and you'll find leather wingback chairs, Edwardian loveseats, and sofas covered in high-quality upholstery. Expensive lamps and clocks. Richly finished bookcases. You'll wonder, "Did all of these things come from an estate sale? Oh, God, is that the end table from Great Aunt Mildred's house?" Take a closer look, though and you'll see that the bookcases are filled with cardboard fronts, just like at Office Depot.
A funeral director will meet you. She'll be dressed in death-business formal attire and speak calmly and compassionately. In fact, the manner of everyone you encounter here will be both reassuring and quietly insistent. They will give you space to express your grief, but will also expect that you refrain from breaking down into a sobbing mess. There is a funeral to plan, and frankly, the body of your mother is taking up a space in the cooler—space that will surely be filled by someone else's body once Mom is in a casket or an urn. Even in death, one must stay on schedule.
Funerals are expensive, and you're about to make decisions that will affect how much you pay. That payment will be required right away and in full. No financing plans here. As you sit there with your closest family members and a stranger, you will be asked to notice the satin lining of particular caskets and consider how nice it would feel against the skin. You will be asked to consider the exterior finish. Would a richly stained wood or a waterproof steel coffin better suit your mother?
Don't think cremation will save you from having an insane conversation. You'll have to choose an urn. Would Mom prefer to reside within a hand-crafted wooden cube? Perhaps she'd go for a more traditional urn-shaped urn. But what color? What design? It's likely that the funeral home will have a selection of urns included in the package price and then a group of more "deluxe" vessels. Go for the most modestly priced receptacle you can stand to look at. Right now you're thinking of the cremains as Mom. Eventually, you'll realize that what's in the urn has nothing to do with the contradictory mashup of love and frustration and reassurance and intimidation and joy and regret that constitute a parent in the soul of a child. What's in the urn is ashes. Oh, and be sure to tell the funeral home if you want to scatter those ashes; otherwise they'll seal the urn and you'll have to take a bandsaw to it.
If your mom is going into a casket, that means you'll get to visit the cemetery. Probably you haven't really noticed one since you were a little kid and held your breath in the car while riding past, or since you were a teenager and found it a good place to get high or get laid. Now you'll notice that the cemetery is situated in suburban sprawl next to a Wendy's or a shopping center with a Dollar General. Maybe it's an old cemetery, and the neighborhood around it is chockablock with tiny, dilapidated houses. No matter the location, you're going to have to practice selective reverence. Save those feelings of grief until you pass through the gates and don't look to the skyline once you're in there. Otherwise, you'll start giggling at the madness of it all.
If you or your parents have a place of worship, hold the memorial service there. As nice as the furniture is in the funeral home, remember that it's one of those no-place-at-all places. If there is a place where your parents go to search for something sacred or spiritual, go there for this occasion, too. And find a way to inject a little life into the service. Arrange for your cousin's toddler to run squealing up and down the aisles. Do something to break the dirge of society's formula for grief.
And, hey, if you're planning an open-casket funeral, do one thing for humanity, please: Keep small children away from the casket. I don't care how careful and artistic the craftsman may be—an embalmed body does not look like a person. If you can be honest with yourself, you will not say out loud, "They did such a good job on Dad." You will think privately, "He doesn't look good. He looks fucking dead." This is the capital-T Truth. Your father is dead, and no amount of makeup or crazy glue will send blood pumping through his body again. A corpse is not a person. Do not teach this cognitive dissonance to your kids.
Something is going to happen to you. It won't be great.
You'll see Facebook posts about Mother's Day and throw your laptop at the wall. You'll see the "Dads and Grads" banner over the card aisle at Target and try not to throw up. The water heater will break, and you'll hold the phone in your hand before you remember there's no one to call for advice except a plumber.
You'll have insomnia. You'll drink too much. You'll snap at your kids. You might become clinically depressed. If your partner hasn't been where you are, find a friend who has. Search out a decent counselor. Talk to that person and cry. Do that again and again and get better after many months. Get worse again on the first anniversary, and maybe the second one, too.
Some time later—years, probably—something else will happen. It will be great, and it will go something like this.
Your daughter will begin to talk in a voice meant to project from the stage at Carnegie Hall, and you'll remember with fondness how your mother's too-loud voice carried through a restaurant or a shopping mall. And when a McDonald's commercial promises to make you call your dead mother instead of just swiping your credit card at the cash register, adding a topping of longing and regret to your order of self-loathing, you can let that little twinge hit your chest. But then you can turn away from the television to the photograph of your mom on the wall, hanging above the couch, right above where your daughter is sitting, and see their matching smiles, and smile back.
Geoffrey Redick is a freelance writer and radio producer. He lives in Memphis. He's on Twitter.
Lead image by Sam Woolley.
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