Thursday, May 17, 2012

Memento Mori, a look at death and my obsessions

I am currently sitting at the deathbed of my grandmother down in Southern California. Death is such a peculiar thing. Despite the fact that I work with death on a daily basis as a taxidermist, it's tough to deal with when it's happening to someone of my own species, and a close relative at that. My grandmother is in hospice care here in the home of my parents, which is nice for all of us because she's comfortable and we're comfortable and there are no beeping machines or sterile white walls. She's been unresponsive for days now but still holding on for some reason unbeknownst to the rest of us.
When I got the call that this was the end for her, I panicked for days before making the 14 hour journey south to be with her and family. I'm really good with death, I used to obsess over it, even romanticize about it in my gothy high school days, but no one had died in my life at that point. Death I can handle, it's the dying part that's hard. Watching a creature of any species struggle for breath reminds us of our own suffering, of the moment we will be in the same position, possibly alone and probably in pain.
I've been sitting by her side for two days now, watching her face change into someone I don't know. She's been unresponsive since I got here, but hearing is the last to go so we talk to her still and reminisce about old memories. Sometimes her hand twitches or her jaw moves and I like to think it's her responding as much as she can with a body that's non-functional and shutting down.
Every day she looks more sallow and corpse-like. She breathes shallowly with her mouth gaping open. She now breathes with the telltale "death rattle" marking that the end is very close. While some of my family have a hard time being in the room to hear the noise, I have become more comfortable with the idea of her death and find it incredibly fascinating. I am done crying for her and realize now that she is on the verge of an epic adventure none of us can possibly imagine. I am not a religious person, I don't know what is waiting for her, but I believe there is something beyond this life.
The nurse that comes to help at midnight comes from a small village in India, and it has been interesting hearing her experiences with helping the dying move on. She says the dying get restless at night. One night she felt a presence in the room when watching over my grandmother and my grandmother lifted her arm into the air and said "I'm deciding," then went comatose again. The house feels very spiritual and peaceful right now, even the family pets sense the transition and are silent, keeping vigil for her.
This experience has been a positive one, and when she takes her last breath we're going to open the door for her and let her spirit out. This may be superstition, but I like the idea of it.

Please stay tuned for more series of writings about my rekindled interest in death, including Victorian mourning culture and funerary practices.