Sit With the Dead

Owen sleeping with mum.

“I don’t think she’s breathing!”


It had been the dining room before they had installed the hospice bed, had scurried in with the paraphernalia of a sick room, had hoisted a dying woman carefully but without ceremony onto the sheets and covered her in blankets. Little non-decisions taken by the family over a couple of days divided the awkward rectangular room, now a bedroom for dying on one end and on the other a den-like space for waiting. By the time I got there, the room held a couch, a piano bench, a dining chair. It held a bedside tray, a basket of ointments and drugs, an old woman stertorously breathing. Her mouth hung open and each breath exited with a wheeze, entered with a rattle, fought to keep the air coming in even as the rest of her body from glands to kidneys gave up the fight. My mother-in-law Nonnie, cocooned into a bed of leaving. Her daughter, my wife, curled into the couch opposite her younger sister and the eldest sister perched by the bed, holding her mother’s hand under the blankets, turned towards us and smiling. A black window hung above where a winter night gathered in.

I slumped on the bench, gazed up at my brother-in-law. He hovered there, nattered on about a ludicrously small motorcycle he had bought the day before. He showed me the owner’s manual on his smart phone. I struggled, feeling I would soon fall asleep, like I already slept. None of us had been getting any real rest.

We all laughed, quick in word, swapping warm glances. Some harmless story about growing up in that very house. Then my brother-in-law’s re-enactment of the motorcycle owner, immensely fat, riding the bike around the parking lot to make sure he delivered a working machine. A bike nearly invisible. A dying woman nearly invisible. The youngest daughter leapt up from the sofa. “I don’t think she’s breathing!”


Six days before, I had called my wife to tell her I thought it time for me to come out. Instead, before I got through my little speech, she asked me. She told me her mother would come home from the hospital that afternoon. She told me the three girls had stood around their mother’s bed, three days after hope had begun again when Nonnie came off the ventilator and didn’t die. Three days while the body’s chemistry ricocheted and the drugs fought each other. Three days while small ways of the body quit but no one knew yet. Those three days and then they told Non that nothing was left to be done. She lay so weak and half in a dream. Did she understand? Late in the night, Non’s eyes flared open, stared into the dimness. My wife took her hand. Hoarse because of the intubation, Non rasped, “I’m ready. Home.”

I hung up the phone. I finished the plumbing fix I had started – selfish thought, please don’t let the house flood while I’m gone – dumped the dog on a friend, drove the three hours to Albuquerque, caught the early flight next morning. All the way, I thought, Will I be squeamish? How bad will she look and will I be repulsed? How am I supposed to behave?

Dying remained problematic for me – I am agnostic by nature and anti-religious out of laziness. I had never been this close to the edge, never seen the organic container of someone I loved and respected shut down, and the consciousness disappear. I half-feared my sudden conversion to Christianity or a prattling to a god I didn’t know or believe in – after all, I would be surrounded by Christians. The commonest forms would be the easiest. When my grandfather died, my mother, ever pragmatic, had waited until I returned from a trip to tell me I had missed the funeral. “Work comes first.” When my grandmother died, I arrived in time to join the cortege to the funeral home. When my uncle died, I missed the cancer. I didn’t believe the waxen creature in the casket had ever been my favorite relative.

Would I be able to talk to death, be cheerful, help when needed?


Nonnie still grasped the world in that dining room the day of my arrival. Near to mute, she could only squeeze out small single-syllable words. Hot. Cold. No. Yes. Hurt. Love. She squeezed my hand. Tear-stung by sentiment, I thought a simple pressure from her hand said it all, said all those things I had filled the room with.

We propped her up, played Sinatra for her, medicated her with morphine and a drug to counteract the panic morphine gave her. We joined three at a time to roll her, settled her on the other hip, caused her such pain that her eyes snapped open with wild staring. The little moans and whines made me flinch and my throat choked shut with childish guilt. We dabbed her sores with ointment. The sheets blotched sticky pink in little patches. All of us feared we might rip open her dry, feather-thin skin. And the worst? To sit alone with her at night, my exhausted wife asleep by me. Not knowing what Non’s sudden restlessness could mean, listening to her breathing as it became without rhythm, catching, halting. The swelling in her limbs accounted for nothing; alarm only swept me when she choked on her own phlegm, too weak to clear her throat. Eyes open, such suffering.

We touched her constantly. I could do that. She would know we were there, maybe. The hearing is the last to go, so we murmured to her. I could do that. We held normal conversations among ourselves, swamped the room with our own distant realities in other towns, suppressed emotion. We felt it impossible to be focused on Non every minute, yet we frittered the only time left. I hated how common we were. Texting, reading, playing games on iPads. Working long distance on lives held far away.


Anger among the children. One daughter, so matter of fact, felt the pull of home and life. Hurry banged around in her head, leaked out in dire prediction. Each sigh, or drug panic, or slow-down in urine output meant the end would come that night. Or the next night, or within hours. Others quiet, not judging. I didn’t think Non rushed towards the edge – I was angry.

I was wrong. At the end Non surprised all five of us who waited there, caught us out, left us bereft. “I don’t think she’s breathing!”

One daughter on the phone for hospice, to bring the nurse on call for the weekend. Another, unable to talk, texted her children to let them know the end had come. A third crumpled up in a living room chair and stared at the blue carpet as if it could suddenly exude a pattern, an explanation, a clue as to what to feel next. The brother-in-law on his mobile; he consoled his grown son who cried. Cried hard enough for his voice to be heard in the room past his father’s fat, cushioned ear. But his grandmother could not hear.

I told the eldest daughter – It’s all right, I’ll sit with her. Like blood and race, I fell back into the modes before Christianity, Scots and Irish ways. I sat alone with the body of Non, attended, honored the last breath. Medieval, like the dark of a croft, and I gave nothing modern at all.


This then is what I can do for you. I will sit here in this room that falls still while the rest of the house wakes up again. While adults handle the moment by pushing it away with action, action required, but not for us, for us two. It’s a sense of wonder I find; this is how death looks, at least this time.

Your hair, wisping back from your forehead, thinly tangled against the still warm pillow, slightly moving as the furnace pushes air into the room. The flesh of your face drawn tight across the forehead and the temples, across your sharp nose. I see through to your bones. Your poor mouth hung open, gaping, but no longer wobbling from the struggle to breath. Your skin, an off-white color like bleached leather, smooth as a child’s, drained of all the pink. You are the color of ivory, unsullied with a need to live, you are like a pale marble carving on top of a renaissance tomb. You are the carving of what death is, before we push it back into mere pretty, into acceptable mockery of living.

This is what I can do for you, by your bed, holding your hand. I’ll stroke your head. I’ll say, It’s all right now, Non, it’s all right. Fly away, fly away, slide from your dream into flying away. We’re here, we’re still here. I will witness your going, I will mark this moment just before your body becomes the corpse, I will hold your hand for the while.

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