Two Great Transitions

I wrote to my daughter about the impending death of my friend recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Because she gave birth to her second son just a month ago, she texted back, “Yes, the two great transitions: birth and death.”

I was not physically with my daughter during her labor, but I was psychically tuned in the whole 24 hours. The news of her safe delivery of a healthy child brought such joyful relief to me. Holding Sebastian a few days later was a marvel. How is it that a new human being emerges from within such a tiny earth-bodysuit? His endearing oceanic features swirling around the tireless effort of nursing and digestion melted the supposed boundaries between us. Holding a newborn has that effect- the sweetness of no apparent ego softens the heart with the utter vulnerability infants offer to their caretakers.

Four weeks later I had the great honor and privilege to sit with my friend as he breathed his last. He had been having digestive difficulties since September, but until he violently vomited all Christmas night, his doctors had no answers for him. After that horrible experience, he underwent more elaborate tests and a tumor in his small intestines was finally discovered. Given that the cancer stemmed from his pancreas, it was a terminal prognosis. After giving him a stent through the tumor to allow him to maintain a liquid diet, he was told he had had 5-6 months to live. He came home and seemed to tolerate this arrangement for a couple of days. Then he was stricken with bouts of intense stomach pain/nausea.

It was a matter of hours before his condition further worsened and within a day, he was actively dying. He had moved from his home to a room covered by skilled nursing just down the hall from me so he could be rehydrated. After a day of agony when no medication could ease his distress, his hospice team put him on morphine to curb his pain and to naturally speed up the death process. Yesterday, his wife asked me to sit with him so she could take some time to eat.

After sitting with my husband during his death, I took one look at my friend and knew he was very close to the end. No longer conscious, eyes unfocused and gasping for breath, I sang to him because it was what we shared most together- singing folksongs and listening to him play his guitar. From my own Hospice volunteer training years ago, I remembered that hearing is the last sense organ to go. I sang songs he knew and towards the end, found myself singing melodies and words that emerged just for him. His moments of apnea increased and when I told that to the nurse outside the door, she administered some more drops of morphine. His body relaxed deeper into the bed, the space between breaths lengthened as he lifted his shoulders once or twice to expand his expiring lungs. After a few more quiet gasps, he was gone.

My friend was an adamant atheist. I quieted any of my own beliefs as I watched him leave. But that Great Transition of leaving the earth-bodysuit behind, is a powerful magnet. When that which animates the body departs, it feels like a pull towards Other. Whatever you know or think you know about what happens next is filtered through our human mind. For me, it feels like a withdrawal to somewhere that is not frightening, but more peacefully spacious and to me, like Home. I am glad he is wherever he is or isn’t and no longer suffering. The Hospice team was sweetly efficient and respectful.

His wife returned quickly when she was summoned. I was reminded that many people die when their beloveds are not present. It seems easier for the dying ones to let go. She and I are friends on our own behalf, and there were tears and hugging and gratitude that in the end, though there were no long months to say good-bye or enjoy final experiences, neither was there prolonged suffering. I think many of us would prefer to leave that quickly and not count down the days we may or may not have left. Some people beat the prognosis and live quite well, months or even years beyond their supposed expiration date. But many more do not.

I can say that I had already determined to finally get my will transferred from New York to Ohio in the new year. I had arrived here in a widow shock fog over three years ago. It was past time to do this. After asking advice from my brother-in-law, I found a highly recommended lawyer that many Kendal folks use. I woke up this morning with renewed vigor to do to do what I can in taking care of all practical matters before my own Transition. The office of my new Ohio lawyer called me to say they had received the copy of my old will that a friend had dropped off for me in town. I am going to add my two grandsons into this new document, as they were not yet even a twinkle in their parents’ eyes when this former will had been written twelve years ago.

The two Great Transitions of birth and death remain a mystery and are full of potential sorrows and joys. I am grateful for my life and today, even grateful for the unknown chapter of transition that awaits me. I think I’d like to have someone sing songs or play music for me when I am leaving as well…

Here is one of my friend’s favorite songs. I sang it in his honor last night in our Song Swap music exchange we have every couple of weeks. The hour of singing we shared was a moving tribute our pivotal folk-singing friend.

3 thoughts on “Two Great Transitions

  1. Oh Judi, this brought so many emotions to the surface for me. I am so glad that you were able to be with your friend in his last moments, and able to send him on his way with song. Like you, I have experienced both transitions in the last year…and it is a miracle isn’t it that each can be so profoundly moving. Each day of health is a gift, each reminder of the ongoing flow of humanity through the cycle of life a reminder to savor that gift.


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