‘Do you think that Mum will make it till Christmas?’ Maryanne asked her sister Thelma while helping herself with a glass of mulled wine.
‘I don’t know. Does it really matter? There is so little quality of life left anyway. It’ll just be another day, Christmas or otherwise’ Thelma sighed.
‘I wonder if she still cares about Christmas?’ Maryanne wasn’t interested in the answer. It was her way of inviting her sister into a deeper discussion.
‘I doubt it. I don’t even know if she wants to carry on really,’ Thelma responded while eyeing the variety of cheeses on the coffee table.
That was the answer that Maryanne had hoped for.
‘It really pains me to watch Mum. She looks so fed up with life. She must be tired of being bed bound for so long, not being able to do anything or even wanting to do anything. I think she’s probably even sick of waiting for death to claim her,’ Maryanne searched her sister’s face to see if she felt the same.
‘A friend once told me that it’s very hard to die. I didn’t understand what that meant until now. We can’t leave our body when we want to. There is no switch that we can flip ourselves,’ Thelma picked up a piece of cheddar.
‘I saw a documentary once about a tribe in the Amazon jungle where they have the recipe to a poison. This poison was to be taken before they get old. It is part of their culture to die when they want to. I’m not sure at what age do they consume the poison but the journalist reported that he did not see anyone that look over forty years old. So, they have that switch.’ Maryanne took a sip of her mulled wine.
‘Wow, that’s not very old at all.’
‘They live in an environment that’s pre-industrialisation though. If you go back a few thousand years in history, people die in their thirties or forties,’ Maryanne grabbed a handful of almonds.
‘Does that Amazon tribe not fear death?’ Thelma wiped her fingers on a napkin and consider whether to go for the water cracker or the lavosh cracker.
‘They didn’t discuss death but it seems like they fear old age more. They said that they didn’t want to get old. The concept of death is a cultural thing,’ Maryanne popped another almond in her mouth.
‘What do you mean cultural thing?’ Thelma decided on the lavosh. She took a lavosh cracker and spread a knife full of quince on it. Then she cut out a piece of brie to put on top.
‘In our culture, we are expected to live out the last days of our lives. “Live out” is probably the wrong words. They mean suffer. They say that because our religions decided that it would be offensive to God, or that we won’t get a good rebirth if we temper with it. They are such masochists. It’s as if dead wasn’t bad enough. It could get worse,’ Maryanne chuckled.
‘Oh yeah, being in hell is way worse than being dead.’ Thelma wiped her fingers on a napkin and picked up a glass of sparkling wine.
‘Come on. That’s a story for the living. All the after death stories are designed to deter people from doing bad things. It scares the children good and then the children carry that fear into their adulthood, only to be confused with the fear with death itself. It had nothing to do with death. It’s just a way to control behaviours,’ Maryanne took another gulf of her mulled wine to wash down the almonds.
‘It worked for me! Being sent to hell used to scare the shit out of me when I was little. It did put me off being bad at least for a little while. But not anymore.’ Thelma laughed and picked up a piece of parma ham.
‘I found the re-birth story more frightening myself. With re-birth, we could be re-born as an animal. And the worse type of animal to be re-born as is a farm animal. You only see drawings of hell but farm animals are real. There are documentaries made about them. They are facts.’ Maryanne cringed.
‘Oh, don’t go there. The farmers would be offended and here we are, eating ham.’ Thelma gave Maryanne a dirty look.
‘Sorry, I don’t mean that. It’s a common Buddhist childhood story. My point is that people just find something awful to scare people into behaving,’ Maryanne pointed her index finger up as if she was a teacher.
‘True. They weren’t particularly helpful with dealing with death itself.’ Thelma leaned back on the couch.
‘For that, we need to turn to the scientist.’ Maryanne lifted her glass to speak.
‘Scientifically speaking, death is rather boring. The cells die and the energy dies with it. It just ends being what it is. Spectacularly boring. The dying process is something else though. It’s often harrowing and we’re right to fear it,’ Maryanne shook her head and then picked up a handful of sea salt chips.
‘I think we fear both. The dying process as well as death itself.’
‘Well, I beg to differ. There are times when we don’t fear death. When we are suffering so badly that we would rather be dead,’ MaryAnne checked for Thelma’s reaction.
‘I still think that death is scary,’ Thelma sighed.
‘Even when suffering is so great that it’s bearable?’ Maryanne tried again.
‘Of course we would want the suffering to end. I mean death itself as a concept is scary.’
‘Death is scary because it is the unknown. The unknowable. Einstein said that you can’t solve the problem with the same level of thinking that created it. When we’re alive, we can’t think like the dead. That’s why it’s unknowable to us. So we tell ourselves stories that best soothe or serve us. Our imagination is a gold mine of a tool,’ Maryanne grabbed another handful of chips.
‘So have you chosen a story for yourself?’ Thelma leaned forward to pick out more cheese.
‘I think that for the most part, we want to avoid death. Every fibre of our existence wants to live. Then at the end of our our lives when we’re suffering, we change our minds and we want to accelerate it. We need a story that can support these opposing needs. One that says “don’t die”, and “it’s okay to die quickly” at the same time. Both can be true.’
‘Have you got one?’ Thelma settled on the gruyere.
‘This kind of duality problem exists in science a bit. For example, light is both a wave or a particle at the same time. In quantum mechanics, the same object can exist in different places at the same time. In Einstein’s special relativity theory, time moves differently for objects in motion to objects at rest. Our view on death shifts depending on how close we are to it. How can I explain it?’ Maryanne tapped her glass with her fingernails as she narrowed her eyes trying to explain.
‘I have no clue what you’re talking about. I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time once. When I say read, I meant I bought the book. I bought the book because it was on the best seller’s list and it was supposed to be an easy read. I was lost before I got to the end of the introduction. So, I couldn’t say that I read the book,’ Thelma chuckled and poured herself another glass of wine.
‘This is why the simple stories of hell and re-births work so well. They are simple myths. Truths are complicated. And these simple myths don’t prepare us with how to deal with death and dying.’
‘Well, people need stories. You need to come up with one if you want to convince others.’
‘Okay, if we think like an atom, we don’t die. We simply transform into something else. When we are not not living flesh and bone, the atoms within those materials are freed up to become new materials. There. How’s that?’ Maryanne smiled.
‘It’s a little bit better than death is boring but it’s a long way from a good story. You live, die and recycle. It doesn’t inform people on how to live.’
‘Why should it? That’s my whole point. To live and to die are two separate things. They should not be confused. Why are we using stories designed to tell us how to live, to decide on what we can do when we are dying? It could never work. It’s…’
Thelma held up a hand to silent Maryanne.
‘Is that Mum? I just head a noise. Let’s go in and check.’
Both sisters dropped everything to rush into their mother’s bedroom. They entered quietly and carefully. Lying on the bed was a small skeletal figure. It was too small to be the an adult woman. It was a fraction of the size that she was when she was healthy. The face was gaunt and the hair was so thin that the bulk of the scalp was visible. The face wore a frown and the mouth was slight opened. A strange sound was coming out from it.
‘Hey Mum, are you okay? Do you need anything ?’ Thelma went up to hold her mother’s hand. She placed her ear right next to the opened lip in case she could hear something.
She stared at the figure for a while and then looked at Maryanne. The sound was illegible, just a mix of groan and gargle. There was a smell of decay from either a tooth or from the inside. It’s hard to tell. Nothing could be done about them now anyway. The groaning went on for a little while longer, and then it stopped.
‘Maybe she was having a dream,’ Thelma suggested.
‘Maybe she was trying to say something but she couldn’t. Maybe she’s in pain. We don’t know, we can’t understand her and we don’t know what she’s going through except that she’s not in a good place.’ Maryanne turned her back and left the bedroom.
When Thelma joined her back in the living room, Maryanne looked dark and agitated.
‘Mum is suffering. It’s very obvious. She has begged us to let her die peacefully,’ Maryanne looked at her sister.
‘She’s at home on her bed. That’s peaceful, isn’t it?’ Thelma frowned.
‘She didn’t look very peaceful,’ Maryanne challenged.
‘She’s probably sleeping and unconscious.’ Thelma looked down.
‘Is it such a victory that we can let someone die naturally, organ by organ?’ Maryanne tried to re-engage her sister’s eyes.
‘Oh MaryAnne, don’t please. No, we can’t.’Thelma peered at Maryanne while still having her face down.
‘Let the toxins and bacteria do its dirty work. Not us, not by our hands. Let nature take its awful course,’ MaryAnne pressed on.
‘I don’t know. What do you want?’ Thelma faced Maryanne.
‘That could be our Christmas present to our mother. Let her go. Ease her suffering.’ Maryanne pleaded.
‘Are you sure that this is what she wants?’ Thelma started to feel flustered. Her face grew red.
‘What are your reservations?’ Maryanne’s eyes widened.
‘Apart from going to jail?’
‘Yes, apart from that.’
‘I just want to know that we are doing the right thing by her,’ Thelma started to shake.
‘She is eighty-five years old. She’s been bed-ridden for the last ten years. She begged to be euthanised when she was admitted into hospital last time. I think she’s had enough. Just look at her. Does she look like someone who wants to be here?’
‘No.’ Thelma sighed.
‘Is she going to improve?’
‘Is there anything that can stop her from dying?’
‘No.’ Thelma looked down.
‘We have a choice. We could hold her hand and be with her when she crosses that line. We could be there with her when she passes. Or we can let her cross it alone in the dark. It could be tonight, tomorrow night. We don’t know. We could be sound asleep next door, or be out running errands. She may die alone. We could come back and find her dead. Which is kinder?’ Maryanne pushed on.
‘Holding her hand of course.’ Thelma gripped her own hands.
‘Alright then, let’s do it.’ MaryAnne left the living room.
Thelma covered her own face with both her hands. She then walked over to the coffee table to gulp down the wine that was left in her glass. She paced the room and whispered ‘Oh my God. Oh my God.’ repeatedly to herself.
MaryAnne returned with a small object in her right hand.
‘Follow me,’ she instructed Thelma.
‘What are you going to do?’ Thelma started to tear up.
‘When we go inside, we say our goodbyes to Mum. This is our last gift to her. It is what she wanted us to do. She asked us to do it for her.’ Maryanne answered quietly and calmly.
Thelma went to her mother’s bedside and held her mother’s hand with both her hands. She kissed them and tears started to roll down her cheeks. She held her mother’s hand to her wet cheek.
‘Maryanne, what are you going to do to Mum?’ Thelma asked weakly.
‘Mum, I’m going to honour your wish. Thelma and I will be here with you. We will be holding her hands the whole time. You don’t have to suffer anymore.’
Maryanne then held up her hand with the small object that she took from her room, and showed it to Thelma.
‘It’s a magnet,’ Maryanne whispered.
Maryanne kissed her mother’s cheek.
‘I love you, Mum.’
She then placed her magnet over her mother’s shoulder where a pacemaker was implanted some years go. She held the magnet there until she heard a beep. She placed her finger on her mother’s pulse. She could feel the pulse rate fall. Her pulse was weak without the pacemaker.
The silence was deafening. MaryAnne’s own heart rate started to rise. She took a deep breath and reminded herself that this was for her mother. She had to be brave. She held her mother’s hand and keep her fingers on the pulse. It was faint but still there.
‘Why don’t we sing some Christmas carols? It’s Christmas Eve after all,’ Maryanne made the suggestion to break the tension.
Thelma through her sobs mumbled ‘Dashing through the snow, in a one horse open sleigh..’
Maryanne joined her and the two sung one Christmas carol after another. They were starting to forget what they were doing as they sang. Then a strange sound came from their mother’s mouth as if it was a big sigh. Maryanne knew that was it. Their mother has left. She felt for a pulse and failed to find one.
‘Thelma, she’s gone.’ Maryanne whispered.
Thelma collapsed onto her mother’s body and sobbed. She then hugged MaryAnne and the two of them cried on each other’s shoulders. They then sat and watched the body for a while to digest what had happened. Even though they were prepared to lose their mother after so many episodes of illness, no preparation could ease the deep void that they felt in their chests when she finally left.
Wiping her tears with the back of her hand, Maryanne placed the magnet over her mother’s shoulder again until a beep sounded. She checked her mother’s pulse again to make sure that there was none.
‘There, we did it. We can call the ambulance now.’
‘Will they find out?’ Thelma asked nervously.
‘They can if they check the pacemaker log, but they won’t. Only we care about this person. Merry Christmas Mum!’