Marge lay dying in her bed while her daughter waited for the end. Her face
had slowly shrunken in over the last few days, looking thinner and paler and
what could only be described as a shadow of her previously rosy round face, the
beautiful skin with wide, mirthful eyes and ready smile- gone. Now her eyes were mostly closed, except for an occasional fluttering with only a fixed gaze and her mouth remained open with the slow shallow breaths of a dying woman.
I recognized the hesitancy of her daughter to spend much time at the bedside of her mother, struggling with this bedside vigil alongside the specter of the dying.
Artists of all kinds over the years have depicted death. The grim reaper illustrates our most latent fears: deep darkness suffused with languishing and shriveled face draped in flowing robes reaching like tentacles ready to grab the unsuspecting. The word itself, death, immediately conjures the horrific.
How different I realize my picture of dying is! I have seen many faces relaxed in peaceful repose those last days of dying, without suffering spread across their brow…more of a “composed waiting”. But time almost stands still for a loved one, as the minutes turn into hours and the hours turn into days…
This is what it was for Marge and her daughter. Marge had been dying incrementally each hour of this last week, until her hand no longer responded to being held, and her body instead lay captive as the last of her breaths ebbed oh-so-slowly.
How does one “normalize” the face of the dying? I knew even as I explained to her daughter how the muscles relax, and a person no longer maintains their facial expressions at the end of life, that seeing this face on your loved one would never seem “normal”. The gaping mouth and closed dusky eyelids with uneven breaths and then no breaths, the occasional staring look: this is what dying looks like. It can cause layers of discomfort for someone who has not witnessed it. It is so
unlike how we shape our façade of saying “Hello, how are you?” with a carefully
practiced expression….instead: a face suddenly vulnerable as the conscious becomes the unconscious.
I think those of us observing death have fears of what we see in that naked face of our loved ones as they die, visualizing our own death and the letting go of life here…
“That furious desire to hide that abject nakedness which we bring here with us, carry with us into operating rooms, carry stubbornly and furiously with us into the earth again.”*
This dying woman’s face, because I had known her these past months, still reminded me of our many visits talking about her life before she became a shut-in, her dry sense of humor, her enjoyment of simple things in her day, but it was also apparent she was less here with us then in the other realm she now traveled. Her face showed me how little she cared now for what was left of this earth. Her daughter laid a kiss on that face before Marge breathed her last breath, her face now fully relaxed with just the glint of a smile across it.
*As I lay dying, by William Faulkner