They lie to you in movies and on television about what it is like to sit by the deathbed of a loved one. Movies are too short to capture the mixture of exhaustion, boredom, panic, worry and grief that closes in around the people at the bedside. Television is too episodic to capture the grinding constancy of routinized sorrow.
A year ago I thought I understood just how wrong are the images of dying we learn in popular culture. I was wrong.
The day after I learned my mother was dying I woke up early. The last I had seen of my mother the night before she had fallen into an fitful uneasy sleep. Since I knew the time of the nursing shift change I wanted to talk to my mother's nurse before she went off duty. A pattern had already been established. I introduced myself to the nurses as they came on shift and if I was not there when they went off shift I called them.
The speed with which the patterns of hospital time became the patterns of my time was something I had not expected. By the end of the first few days I knew when they gave medications and when they changed the sheets. I knew when they took each patient's temperature and blood pressure and I knew when they gave my mother a bed bath and shampooed her hair. But I didn't know when they fed their patients because my mother would never eat again.
We don't know exactly how long my mother had been suffering from severe pain after attempting to eat. It wasn't until the night my father found her vomiting blood that he realized how she was ill and insisted that she let him take her to the hospital. Although on the day of her "death sentence" she had been in great pain she was still able to think clearly and discuss her medical situation with her surgeon. Soon the mixture of pain killers and pain left her unable to remember exactly why she was so terribly hungry.
I quickly learned that tending to a dying person means having to take great care lest you accidentally rip their skin. I learned that tending a dying person means holding their head as they gasp and cough and fight to breathe because they have have accidentally obstructed the ng suction tube. I learned that sitting at the bedside of a dying person meant monitoring their urine bag and their ng collector bag and always knowing the location of every nurse on the floor. I quickly learned that giving comfort and preventing pain was all I could do.
By the end of the second day of my season of sadness I felt that I had learned much. By the end of that second day I thought I knew exactly how wrong the movies and television were about death bed vigils. I was wrong. There was much more I had yet to learn about exhaustion, worry, pain and grief.