Like most little kids, my grandson loves to play hide-and-go-seek. His version is slightly different than the one I’m most accustomed to playing. He likes to hide objects instead of people. So one of us will hide something while the other one closes their eyes and counts to 10. When we’re finished counting, we’re supposed to shout out, “Ready??” to make sure the object has been sufficiently hidden.
Sometimes when I’m the “hider” I scramble to find a good hiding place for whatever I’m tasked with concealing. “Wait!” I have to call out. “I’m not ready yet!” Connor usually sighs in exasperation, but graciously gives me another few seconds. “Are you ready YET??” he finally shouts.
“Okay,” I concede, even if I’m not. And he tears off looking for the model car or the stuffed animal or the book or whatever it is we’re hiding on this particular day.
The game of hide-and-go-seek with it’s “ready or not” concept is very appropriate to life, isn’t it? So many times we’re faced with the prospect of change and hesitate because we’re not ready.
I was talking with a friend the other day who has been providing intense care for her mother over the past five years. Her mom’s health continues to fail, and my friend, who is a nurse, certainly sees the writing on the wall. “As much as I hate to see her suffering like this, I’m just not ready to let her go,” she says. “Will I ever be?"
Losing someone we love is one of the biggest “not ready” events of our lives. Those of us who’ve cared for elderly parents often stare their death in the face for years before we’re finally confronted with the reality of it. For about six months before my mother died, it felt like a huge freight train was barreling down on me - I could hear it coming, could feel the ground beneath me tremble in anticipation, but ultimately I was powerless to keep if from flattening me on the track as it sped by.
Psychologists call this “anticipatory grief” - it’s the complicated cluster of emotions we feel when we know that someone we love will soon die. All the normal “stages” of grief are there - the denial, the anger, the fear. Mixed in are healthy doses of guilt and sorrow about the suffering our loved one has to endure. Added to this is the sense of powerlessness we feel, which is especially hard for those of us who see ourselves as fixers.
It all adds up to an overwhelming need to scream out - “Wait! I’m not ready!"
This time last year I was deeply immersed in anticipatory grief. I didn’t know what to call it then, but I can look back and see it now for what it was. In January of 2016 I was preparing for a huge music festival scheduled to occur in mid-February. I could see my mom declining every day, spending more and more time in bed, eating less, the phone ringing longer and longer before she answered, her voice ever weaker and more ragged when she finally picked up. But I kept telling myself that I would wait until the festival was over and then we’d figure out what to do, that by then maybe she’d feel better, the weather would be nicer, her appetite would return...
I was in denial and in a big way.
Then the weekend of the festival came and I took a deep dive into all that a music festival entails - long hours of rehearsing, late night social gatherings, performances. I set aside all those worried thoughts and I put on my best Scarlett O’Hara impression. As in, “Fiddlededee, I’ll think about that tomorrow."
Tomorrow turned out to be the Monday after the festival. My husband, who had spent a fair amount of time with my mom over the weekend while I was busy, said, “Your mom is really sick, I think you’re going to have to do something. I think she needs your help."
Ready or not, I had to make a decision. It seems simple, doesn’t it? When you’re sick, you go to the doctor. When you’re really sick, you go the ER. But my mom and I both knew and had known for a long time, that medicine wasn’t going to fix anything. She had reached the end of her life’s road. Once she left the bunker like atmosphere of her home where she shuffled back and forth between the living room couch, the bathroom, and her bed; once she was swept into the world of doctors and medical treatment, we knew the game was over. No more pretending.
And we weren’t ready.
At least I wasn’t. She had been telling me for weeks that she was. Telling me with her behavior - her resistance to eating, drinking, even to seeing me or talking to me on the phone. Telling me with actual words, in statements like “What’s the purpose of my life? I can’t do anything I love to do anymore,“ and "This has gone on too long, I’m ready for it to end."
In a lovely essay in The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz writes about her father’s recent death. “Eventually, we decided that my father would not recover, and so, instead of continuing to try and stave off death, we unbarred the door and began to wait. To my surprise, I found it comforting to be with him during that time, to sit by his side and hold his hand and watch his chest rise and fall with a familiar little riffle of snore. It was not, as they say, unbearably sad; on the contrary, it was bearably sad - a tranquil, contemplative, lapping kind of sorrow."
In all those months of anticipatory grief leading up to my mother’s death, I kept tamping down a rising panic, a deep seated fear that I wouldn’t be able to bear all that was coming. I was certain that I was woefully unprepared for the tasks ahead of me: for making sure she was cared for in a dignified manner, for keeping her as pain free as possible, for easing her out of this life into the next with as much grace as possible.
Mostly, I was terrified about living without her.
But when we (or rather, when I) finally accepted the inevitability of death, “unbarred the door and began to wait," I discovered the same thing Schulz discovered. It was bearably sad - but not UN-bearably so. Not surprisingly, my acceptance of her impending death eased a terrific burden for my mother. I could see her focus shift away from worrying about ME quite so much. She began to withdraw into herself, to gather a remarkable strength which she displayed in miraculous ways every single day in those two weeks before she died.
And I found a complimentary strength of my own. So that I could focus on her needs, on making sure she was as pain-free and comfortable as possible, on saying all the things that needed to be said. There truly was a tranquil, other-wordly sense to those days, a“contemplative, lapping kind of sorrow."
“Will I ever be ready?” my friend asked me.
Of course not, I answered. But you have to believe you are. And you have to make your mom believe it too. She won’t leave you until she knows for sure.
In my little musical world, we talk a lot about whether a piece is “ready” to perform. Have we practiced enough, do we have all the notes under our fingers, is the interpretation clear in our minds? In the world of writing, we also worry about readiness. Have we done the research? Edited out the typos? Checked and rechecked our spelling and grammar?
We expect perfection, so we hesitate to take the final plunge, to believe we’re ready. Sometimes, we have to go on faith and step out onto that stage, click “publish” on that blog post. Wrap our arms around someone we love and know it’s the last time.