Yesterday I conducted two interviews. One was with a daughter about her recently deceased father. The other was with a mother about her recently deceased daughter. The first person died well into his eighties. The second person died in her fifties. I want to describe what it’s like to place these calls.
It is painful as hell. But let’s face it: pain is quantifiable and relative. I can only describe to you my own little pain. And I can imagine the pain of others–I am often imagining the pain of others.
I have never called a parent before. I generally don’t even call a spouse, knowing how intrusive that would undoubtedly be and not wanting to twist the knife deeper. With adult children, there is often a kind of healing aspect to my poking and prodding.
They get to praise their parent’s accomplishments, to rummage around in photo albums and select the best shots, and they get to sit down with siblings and have the kind of talk they might never have had. Or so I project. No, it’s more than just my projection; people often tell this to me and I sense it in the tone of their voices, emails, phone messages.
But a parent. A parent is another matter.
This woman, Ruth, lost her daughter, Jane, about a week ago. Ruth told me a story, thinking perhaps it’s of the ilk I might be able to re-tell in the obituary I’m writing. It isn’t though, it won’t make it onto the page. But the story means a great deal to Ruth and so I’m going to tell it now. (Her voice, I recollect, rose and fell during our conversation. “I always think Jane’s still over there, just a quick drive to Hamilton and I’ll see her again.”)
She told me about Jane’s last hour or so alive, lying in a hospice bed, surrounded by her family and her best friends and maybe even her dog–don’t know whether her golden lab was there with her too, but probably.
Ruth loved this story because it reflected back to her Jane’s fierce but generally effective stubbornness, something the family has always had to deal with; something that allowed her to become the hugely successful medical doctor, founder and president of the International Paediatric Brain Injury Society (IPBIS).
Ruth said Jane wouldn’t rest but instead she kept lifting herself off the bed, wanting to go, to head back to her life. Everyone told her lie down, lie down, you can rest now Jane. Finally Ruth held her daughter by her shoulders, looked directly into her eyes and said:
“Jane! This is your mother speaking and I’m telling you to lie down right now!”
“Mother! This is your daughter speaking and I’m telling you: NO!”
That last word, the one I leave you with (other than these few) is Jane’s.