Sweetheart, I dun need your permission.
-- Robin Romm, The Mercy Papers
One of the scripts that grievers write is Liberation. One of the hero roles in which they cast themselves is that of Liberator. We mean so well – kin and caregivers alike – and want to say something, do something, fix something. So when we cannot save the life, cannot salve the pain, cannot compensate for loss, we try to own it all. We take responsibility for what we did not bring about and cannot stop, and have no claim to own.
The grieving child was told that she must give her mom “permission.” She couldn’t cure her mom of cancer, and found that she was pretty useless at relief of suffering. “You need,” said the hospice nurse, “to tell her that she can die, that you’ll be OK.”
There are a number of usurpations here.
Death is given; we do not choose it as we choose the most convenient train to Westchester. A client who considers the alternatives may wish to die but lack the power. We cannot liberate in that sense; Kevorkian was in another state, and went to jail. Or she may wish to live but lack the option. Cure is not on the menu; that’s why she’s here with us. It’s not for us to bind or loose her obligations, as if she could decide to go, like walking through a door.
At the bedside, we’re all suspended. Though Hitchcock taught us that suspense is not in what surprises us but what we know must come and has not come, it’s not like in the movies, timed to the minute. Doctors do not know – science does not tell them – how long we have. It’s always a surprise to them. How troubling it must be to know so much and so little. “This suspense is terrible,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “I hope it will last.” It’s limbo here, life already lost, death yet to come.
We want to help our people live until they die, and sometimes we succeed. Or rather, they succeed and we are present with them. But the life they find is New Life, the Old already lost. How does a person live, how do those who love a person live, without the things that had defined that person? Each of us has different powers to lose. What would your life be like, our work interrogates us, without strength, without beauty, without senses or expression, without physical skill or emotional reserve; or without – and here is my own great terror – mind? “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything,” says Jaques in his vaudeville. And how will the daughter live without her mother, the parent without child, the lover without beloved? For lack of positive identification, we may call what rises from the wreck a soul. Sometimes we are midwives as a client is born again, and again. Sometimes not.
None of us can tell the other when to go. And which of us can tell the one we love we’ll be okay? Romm told us in her tough book that she could not do it. “I will not be okay,” she said. “When my mom dies it will be crushing pain, a silence that will fill me and break me over and over again.” That is what she told her mom, that she could not give permission. Her mother did not need permission. Her mother did not need the thing she could not offer, and knowing this was dispensation. “This is what I wanted to hear; it’s my release.”
Something takes its course, the genie is already out of the bottle, and we have nothing to do with it. We want to say, to do, to fix something. We want to be Liberators. But how would we let our people go when we cannot even keep them? We are all in suspense, and our release is in the hand of a greater writer. The thing we can do – and it is not nothing – might be to hang there with them, as they turn ever so slowly in the wind. The urge to let them off the hook should be examined – is it their distress or ours that moves us? The thing about suspense is, it makes what follows it important; and if we puncture it, the anti-climax shows that we were premature. Timing is everything; as Hamlet said, readiness is all.
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