It is to that bedside that I go

Personal Stories | February 9, 2018 | Richard Harrison

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In this essay, Richard Harrison — the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award winner for poetry — vividly recalls his mother’s choice after her cancer became terminal, of a medically assisted death, with him and his brother beside her.

I held my mother’s hand while she was dying. And I held it for a long time after. My mother died this past summer, in a hospital, at the time and place of her choosing. She saw the future of her body with the cancer in it growing and she took the route that we have made for ourselves when the unravelling of the body, and then the self, that cancer will make of us is all we can look forward to with dread.

What they tell you to expect was true. She was happy to be dying in the company of her sons and a doctor. She looked with gratitude at the woman who was, with practiced hands, passing the chemicals into her arm that first let her sleep, then, asleep, pass away. I did not feel those moments while death was taking all that was alive in her. Her mind was clear until her last words, spoken the way you speak when you are too tired to form words but still have something to say. But death did take her hand from mine all the same, and I only knew in the minutes after, when the doctor listened to my mother’s body for the echo of her heart and heard nothing.

The whole of this took a quarter of an hour, and I must admit, when people ask me, I say to them, it’s just like we are talking now together, you and me, and 15 minutes from now, one of us is dead. It’s only been a few months, and there are many parts of this experience I am still finding my way through, making it a part of my life and my life story with my mother.

And when you ask me about chaos and control, it is to that bedside that I go when I think about these words for the great powers in human life in both the large sense and the small. They go by many names: the predictable and the unpredictable, the known and the unknown, the familiar and the strange, those that answer human will, and those that no quantity of will or desire affects.

If I believed in prayer, I would have prayed, but prayer does not comfort if you pray only to find comfort in praying. You have to believe that somehow, somewhere, there is a mind, a presence, a reason behind all that we do not understand, and thereby all chaos becomes an illusion. There is no faith at an instant, even that one, at least I did not find it.

I was witness and participant instead, to our own best answer so far. The answer to being taken by what we cannot stop is to hurry it. Death came for my mother, and it came on schedule; she died whole, knowing to the end that her desires, her memories, the story of her life was as she wanted it to be all the way to its end.

At some point, it must have been true that life and death were perfectly balanced twice. Once in my mother’s hand itself, when the chemicals that slowed her organs one by one were travelling the veins and arteries that knitted her fingers with her heart, and once when my mother’s hand and mine were still together after she passed away. When I think of your question, I frame it now with that image, when our best for a woman dying from what we cannot control was to bring it to her at the sound of her voice answering, Yes.

A photo of Richard Harrison

(Photo credit: Keeghan Rouleau)

Richard Harrison is a Canadian poet and essayist. His most recent book On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood won the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry. The book, which Harrison spent 11 years writing, is both an elegy to his father and a love letter to their shared passion: poetry.

Harrison lives in Calgary where he teaches creative writing at Mount Royal University. On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood also won the 2017 Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry.

(Header photo credit: George Ruiz/Flickr)

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