In all of the movies, deathbed scenes are short and dramatic. The dying friend or relative blurts out a heartfelt secret or nugget of wisdom. And fade to black.
In reality, dying often takes its time. The human body is built to fight death, and death is built to be patient. No one tells you that dying can be tedious, so you’d better bring a book for those long stretches when your loved one is in that twilight that separates them from the truly living, but binds them still to life.
When the prognosis is terminal-but-not-today, waiting can be as exciting as watching paint dry. That’s the phrase people use when they want to talk about something mind-numbingly boring. But, if you really were to watch paint dry? You’d see the subtle change in tones as the paint loses its moisture. You’d see the way the paint shades into different hues as the daylight fades.
Just so is watching someone you love slowly fade.
Just as no one tells you how tedious a deathwatch is, they never tell you about the subtle moments of incandescent beauty. As life becomes about incremental moments – the tiny victory of one whole hour without pain, the miniscule improvement in heart rate after an injection – if you watch carefully, you can find joy and humor and life. The easing of pain for even a moment can restore beauty in a face. The fierce declaration in a loved one’s eyes blazing from a sunken face – I am still in here! Remember me! – can take your breath away with its intensity. And the shared laughter, hard-won as the loved one struggles to catch a breath, can throw down a “fuck you” to death, and straighten your spine in remembering that this is really all about the enduring glory of your loved one’s life, and not the inexorable wearing down at the end.