I’ve talked before about my mother in law, Mamacat, and all I’ve been through in the last couple of years with her. Ever since her husband had his stroke, I’ve been her driver, house hold helper, cook, and, since her health started to fail in the last year, her full-time nurse. It was a complex and difficult period for me, for my wife–her daughter–, and for Mamacat.
A few weeks ago Mamacat passed away. It’s been tough on her husband, tough on my wife, and tough on me. But overwhelming my response is very specific. It is nuanced and weird and tinged with various subtitles that aren’t all clear, logical, or even apparent, but overall I feel a specific way about it: I’m happy. In case that’s too vague, I’ll restate it in a more obvious way:
I am happy that Mamacat is dead.
I suspect most people will cringe a little on reading that. It’s hard not to. This is not something we are supposed to say when a loved one dies. I told one of my closest friends that I was happy. This is a friend who has been with me through every step of this whole process, who understands it deeply and as fully as anyone who wasn’t directly involved. I told him I was happy, and he said,
“You mean relieved, right?”
“No,” I said. “I mean I’m happy.”
And I do mean it. I feel joy. And other things, including sadness. But joy is the primary emotion. Joy that another human being has died. Not a bad human being. Not someone I hated or who “deserved it” in some retributive sense. If that kind of death made me feel happiness I would feel terrible. I’d feel wracked with guilt that I was so malicious.
I feel guilty anyway. I’ve been torn at nearly every moment for the last three weeks about how much guilt I should feel. Whether there was something wrong with me for being so happy about it. These are not easy questions to answer. But now, after 24 very long days, I think I finally understand.
Let me explain.
I’m happy for two reasons, and we’ll start with the more selfish one first. I’m happy to be free of the burden of taking care of her. She could barely move around at the end, and her mind was going. She required a lot of attention and help with nearly everything, and it was obvious it was going to get worse. How bad it would get was impossible to say, but I dreaded how bad it could get. I experienced some of that last year when she had an injury and was bedridden. I was on call 24/7, I never got any sleep, I messed up my back and my arms by lifting her up so often, I always smelled like bodily fluids, and I was in a constant state of tension.
But more than the fact of having to help her was the sense of being trapped. Ever since her husband had the stroke my wife and I have been trapped. We couldn’t go on vacation, we couldn’t move away. We couldn’t live our lives. We are in our 30s–my wife’s parents had her when they were fairly old–and that’s a tough pill to choke down. So being free of that burden is enormous. We have our lives back.
Here’s where I need to state categorically that I’m not resentful of Mamacat for being a burden. It wasn’t her fault. People get old and they need help. It sucks, but having to go to work sucks. Having back pains sucks. Sometimes things suck, and life is about getting on with them. One of Mamacat’s personality traits was that she had a stroke self-loathing streak. She blamed herself for everything. I don’t know how many times I told her that things weren’t her fault, and that I wasn’t mad at her. I don’t know if she ever believed me, but I tried to speak it through my patience. Sometimes my patience deserted me. During this time I learned for the first time exactly how much of it I have. I have great pity for anyone who is ever forced to learn this for themselves. I spoke with my patience, and I like to think it helped.
The second reason I am happy is because she wanted to go. She was ready. Never in my life have I met someone who had so little fear of death. She faced the most frightening of human experience with total peace and clarity. She faced it with a grin, like it was an old friend she was waiting to meet once she was done with this little thing right here. She believed in heaven, and often had dreams of its bright green fields of grass where she would run under the sunlight and meet everyone she had lost. But her belief wasn’t overwhelming. She thought there was probably a heaven. She hoped there was. But it didn’t matter all that much, really. Either way, she wasn’t afraid.
She had a Do Not Resuscitate order in her medical files. “If I try to go, let me go,” she told me. And that’s what we did. She might have recovered from her stroke into a shell of herself. She was already becoming a shell of herself, and she hated it. She died 8 days after her birthday, and it’s hard not to think that she got a present she didn’t expect, but that she hoped for with all of her heart.
And that’s the thing. I got a present from her, too. Not her death. I can’t bring myself to quite that crass. The present she gave me is deep, and powerful, and it was one of the most amazing things anyone has ever given me. I have only just now realized what it was, and how amazing it is that she gave it to us. The present is this:
I can feel joy at her death because that’s what she would have felt. If she could stand outside of her body and watch her last few breaths, as we did, it would have made her smile. It would have been like giving her the sweetest and most delicious mango smoothie she had ever tasted. I can imagine telling her that I was feeling guilty at my reaction to her passing. I hadn’t envisioned this conversation. I didn’t want to go there, because we’re not supposed to go there. But if I told her I felt bad that she had dead and it made me happy, she would have laughed a friendly and mirthful laugh and called me an idiot. She would have thought my guilty was silly. Unnecessary.
We think that death is a bad thing because it terrifies. We are afraid of dying, and we are afraid of saying the wrong thing to a friend who has lost someone. We tiptoe around it. We freeze up if we feel or do or say something that doesn’t fit on the Culturally Approved List of Response.
Screw that. Mamacat didn’t live that way, and neither do I. Death isn’t always a bad thing. People get old or sick, and they don’t need the world anymore. If everyone just kept on living the world would be a full, sickly, and terrible place.
Mamacat was an amazing person, and death was a gift the universe gave to her in the end, when she really needed it. A reward for an awesome life. And my reward, for taking care of her and being there for her, is that I get to feel joy. She gave that to me. She gave it to me with her beliefs, and with her personality, and with her disposition. And I’m sure, with every strand of my existence, that if she could talk to me one last time, she would give me that gift with her words.