The Dying and Me

Jacqueline Heinze

The simple act of driving into Oneida zapped the life force out of me. Heavy with isolation, grueling winters, expressionless homes, rundown cars, and scraggly countryside, the struggling blue-collar town in Upstate New York was perpetually gray. Once upon a time, Oneida was home to a thriving religious commune with bizarre sexual practices. Later, it was known for its flatware. Today, Oneida, located thirty miles east of Syracuse along Route 90, survives on one industry: a casino. The place felt like purgatory. My husband agreed, but when we got the call in bright and sunny Los Angeles that my father-in-law had only weeks to live before dying from cancer, we rushed to the desolate town to say our good-byes.

I was never particularly close to my father-in-law. James was an intellectual man of many accomplishments, but he was also exceedingly conservative with traditionalist values. If against my better judgment I debated with him, he decimated me, while remaining as placid as a lake that reflected my mounting rage back at me. To his credit, he never instigated these discussions; I lured him in. He would have rather not communicated at all. He was stoic. Puritanical. Life was about hard work and personal accountability. In contrast, I was a former theatre major and a socialist.

When I arrived at my in-laws’ home, I checked my liberal and dramatic self at the door and focused on my other roles. I was there primarily to be a wife and support my husband. Next, I was a mother, there to care for our four-year-old son, George, who was with us. Finally, I was a daughter-in-law. For me, this part meant I performed duties without calling attention to myself. I cleaned bathrooms, answered the never-ending doorbell, and organized the deluge of sweets that well-intentioned guests delivered. Warm and friendly, I offered coffee, tea, and cookies. I joined conversations when appropriate and made myself scarce when the visit was more private. Obliging when necessary; invisible when not. I did the laundry.

Before the real hideous misery of dying took hold, James was, to my surprise, more content than I had ever seen him. His ashen face sunk past his cheekbones. His arms were as scrawny as chicken legs. His feet were bloated to the size of bricks and his swollen ankles were the same circumference as his thighs. But he was pleasant. He teased me—joking about my overprotective parenting and poking fun at how many exceedingly long toasts my husband and I had at our wedding. (We did.) He said, with a smile, he wanted fewer—and much shorter—speeches at his funeral.

One evening he was fumbling with the remote. I asked him if he wanted me to change the channel away from Dancing With the Stars.

“Were you jumping up and down while you said that?” he asked me.

“No…” I told him, puzzled by the question.

“Huh,” he said drily. “Morphine hallucination. Well, it looked like a lot of fun.”

We both laughed. Then he turned the channel to Fox News. I excused myself, but in bed that night, it occurred to me that I could expand my role to become James’s cheerful companion. I wasn’t as emotionally invested in this tragedy as the other family members, and I didn’t have to concern myself with talk of finances or cremation, so why not make the most of my time in hell by becoming something akin to a middle-aged candy striper?

The next morning I entered James’s bedroom, where he lay watching a home makeover show. If he ever wanted, I told him, I would be happy to read to him. I imagined sitting next to him and, in my theatrically trained, soothing voice, reading aloud Tolstoy or Moby Dick. I’d even be fine with Dean Koontz.

James appeared grateful for the offer but never took me up on it. Nor did he take up the act of dying. We were ten days into the two weeks his doctor had given him. Hospice had arrived. The funeral director had visited, as had the pastor, twice. I had never witnessed someone die before, but when I watched James—slowly and unsteadily, but unassisted—pad around his small house, I knew we were further than a few days from the end. The idea of being stuck in Oneida for another week or more weighed heavily upon me. The alternative—leaving my husband there, where he felt he must be, and flying back to Los Angeles with our son only to turn around and return for the funeral—gave me no less anxiety. Death by cancer is wretched. It is also inconvenient. I had done my duty and even attempted to go above and beyond the call. Now I wanted my life back.

A day or two later, an eternity in Oneida, my husband and I decided I would fly back to LA with George. We estimated at least a week before I would have to return, so I fled.

The day George and I left, I spent the morning packing. It was not a quick chore. I sorted out clothes to leave for the funeral. A pair of George’s shoes went missing. No one could locate the iPad. Then we were ready, and it was time to say our final good-bye.

James sat on the couch.

“Give Grampa Jamie a hug,” I instructed George, “and tell him bye.”

George did as he was told, but his once intimate connection with his grandfather was fractured. Six months earlier, they had spent time together in Los Angeles building castles out of blocks, making paper airplanes, and reading stories. Over the past week, however, George had seemed to grow unsure that this man with purple splotches covering his gray skin sitting slack-jawed on the couch making guttural groaning noises was indeed his Grampa Jamie. George allowed James to hug him but then stepped back quickly. My husband turned away to hide his face, his shoulders shaking.

Then it was my turn.

“Can I hug you or will I break you?” I asked, leaning into James, trying to keep the conversation light.

“I can take a hug,” he slurred back with a weak smile.

I was surprised by how soft he was. Like a baby. His skin like rose petals. He didn’t smell like death either, like his insides were rotting. He smelled sweet. His touch was light. His breathing, soft. Nervous I was lingering in the gentle hug too long, I pulled away and choked on rising sobs.

My husband took George outside. I stood from the couch and crossed in front of James but then unexpectedly sat down on the other side of him. I took his hand.

“You’ve been,” I said with my voice trembling, “a great father-in-law.”

He grinned.

“Well, you guys made it easy,” he mumbled. “You three. Or you five. Or six…”

What? What was he talking about? Who five or six? I cast my eyes downward. Was he having a less lucid moment? If he were, shouldn’t I be able to sit patiently through it? I stood, and he stopped talking.

In college, I took a class in ethnography that required a field study, so I volunteered at a home on the north end of Chicago where patients went to die. I don’t remember the name of it, or exactly how it worked, which is fitting, because at the time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Clearly, though, the people who were dying there had nowhere else to be. They weren’t in a hospital, but neither were they with their families. They were in a large, strange house with nurses caring for them. It was not a happy place.

That’s why I, with my youth and vigor, should go there, I reasoned, filled with my gravely erroneous romantic notions of death. The head nurse sensed my naiveté the moment I arrived. Even at the time I didn’t register her name—so consumed as I was by my own self—but for the sake of story, will call her Marge. Using sound judgment, Marge didn’t give me much to do. Instead, she assigned me the simple task of arranging flowers. Each week, I stood at the white ceramic sink in the cold, spacious Chicago home carefully snipping off the ends of lilies, roses, and carnations and displaying them in vases as beautifully as I could.

One day, with no more flowers to arrange, I eagerly asked Marge what else I could do.

She hesitated before saying, “I suppose you could go be with the patients. Just sit with them and listen.”

It irked me that Marge viewed me as an incompetent nineteen-year-old. I convinced myself that she merely could not recognize my great capacity for kindness and indelible spirit because she herself was so dour. In one of the front bedrooms on the second floor, I sat beside a dying woman in her 50s. Her physical appearance threw me—pallid complexion, hollowed-out face, a handful of gray wisps on her otherwise bald head—but I buckled down and asked her how she felt today.

She asked me for twenty dollars.

I asked her to repeat herself.

“I don’t have a dollar on me. Not a cent!” she blurted out. Her words were garbled but her intention was clear. “I don’t want to die penniless. I just want a little something in my pocket. Twenty dollars to have of my own when I go!”

There are two things here to understand: Twenty dollars to a college student in 1993 was a small fortune, and, in the nearly two decades I had been alive, the only other people who had asked me for money were squalid homeless people who I tried to pretend I didn’t see, there on the sidewalk, directly in front of me. It was through these references that I filtered her request and determined she was psychotic and that I couldn’t possibly part with that amount of money.

“I can’t do that,” I said.

She became agitated.

“Just give me some money! Why don’t you give me something so I can have a dignified death?”

I held my ground. After all, she was bedridden. She couldn’t do anything with the money. And, really, how could she have absolutely no money on her? It was hard to believe.

She persisted. I refused.

Marge appeared in the doorway. She told me the woman needed rest and I should go.

I returned to the home for the dying the following week and arranged flowers in the kitchen in silence. After that, I never went back. To fulfill my school requirement, I wrote an essay about the simple but noble act of arranging flowers. I left out the money incident entirely.

In the twenty-three years since that afternoon, I have given that money, and my time, hundreds of times over to people in need, but that woman still haunts me.

I turned my back on my father-in-law and walked down the hallway. There, in the space between the living room and the front door, the meaning of life hit me, and it was death. I was seized by the need to stay. There were no roles to play; the self was inconsequential. All that mattered was to remain and bear witness. Instead, I bit the tip of my thumb as hard as I could to feel a pain that wasn’t regret and kept moving toward the door. I had a child to take care of, a plane to catch, a life to return to. I hadn’t realized how wet my face was, and so with the palms of my hands, I wiped away tears before I pushed open the door and stepped outside. Sunlight blinded me. It was unseasonably warm in Oneida. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

Author Portrait

Jacqueline Heinze is a writer living in Los Angeles with her husband and young son. Her personal essays have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine and On the Page. Jackie holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Also a scriptwriter, she has penned more than a dozen original productions for Allenberry Resort and Playhouse in Pennsylvania and has developed story ideas for Oxygen and Lifetime networks.

View the website of Jacqueline Heinze