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Who We Tell When We Watch Our Parents Die

I’ve spoken to very few people about what it was like to be in a room watching my mother take her last gulps of air. It was dinnertime, dark. We’d just had pizza. We’d been taking turns sitting by her side when there was a change in her breathing. All the oxygen drained from the room. When my mother died, it was just my family in a semicircle, alone together with what moments ago had been “her,” but in the span of seconds had become “her body.” She was 63.

When I read that comedian Laurie Kilmartin was live-tweeting her father’s dying days, I recoiled as though from an uppercut to the jaw.

Kilmartin’s reaction to her father’s turn in hospice care was to stand on virtual center stage and offer something of a performance. She is a successful comedian, no stranger to an audience. But when “hospice” was uttered in reference to my own mother two years ago, I did the opposite. I drew a circle around myself, demarcating where I ended and everything else began.Moving from New York to my parents’ wooded home outside Boston, I holed up in the decidedly non-technological trappings of each day’s routine: rouse my mom for a sponge bath, cajole her to eat a few bites of honeydew. I’d stand in her closet and pull out outfits for her to veto or approve; we were Cher and Dionne in Clueless, if you replaced the pleated plaid with loose-fitting pajama pants.

As death neared, obstinate as the tide, my dad and my siblings and I sought out high ground wherever we could find it. What solace we did find was not in the fluttering zeroes and ones of tweets and status updates, but in comforts of an old-fashioned nature. The periwinkle hydrangeas blooming outside the window. The dog lying quietly underfoot, his sad-eyed malaise matching that of his humans. A bin of black and white photographs with dates scrawled in ballpoint pen on their backs. The Internet was a faraway place, off in the distance with things like wanting to wake up in the morning and thinking about the future.

I became more removed than ever from any mode of communication that wasn’t my voice calling out to my dad from the kitchen. My usual flow of Instagram posts lurched to a halt. I feared that if I posted a photo of the plucky crocuses peeking out to announce the spring, it would send a false message of cheer: Look, my mom’s about to die but it’s a beautiful day. The suggestion would be repellent: that I had time to choose a vintage filter even in the midst of the most traumatic weeks of my life.

But the truth is, I did have time. The thing about dying, at least the way my mom died, is this: no matter how definite the fact of the terminus, the whole thing feels interminable for the living. In between the heartfelt conversations and the medication regimens, there are buckets of time unaccounted for. Sometimes small talk felt too pointless and big-talk too charged, and we found ourselves with nothing to talk about at all. Sometimes we had to allow Ryan Seacrest to swoop in and take over, and we’d agree to disagree about American Idol’s frontrunners.

In Kilmartin’s version of this story, the Internet was never far from her fingertips. After her father died, she would tweet about just how close it had been. “I’m comforted by the fact that I was there for his last breath,” she wrote. “And by ‘there’ I mean in the same room, looking at my iPhone.”

I had been judging the image of Kilmartin clutching her phone like a life vest for about twenty minutes when I went through and read her tweets from the beginning:

February 25, 8:32 PM: “Anyone successfully staved off death by arranging, then rearranging pillows? please DM.”

Yes, I responded aloud. Well, not successfully. But believe me, we tried. My dad couldn’t stop vacuuming the house and wouldn’t let a fork sit in the sink for more than four minutes without washing it.

February 25, 10:49 PM: “hospice is a medical term that means ‘here, you do it.’”

Yes, I said. It was always Vilma, not me, who rubbed Eucerin cream on her bedsores.

February 26, 3:16 PM: “Providing the soundtrack to Dad’s Final Days is the amazing Linda Ronstadt”

Yes, I said. Not Linda Rondstadt but Carole King. Practically sisters. Practically the same damn thing.

Every tweet I read had me nodding “amen” like a front-pew worshipper on Sunday morning. She was sharing the most mundane moments in the life of a person about to die. She was, in the words of one of her tweets, “just popp[ing] in to take a break from living in the moment.” She was taking something mythological, something best kept at arm’s-length, and delivering it in 140 characters to bright little screens.

I had judged her for squandering her remaining moments with her father to tend to her Twitter feed. But the thirty seconds it took her to deliver a tweet are shorter than the hour-long breaks I’d taken to escape into The Hunger Games, pretending for short intervals that my anxiety extended no further than Katniss’s survival.

Kilmartin brazenly wielded her humor, one of the only tools that is effective in the face of a pain you have no choice but to face. Life is not so neat as to give us pain in one tidy offering and laughter in another. They come one with the other, and to try to separate them is like trying to pick out a tablespoon of sugar crystals mixed in with a cup of salt. Humor is a shield, an axe, and a blanket. Kilmartin used it as all of these and more.

I often envy the way in which other cultures and religions handle death. I envy Christians and their heaven, and those who believe in ancestral spirits and mediums. Without ritual it is so much more difficult to sit with death, to learn what it looks and smells like. But Kilmartin invited 40,000 people to her father’s deathbed, and they showed up. The images she shared included a wife holding her husband’s hand with a faraway look in her eyes and a man half-smiling behind breathing tubes. There was flatulence, Fox News, frightened grandkids, sports commentary, dick jokes, Seinfeld references, wailing, ugly blankets, unwanted genital glimpses, rearranged pillows, and a whole lot of Linda Ronstadt.

Kilmartin’s father died on the evening of Oscar Sunday. While the rest of us were watching Ellen deliver pizza to the A-listers in the front rows, she and her family were… watching the Oscars, too. Sometimes death’s doorstep looks like a family in front of a TV, trying hard to laugh instead of cry. “This is the last night that Dad, Mom, sister and I will be together,” she tweeted, “and part of it was spent watching a pizza being delivered. ” People tweeted back at her, condolences and thanks.

Eliza Berman is a writer in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to her Twitter feed, her refrigerator’s cheese supply, society, etc. and an irregular contributor to some websites.


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