A Fox in Tall Grass
Douglas W. Milliken
Mum’s death was both sudden and prolonged, and needlessly stupid, and maybe was the result of nearly half a century of untreated depression or an equally-long two-pack-a-day habit but maybe was also the result of being married to an asshole who didn’t care about her wishes. (Who can say!)
Late in September, 2008, while doing her morning aerobics (how do we know this? because she was found still clutching her five pound weights, sprawled face down on the floor in front of the TV), Mum suffered in near tandem a burst aneurysm in her occipital lobe and a catastrophic stroke. She lost control over her body. She fell and smacked her forehead on the brick skirt surrounding the woodstove. So count that as the third head trauma she all at once had to make sense of that dog-day morning.
Too often, I wonder what Mum saw in the moment when her brain turned against her. What did she hear? What did she feel? This singularly unique moment in her life. What was it like when the lights flared out?
In many ways, this was the moment of her death. I want this to be the moment of her death. In the quiet solitude of the farm she loved. Perhaps comforted by her menagerie of cats. By the scent of garden soil dusted between the pine floorboards. By the north wind wracking through the eaves. I want this to be the moment of her death. But when her husband arrived home from work eight hours later, she was still gasping panicked, labored breaths, so he called an ambulance and had her rushed first to Houlton Regional Hospital, then to Maine Medical Center in Portland, where the hospital—without consulting or informing a single member of our family—had her medivaced to Tufts Medical in Boston, whereupon after three weeks in a coma with tubes snaking into her arms and her brainpan and her urethra and her trachea, she was finally allowed to die. Weeks away from her sixty-first birthday. Four hundred miles from home in a city she absolutely loathed.
Mum had been a hospice nurse for twenty years. She was acutely aware of the ever-presence of death. She might have been a little romantic in her notions, but she didn’t bullshit herself or anyone around her when it came to her own eventual dying. She told us—her husband, my brother, my sister, myself—that she wanted to a die a natural death. No machines. No invasive surgeries. She told us all: she wanted to die at home. She told us this at every available opportunity.
One of the last times I saw Mum alive (I do not count her three-week ICU stasis as life), she repeated her wishes again. I want to just lie down like a fox in tall grass and die is what she told me. For real. That’s what I mean about romantic. Like a fox in tall grass. I told her I respected her wishes and agreed, it’s an ideal way to go. I told her I would do everything in my power to make sure that she got the right kind of end. I told her that without power of attorney, there were limits as to what I could do. I could suggest. I could persist. Beyond that, my hands were tied. She said she knew that. She agreed: I was probably the only one in the family who wouldn’t hesitate in helping her die. She said she’d consider making me her proxy.
Six months later:
A sterile ward in a faraway city.
A shunt draining the fluid collecting around her brain.
A machine doing all the breathing for her lungs that refused to breathe.
And in every single CT scan, a big blacked-out dead zone of inactivity where her brain had begun to necrotize.
I want to just lie down like a fox in tall grass.
I respected her wishes. I did everything within my means. I suggested. I persisted. Yet always furious, her husband was deaf to everything but the sound of my voice: a hateful refrain against which he could lash out. (Sometimes it seemed he only kept her alive because I insisted we let her die.) Without power of attorney, there was nothing else I could do.
By the end of October, the doctors finally conceded: there was no likelihood of recovery for Mum. Her husband could no longer deny the reality of our new world. We arranged for the devices to be removed from her head and arms and lungs, arranged for the morphine in incremental doses. So many weeks in waiting: it only took a few hours to be done.
Douglas W. Milliken is the author of the novels To Sleep as Animals and Our Shadows’ Voice, the collection Blue of the World, and several chapbooks and collaborative multimedia projects, including In the Mines with the musician Scott Sell and Monolith with the metal smith Cat Bates. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and a Maine Literary Award, along with prizes from Glimmer Train, The Stoneslide Corrective, and RA & Pin Drop Studios. He lives with his domestic and creative partner, Genevieve Johnson, in the industrial riverscape of Saco, Maine. www.douglaswmilliken.com