Colson: A shock and an unexpected revelation
I’ve been having a stare-down with Old Man Death for more than a month in Madison, Wisc., and the Grim Reaper predictably won out on Aug. 16 — the day my sister, Ruth, finally was able to shuffle off this mortal coil and head out for new frontiers.
I should emphasize that I was the one trying to stare down the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse, not Ruth. She had been locked in hand-to-hand combat with an invariably fatal disease for a dozen years or so, and had told me more than once that she’d had just about enough of that.
So she finally decided to stop taking her meds and put herself in the gentle hands of the hospice organization. All I could do was stick by her side, along with our younger brother, Stuart, and help it happen with grace and dignity. I’m glad I did, and she was glad, too.
Aside from surviving the soul-shaking shock of seeing a younger sibling give up the ghost as I watched, the experience left me with a surprising revelation — a glimpse of the innate goodness of many people, who despite not knowing me from the proverbial Adam have extended to me, my wife and my brother so much kindness and help it’s left me breathless.
Now, this may come as a shock to some readers, but I’m a cynical, suspicious son of a sea dog by nature, who finds it difficult to simply accept it when strangers start talking about how much they sympathize, how deeply they care, how sincere is their compassion for the plight of someone in crisis. Right away, I start looking for the ragged fringe of insincerity and self-importance that I’ve too often found lurking beneath the surface in such situations, as I gird myself to go it alone.
But the people who had gathered around Ruth, her neighbors and friends, came on like gentle warriors in a celestial pillow fight, and their sincerity, their open and up-front insistence that I accept their help, smothered my cynicism before it even got a chance to wake up and stretch its legs.
Ruth, who was 60, had lived in the same house for 27 years.
Ever since her 2002 diagnosis with pulmonary hypertension, which attacks the lungs and heart, she has courageously and uncomplainingly gotten on with things as the scope of her life narrowed in on her. Unable to work because she was on oxygen 24/7, she took up gardening, cooking, genealogical research and home improvement as her major tasks. She also was a wise-cracking former hippie of the 1960s and ’70s, a leftist critic of her home state’s increasing tack to the political right, a ribald and caustic conversationalist and hard-partying consumer of a variety of cocktails (she used to love to brag that the oxygen allowed her to drink without worrying about hangovers).
Those who lived near her were under the influence of her charm, her wit and her open, inviting nature, and they responded in kind once the chips truly were down.
Two lesbians living a couple of houses away were the first to show up at Ruth’s door when I arrived in late July and Ruth went into the hospital. We had met and were friends, but until this all happened that was about the extent of it.
With Ruth’s deterioration, they put their hearts into high gear and started bringing me food, calling me up to make sure things were all right, coming over to sit and chat through the difficult moments, and a million other little things.
Ruth’s next door neighbor, a divorced and slightly wacky British transplant who also has lived in the neighborhood for many years, brought over books to distract me, took me to dinner at a local pub, and was so eager to help out it was astonishing.
The man at the funeral home, who knew us only as consumers, went out of his way to be helpful when he could have been merely professional. Once he got to know us, he trotted out an off-beat sense of humor that Ruth would have loved.
And as Ruth was dying on her last day, one of the neighborhood helpmates, Paula, came in and took over my death-watch duties to give me time to walk around outside and clear my head.
When I first got here in July, I was walking through a restored patch of historic midwestern prairie in the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and spotted a Great Blue Heron flying in ever widening circles and honking plaintively. My wife said Native Americans believe that, among other totemic attributes, the heron is a symbol of a need to reassess one’s priorities, reorient one’s thinking about the important things in life.
Well, OK, maybe I’ve done that. At least I hope I have.
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