What Does Dying Look Like?


I received a call from my Mom’s Hospice nurse. She was new and wanted to introduce herself. She gave me an update on my mom, and although her health was clearly failing. She was still sitting up, talking, smoking and drinking watered-down vodka. This was on Tuesday.

Yesterday, Wednesday, I got a bit more frantic of a call from the nurse. My mom was declining, her memory is failing, she’s having trouble sitting up, and she seems to be in some pain. I spoke with my mom for 20 minutes on the phone. Other than sounding tired, the conversation didn’t seem all that different. I told my mom I would drive out this weekend.

This morning, Thursday, the call was urgent. She is entering the “active dying phase.” I threw some clothes in a bag and drove to Yuma.

When I arrived my mom was sleeping. She heard me come in and woke up. I grabbed her hand and she smiled. She mumbled something too faint to hear and fell back asleep. Her breathing wasn’t labored. She didn’t seem to be in any pain (morphine). Other than her trying to, but being unable to speak or her trying to lift her head off the pillow, she “seemed fine.” In fact, at one point when she was trying to speak, and all I could hear were tiny breaths of air, she gave me “the look” and waved me away. It was a classic “I am clearly saying something and your inability to understand is infuriating.” Stubborn, old broad.

As I sat there next to her, all I could think of is this what dying looks like? Because it looks like napping. Or having the flu. I see someone struggling to do things her body will no longer allow. You can’t sit up. You can’t roll over. You can’t speak. But you “look” the same. Frail. Weak. Snoring. But clearly still very stubborn and strong-willed. Does she know that she is not speaking, just emitting puffs of air? Does she think she is having a conversation with me? Or does she realize that she has entered the “active dying phase?” Her eyes fly open when we mention a name. She knows we are sharing memories. But does she know? Is she sad? Scared? Hopeful? Resigned?

I’m grabbing a few hours of sleep. When I wake up I expect to see her sitting on the couch, smoking, with a glass of white peach juice and cheap vodka in an iced tea glass. She still thinks we think it’s iced tea.