January 15, 2004
MIDWIFING A DEATH
By Marylou Shira Hadditt
This is about death – a more forbidden word than ‘sex’. About death and an extraordinarily profound experience. I drove up the Coast to spend a day and a night with my friend, Page who had terminal liver cancer. The day was sunny and bright – the winter rains made the moss on the redwood bark shine like neon and the familiar route 128 took on new dimensions. Page had rented a house on the sea; she wanted to wake up in the morning to see the ocean once more before she died. The house was in Albion, (adjacent to Salmon Creek bridge where I’d had my car accident twelve years ago. Page was with me in the aftermath.)
The Albion house, was a gem of a California home. All floor to ceiling windows and redwood rafters and exposed beams. The house sat right on the edge of the headlands. One could see the ocean from every room in the house – Page’s large king size bed looked both to the West and South where a series of seaside monoliths caught the breaking waves. Even with the windows closed, we heard the sounds of the surf all night long. There was a quiet and peacefulness, both inside and outside the windows.
Page astonished me. An intense person – we are alike in many ways- one of which is often not being sure of ourselves. In bed in her bedclothes, she was a different woman. Clearly, without hesitation, she voiced her needs and desires. “I need your help”, or “I don’t want your help just now” — all voiced without “could you please” or “would you mind”. She told me and another visitor that it was time for us to go, She wanted the last half hour alone with the sea. Page could not have been that direct two months ago. There had been a transformation.
The transformation of her acceptance of death. She did a lot of reading about death, she asked friends to bring her poems and stories; I read to her from Whitman, “and to die is different from anyone supposes and luckier.” She asked me to repeat “luckier” several times. I read a fable about Eros and Death, getting their arrows mixed up with one another – love with death and death with love. Another fable of a Maori woman who shed her old woman’s skin. Page liked these simple fables. There were precise, no ambivalence. Page told me about a breathing meditation: on the inhale, the breath encircles the heart giving it protection from fear, but she admitted, sometimes the fear sneaks in. Page surrounded herself with dying and death, not sadly, not mournfully, but in gentle peaceful acceptance.
As I look back now on our two decades of friendship, I feel blessed to share dying as we share our living. I drove back to Sonoma County, not with sadness, or grief. I drove with an uplifting feeling, one might even call it grace. As I drove through that cave of redwoods along the Navarro river, turned on the Mendocino NPR station, – there was Berlioz’ L’Enfance du Christ. The nobility and holiness of that music, the grace of the redwoods, the shadows on the roadway: these embraced me. In love — and perhaps the grief, like Page’s fear, will sneak in from time to time.
Page Prescott was the midwife for her own dying. She saw what needed to be done and went about doing it. Shortly after the days at the Coast, three days after her 70th birthday, Page chose not to eat and not to drink fluids. She was inviting death to come to her. She selected a cardboard casket and asked friends to decorate it. During the next week and half, she made certain to say all her good-byes. Eleven days later, she slipped quietly away in her sleep with family and friends nearby to ritually cleanse her body, prepare for cremation.
Two weeks later I had a wonderful dream. I am standing in my garden when a bright red World War I monoplane flies over. Page is the plot, wearing an old fashioned pilots cap. She leans out the window, calling, “Tootle oooh! Bye Bye” and sails off.