The Penultimate Musing on Carla Zilber-Smith’s blog, by Mac Zilber.
It’s one in the morning. She’s screaming in pain. It takes a lot of pain to make her shout, you see. She can barely talk at quarter-volume most of the time, and her default pain level, as she will say later in the day, is a 7.5 out of ten. She has a high hurts to hertz ratio. This is a ten.
“My arm is all fucked up,” she weeps, her face a cacophony of agony. I am assured by her nighttime caregiver, Alexa, that all is well, and that I can go back to sleep. Alexa moves her bed into Carla’s room. I go back to sleep.
There’s a knock on the door.
Carla wants to see you.
What time is it?
I don’t hesitate. Well, that’s not true, I do hesitate. A few precious moments. There’s such a low supply of them, and a high demand. Note to self, no more hesitation. I go into her room and she is choking on mucus. I slap her on her back, attempting to dislodge the mucus. No dice. I try again, and again. “Is this how it’s going to happen. Will she pass away violently in my arms?” Finally, after several hour-long minutes, she inhales and I exhale. A symphony of relief.
That one was life or death, she says. Does it count as saving a life if the life is ending no matter what we do? I wonder that every time I stop her from choking. It’s like trying to keep the sand on the top half of an hourglass, or trying to catch leaking water in a colander. I’m Sisyphus, pushing the stone up the hill ultimately to have it roll down. She is Prometheus, bringing light to those who love her, and undergoing subsequent agony. At least, unlike Prometheus, the hourglass will give her a way out. I go back to sleep.
It’s 9 AM. There’s another knock. I go into Carla’s room. She is in her bed surrounded by loving friends. The room is filled with cut-outs of butterflies and hummingbirds, some on the wall, some hanging on the ceiling. When she speaks, it is almost inaudible, but I always know what she is saying. Beethoven is playing on the speakers in the room. She mouths words that nobody can decipher but me.
“What was that?” A friend inquires.
I smile. “She says Beethoven is a buzz kill. She wants to hear ‘No Rest For The Weary’ by the Blue Scholars.”
She smiles. Hip-hop, poetry, people who love her, how could any place be better than this?
There’s no rest for the weary, just another day grinding up stones, until they turn into dust.
“I’m singing,” she says, as I hold her curdled, immobile hand. “I’m singing.” How poetic and meaningful can two words be? If she were to pass away at that moment, I think she would have no complaints.
I then play her a funny and cheery song that is, ironically enough, about prescription drugs. She takes 23 of them.
“I feel fantastic, and I’ve never felt as good as how I do, right now, except maybe when I think of how I felt that day when I felt the way that I do right now, right now.”
The irony doesn’t escape us. We should be crying, weeping. We’re listening to the happiest song in the world.
It’s noon, and I suggest that we watch the old Twilight Zone Episode, “Nothing in the Dark.” It opens with the timeless voice of Rod Serling.
“An old woman living in a nightmare, an old woman who has fought a thousand battles with death and always won. Now she's faced with a grim decision: Whether or not to open a door. And in some strange and frightening way, she knows that this seemingly ordinary door leads to the Twilight Zone.”
(If you have half an hour to kill, here’s the whole episode: http://www.fancast.com/tv/The-Twilight-Zone/97525/663284963/The-Twilight-Zone-(12-hr)---Nothing-In-The-Dark/videos)
In the episode, a young Robert Redford plays a wounded police officer, who is helped by an old woman who is convinced that every man she meets is secretly “Mr. Death.” After Redford reveals that he, in fact, is Mr. Death, he says to her, “Take my hand, mom.” “When do we go,” the old woman implores Robert Redford. “We have already gone. Was that so bad? You were not torn asunder. What you thought was an explosion was a whisper. What you thought to be an end, a beginning.” She looks in the mirror and sees herself on the floor and no longer living. She smiles, and they walk arm-in-arm outside.
Nurses from hospice arrive. They are not the ordinary ones, but they are capable and confident. They tell Carla that another nurse said that the oxygen tank, which will be arriving soon, would help her “Go softly into the night.” Carla, characteristically, says “Tell him that he fucked up the quote, it’s ‘go softly into that good night.’” Everybody laughs
The nurse tells Carla that, if she and Carla never get to meet again, it was a true honor to meet her.
I love my mom. I want you all to know that she is probably quite close to going softly into that good night. It is heart-rending, but eventually the sand goes to the bottom of the hourglass.
“Death, I’m your reluctant lover. Your embrace I can’t resist. I pull away, say I can’t stay, but you insist*.”
I want you all to know that my mom is singing. We are all her voice. Soon she will get to rest.
* This is a lyric from a song on her album, Carla Zilber-Smith: Uncovered, for those of you who don’t recognize the quote. You can find it here - http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/carlazilbersmith2