note: Since I have to spend another day at the courthouse, this morning’s post is brief, and I wrote it in prison. Frog Gravy is a nonfiction account of incarceration in jails and in prison in Kentucky in 2008 and 2009, and is reconstructed from my notes.

Names have been changed.

This post is from jail.

Notes on the Dying Experience

After Ruthie’s mother dies, I develop a fear that will stay with me for nearly the next two years. I fear that I will lose a parent, my son, my husband, or another loved one. None of my family members reside in this state, except for my husband.

During incarceration, I will see women lose parents, and also children, and I will watch in horror as a prison inmate is shackled and belly-chained and herded off to attend, for one-half hour, her son’s funeral- her teenage son, who drowned in an accident.

My mother’s sister is in fact very elderly and sick. I do not know how to help my mother with this from my vantage point, except to tell her what to expect. The dying experience is something that, for some reason or another, is avoided altogether in American culture. In my experience, many families were at a total loss at the bedside of a dying person, and many chose to leave the bedside altogether. I would always try to tell them, at the very least, that we believe hearing is intact until a person dies; hearing is the last thing to go, although of course, it is difficult to research this.

Here are my notes, and they may have come from a book or from memory:

1-3 months prior
-withdrawl from people and from world
-words less important than touch and physical presence, less verbal communication.
-decreased food intake.
-going inside of self.
-less communication.

1-2 weeks
-disorientation.
-agitation
-talking with the unseen.
-confusion.
-picking at clothes.

Physical:
-decreased blood pressure.
-pulse rapid or slow.
-skin color changes, pale, bluish.
-sleeping but responding.
-complaints of body tired and heavy…

Days or hours:

-intensification of the 1-2 week signs.
-surge of energy.
-decrease in blood pressure.
-eyes glassy, tearing, half open.
-restlessness.
-purplish knees, feet, hands.

Minutes:

-fish out of water breathing.
-cannot be awakened.

I try to talk openly with my mother, through letters, and educate her about the dying experience, and what to maybe expect in her sister’s case. My mother and I also exchange a few comments about our culture’s obsession with youth: unless you are young, and skinny, and getting laid, and making a lot of money, you are nothing.

It also occurs to me that I am psychologically and physically dying right here in this cement coffin, slowly, by inches and seconds. It is February, and I have not been out of the cell for any kind or rec since my arrival. Depression is crushing. I am babbling at times. I join others in showing my breasts to the men in the hallway.

Sometimes I wonder why the haters cannot just man up and kill us outright. But, I do not think they would enjoy that quite as much.

Author’s end note: My aunt died after my release, and, I was one of the lucky ones, in that I did not lose a family member during my incarceration. I was given, over and over, this advice: “You cannot live in here and out there at the same time.”

Also, after my release from prison, my fear off losing a parent or family member continued unabated. Given that my parents are very elderly, I have nearly developed a phobia of answering the phone, because I don’t want The Call. Have you ever received The Call? For the rest of your life, each and every day, you know where you were standing when you got that phone call.

Last Thursday marked the 28th anniversary of my nephew’s murder in Mucnie, IN. It was a double murder that remains unsolved. The event broke my heart and it still does. Something interesting about the funeral stuck with me. Few people approached us and asked the simple question, What do you remember best about Ethan? I believe that people did not know ‘what,’ or ‘the right thing’ to say. Perhaps they did not want to make things more painful, but they were wrong. Things were already painful.

How can we call ourselves human beings when we live in a nation where killing someone in another country is somehow an option? While our mainstream media reports numbers, and breathlessly updates the numbers dead or dying in the killing spree for the day, no one ever, ever mentions what happens to the family left behind. They don’t talk about lives divided in two, alcoholism and inability to function, job loss, divorce. Particularly when the dead are brown people who live in a different country.

How do you feel about this? Are you concerned that we no longer look up to the elderly as wise, and that we treat them like trash, secretly hoping that they’d just die already?