Allow Natural Death

Exactly six years ago I bought a Nintendo Wii – came home from Toys “R” Us, plugged it in. (The box is still there on the floor of my girlhood bedroom, right where I left it in another November.)

“Can you imagine, Al?” my mother asked my father. “In our lifetime?” She was standing around marveling as I – ahem – went bowling.

Then I saw the Wii’s “pacemaker” warning and now I was pushing my adoptive dad out of the room. “Out, out!” I commanded him. I was not going to be the one to murder my father, thank you.

———

I played videogames exactly because I wasn’t permitted to and I reviewed them for money simply to irritate my mother further. If you have a streak of impishness running through you, there is no better motivator than having someone in your life telling you what you cannot do.

It wasn’t until that February column, the one about Creatures, that my mother announced she finally understood.

“I think,” she said to me carefully, “I’ve been telling you the wrong thing.”

“No,” I said, and then I was unusually quiet, because I was beaming. Or maybe gloating. Or maybe I was just standing there quietly: I don’t remember.

I often tell freelancers that every article they write should be a love letter to just one person: they ought to picture that person, maybe pine a little for her or his love, as they write directly to that person. The Creatures column, I’d written directly to my mother.

———

I’ve never cried so hard as when they told me to play music during it – you know, during the whatever. The doctors were telling us to get the house ready: it was the first time anyone openly said death was imminent. I suddenly remembered I’d never gotten the living room CD player fixed. I doubled over; I almost vomited.

———

It has been proposed that the term DNR – literally, “do not resuscitate” – be replaced with the term AND. The words “do not resuscitate” imply crucial treatment is somehow being withheld; “allow natural death,” conversely, suggests that something is being given.

“People ignore families’ wishes all the time,” one of the doctors – the doctor I liked least – told me, smirking.

The words “do not resuscitate” imply crucial treatment is somehow being withheld; “allow natural death,” conversely, suggests that something is being given.

I launched into an angry speech, my If People Died Whenever They Felt Like It, Everyone Would Be Dead diatribe.

“I guess I was hoping there would be another option,” my cousin said to the doctor.

“Well,” I snapped at her, “this isn’t a buffet,” and my cousin burst into tears.

———

My mother didn’t adopt me until 1993, but I moved in with her a few years earlier, in 1989.

When I was a child I was frightened of needles and during my first immunization the doctors had to chase me through the room, had to hold me down and stick me. I have always been scared of doctors.

After that, my mother and I worked out a system: I would concentrate on her face, and she would hold my hand and recite, “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you—”

———

I sat in the darkened ICU and thought a lot about videogames. I thought about possibilities and branching decision trees.

One very bad night, I realized I’d started thinking about games in which you, the main character, are tasked with giving your victims the “best” possible death, games in which a death can somehow be botched.

It was September 23, near midnight, and the nurse was switching out my mother’s fluids. I watched, alarmed, as my mother’s vitals plunged. Then new bags were connected and the little line graphs on monitors, illustrating how “alive” she was, righted themselves and straightened.

I stared at the nurse. “There isn’t time to get her all the way home,” I said.

“I’m not allowed to guess,” the nurse said. “But—”

I’d worked so hard to improve my mother’s condition; in reality, I had bungled her death instead. I had encouraged what was already, with or without my stabs at intervention, a complete shitshow.

One time, I glanced over and my mother’s eyes were perfectly focused. They were focused on me.

“Oh,” I said to her numbly, “you’re awake. Hang on.” I dug around my totebag.

“I have a couple things I wanted to show you,” I said to her, then, walking to the bed and sitting. “Do you remember the game I did voice for? It came out. Hang on, I’ll show you.”

With multiple organ failure it’s hard to get everything balanced just right so that oxygen is getting to the brain and the person can “wake up.” So, if nothing else, I know how to misallocate an important moment. Here I was, with my mother dying in front of me, and I still wanted her to be proud. Just, proud. Oh, my God, it’s so self-centered.

I demonstrated the game on my iPhone. It was impossible to hear my tinny recorded voice over the sound of her machines, so I repeated the words after I’d heard another version of myself say them. “Line,” I narrated to her. “Hear that? ‘Triangle.'”

My game ended quickly. “Well, okay, that’s that,” I said, putting the phone down and fumbling for something else. “Remember my story? My story came out in the magazine. Um, in August.”

I opened a chapbook in front of her, and she touched its pages, and then she took the magazine from me and shut it and kind of massaged its cover with her thumb. Then she dropped the magazine into the folds of the bed and reached for my hand, and she took my hand and squeezed it.

And squeezed it again. And then I cried, and she squeezed my hand another time, and I looked up and right into her eyes, which were wet and meaningful and so clear, and her face was obscured by the breathing mask but her eyebrows were furrowed the way they always are when I cry, and I apologized to her for hurting her and for being so sad, and I looked down again at our clasped hands, and then I folded myself in half and cried into both our hands.

And then I pitched forward off the chair and onto my knees and I cried into her bedsheets and kissed her hand, because there was that mask forcing air into her and there was too little of her face to kiss.

———

Around the same time, in another part of Texas, Terry demonstrated the last scenes of the game I’d shown my mother, Super Hexagon. It’s Terry’s game, and Terry is better at playing it than anybody else.

Hexagon is an important game. The first time I met Terry I made him stand there and listen to my ideas about that game, about how his game is about living life. I talked about stopping and waiting and then moving, about pivoting your cursor until you find your window of opportunity. I told him about luck and not-luck and memory and decisiveness.

“It sounds very nice when you put it that way,” Terry told me pleasantly.

Recently, Edge‘s Jason Killingsworth asked Terry about the possibility of Super Hexagon being about death instead.

And in that closing scene – spoiler! – where the world slows down and then opens up, and you backtrack through the narrative of your cursor’s life, and it really was impossible to survive much longer…well, I don’t know how else to describe it except as a death. I think it’s very beautiful, that most players will never see it.

Doctors couldn’t’ve convinced me. I thought about never disconnecting the wires and tubes. I thought about adding more tubes. I wondered how much of my life I could execute from that small room: I thought about staying there for the rest of my life. I tried to picture what it might feel like, to live in that room with her.

I remember my cousin helplessly asking one of the doctors what we were supposed to do. She was asking the doctor I fought most, the one I liked least.

“You could hold her hand,” the doctor said. “Skin, ah, has a memory.”

———

Instead of giving the order, I announced I’d give the order in twenty minutes.

I didn’t cry, not right then. Instead I thought about the depths of my own poor judgment. I wished, for her sake and not mine, my mother had any other daughter at the controls.

The obituary I wrote for my mother was stupid. I knew I wanted to honor her, but I wasn’t sure how. I didn’t know how to write about her. Just trying to – I felt a type of shame, like now.

I wrote about her life – where and when she was born, her accomplishments, that she liked tennis – entirely from memory. I wanted to ask her questions; I wanted to fact-check. I wanted to Google her. I wanted to scream.

———

The last words my mother spoke to me were: “Let me go. Let me go. Let me go. Let me go. Let me go.”

I let go of her hand. “No one’s holding you,” I said to her stupidly.

And then I heard myself, and then I was able to hear her, really hear her, and I gasped.

When you choose a natural death for somebody, it might feel like dropping off a cliff when, maybe, in free-fall you say to yourself, “This isn’t what I want, how do I stop this?”

I wanted to stop; instead what I shouted was, “Is this what you guys meant by ‘comfortable.'”

One of the last things I told my mother was “I am letting you go.” In the hospital they tell you to say that to the person in the bed. They told me to say that because her heart just wouldn’t stop.

Thank God she couldn’t hear me: it was a lie.

But the very last thing I told my mother, with my back toward her and my arm crooked behind me, squeezing her hand – and this was the thing I really meant, and probably the rest of the room didn’t know why I suddenly sounded so crazy – was, “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you—”

———

Follow Jenn Frank on Twitter @Jennatar.

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  • http://twitter.com/dan_goldman @dan_goldman

    Wow, Jen… This was a beautiful and raw piece of writing.
    I write about death a lot and I was there with you both.

  • http://twitter.com/Unfriendlyghost @Unfriendlyghost

    Thank you for writing this piece.

    • http://www.jualapartemenmurah.com jual apartemen

      Such a touching article… Thanks for writing this.

  • http://twitter.com/NanoPunk @NanoPunk

    Oh shit. Tears. Thank you for writing this, Jenn.

    I went through the same thing with a family member back in July.

  • theplotlessplot

    Thank you for this.

  • deliberateobfuscation

    Beautiful thoughts.

  • http://twitter.com/ElizSimins @ElizSimins

    Beautiful.

  • http://twitter.com/_tomph @_tomph

    Terry brought me here. Thanks for your beautiful writing.

  • Mr. Drayton

    Such a touching article… Thanks for writing this.

  • Rich Clark

    Thank you Jenn.

  • http://twitter.com/virtualstowaway @virtualstowaway

    There are no words–I can only say thank you, like everyone else.

  • http://exhaustport.wordpress.com @JasonRRice

    Your clarity and honesty about something so personal is amazing.

    The comment about a game in which your are responsible for the quality of death made me think of The Walking Dead. In a zombie story death is inevitable, no matter how effectively you experience the story, so it's all about ensuring that every character is given the most appropriate death possible. It's a little depressing to consider it that way, but I think that base understanding that nobody is getting out alive is what lets us connect so deeply to the characters in that game. There are no long-term stakes, it's just the emotional moment to moment. Almost like the idea that you don't know what you've got until you know it's going to go away.

  • stevensukkau

    Welp, now I am crying. Crying at work. They'll know I am not working.

  • Wally

    Thank you for writing this Jenn. I am sorry for your loss.

  • Erica

    So raw. So accurate. So touching.

    Thank you.

  • JumpingEyebrows

    Beautiful. Just beautiful

  • Chuck

    Hugs

  • amicusfinch

    Wow Jenn, you have a way with words. My father-in-law has been more of a father to me than my biological dad. He has been battling cancer for 4 years and, back in October, decided to quit chemotherapy. This, of course, was a death sentence, but he was just tired of the side effects and the horribly low quality of life. My wife and I got a call 3 weeks ago letting us know that it was time. We packed up and drove 2 hours in dead silence not knowing what lay ahead of us. He, like your mother, wanted a natural death. Without going into the agonizing details of the entire ordeal I distinctly relate to the thoughts you expressed in this article. Three and a half days of watching a man I loved slowly fade away in a fashion that, to me, looked agonizing. Hospice was there to make him "comfortable", but the constant groans for around 90 hours straight told me that not even high doses of intravenous morphine could make this process comfortable. I, like you, kept thinking "man, he made the wrong choice. If he could talk he would tell us to call the doctor and start chemo again." At least he is no longer suffering and if there is a God, I am certain he is with him or her.

    Keep writing Jenn as you have a gift of describing intangible emotions that are often indescribable.

    • http://twitter.com/jennatar @jennatar

      This is pretty exactly how it went. I'm so, so sorry that you know about this. Please remember that the real gift was your presence. Nobody wants to tackle death alone, and your father-in-law didn't.

  • http://twitter.com/cheshster @cheshster

    You are a national treasure, Jenn.

  • Nick Michetti

    I'm very sorry for your loss, Jenn. I lost my mom to breast cancer in May of last year and I know that the pain is difficult. I'll keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers.

    This piece was amazing, heartfelt, and well written.

  • http://www.benjedwards.com Benj Edwards

    It’s amazingly hard to comment on something like this tactfully, so I’ll keep it short. This is an amazing piece of writing. Sorry for your loss. Keep writing.

  • http://twitter.com/totten_s @totten_s

    Most of us avoid talking about death, or even thinking about it. You have written about it in a way that is brutally honest and very beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  • http://twitter.com/Tuckinator @Tuckinator

    I don't even know how to begin to say what it meant to me to read this… thank you so much for writing it. So much.

  • Jason C.

    This is the most emotionally moving piece of writing that I have ever read. That is not hyperbole, either. I lost my grandfather to complications of Parkinson's last month, and this brought me back there – as if I had stepped into a time machine. I think we all have that one person – sometimes a biological parent and sometimes a person that is standing in where those have failed us – who acts as our waypoint in the shit-storm of life. Letting that person leave you – forever – is an absolutely terrifying thing to do. In fact, I am still terrified. Since I'm a few days late, you might not ever see this – but you've earned a reader for as long as you are putting your thoughts into words. Thanks for writing this.

  • http://twitter.com/BarrelRoll42 @BarrelRoll42

    Wow.

  • Jonah

    Thank you Jenn. Thank you.

  • Jen Ho

    I called my mother after reading this, and am almost glad she wasn't there as I might have broken down over the phone. I am so sorry for your loss, but thank you for sharing it in this way. You do honor your mother well.

    • http://twitter.com/jennatar @jennatar

      Sending you all my love, hon.

  • http://www.insteadofletters.com Andreas Öjerfors

    I rarely post comments, but I just wanted to say that I appreciate your text very much. It made me cry, and it made me think of my family and what they mean to me. Thank you.

  • Leo

    Fantastic.

  • http://www.lonelymushroom.com sinister agent

    I got here via RPS, and just wanted to say thank you, this is heartbreaking, and beautiful.

  • UnknownLands

    Thank you Jenn, thank you so much.

    I cried so much – I never thought I would ever feel these emotions again, I can feel the pain and sadness leaving my entire body, leaving a trail of fog in the room, made of past grief and memories. The first time I faced the death of someone I personally knew, was a year ago. It still feels like a month ago to me.

    I lost my grandmother, who was holding on life for so many years (when doctors said it wouldn't last long), a day after seeing her one last time (we didn't thought it would be the last), holding her hands and being there when she had these short moments of lucidity and awareness, recognizing me and smiling, looking so happy.

    We "could" have added more tubes to her, do more and more surgery, but that would have thrown her into a terrible state of confusion, pain and mental suffering like the previous time, it would have only kept her alive to suffer even more, being even more lost, not recognizing anyone anymore. It would have been a real hell. So we, in the end, choose to allow her natural death, after all her children (and grandchildren) came to visit her, after she had these last moments of humanity she could have got from life. I have come to accept that her life was complete, that for a women of her generation, who lived through WW2 and had many of her friends disappearing, she lived a happy, fulfilling live.

    The fact that you were with her during her last moments is the most important thing ever, by being there she was living the life she had with you since 1989, she was with her daughter, and went away as happy as she could in this situation. No more doctors, no more machines, no more diseases, she was with you and you only, she was seeing you grow up and becoming a responsible adult, she was seeing you becoming a successful video game writer, she was being a mother, first and foremost.

    Thank you so much Jenn, I wish more people were as good as you.

    • http://twitter.com/jennatar @jennatar

      Your remarks made me cry. I cried, reading this comment.

      I left a lot of things out on purpose—intubation, surgeries, the very ideas of those as possibilities—and you've reminded me of all of them. I just don't know what else to say. This… this is how it went. I'm so sorry. I'm just so sorry.

      I stuck to my guns because her pneumonia had almost cleared, because she'd lived all those times she wasn't "supposed" to. It's hard to explain why, finally, I decided this time was different. Obviously I am torn between feeling I did too little and too much. I am so, so sorry, friend.

      I am not a particularly good person, no. But there are certain moral and ethical questions we are handed, and I ultimately picked something that defies everything I believe morally. Most important, though, is what you yourself already said: we must be present and immediate and willing, even if we aren't that willing. And you're right—if I have to choose between what someone "needs" and her joy, I now know how I will always choose.

      Thank you for your gracious, loving comment. It is hard to read, but it is true in every way.

  • http://oyog.deviantart.com Paul Ware

    This is heartbreaking and beautiful and I love you and I love being here to experience life and I wish my girlfriend wasn’t working right now and I think I’m going to call my parents.

    • http://twitter.com/jennatar @jennatar

      Yes, yes, yes. Life is beautiful. Call your parents.

  • James

    Beautiful

  • Jed Ashforth

    Beautiful Jen, thank you so much.

  • http://spiritualmeanderings.wordpress.com/ Sentinel

    A beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing what you went through.

  • http://helpfulpapers.com/ helpfulpaper

    So touching, so deep… You've got an exceptional writign talent. I don't remember the last time when somebody's post moved me to tears like yours… Thanks for sharing and I am really really sorry for your loss.

  • http://costeffectivetravel.com Steve7

    Very moving. I'm a writer myself, but I would have struggled to articulate what must have been such a traumatic personal experience as well as you did. I can only offer my condolences and hope that writing this post may have helped you to cope better with your loss.

  • http://cdh.ma/ mandy

    this just awesome

  • katrinaml

    Hi Jenn, your story is so touching, I don't know what to say. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  • http://catatanmodda.com CatatanModda

    The words “do not resuscitate” imply crucial treatment is somehow being withheld; “allow natural death,” conversely, suggests that something is being given.

    I like these words.

  • Solace

    Came for the articles on feminism, stayed for this. Keep it up.