A Checklist for Dying

by Vicki Mayk

Get a notebook. It doesn’t have to be fancy, the hospice nurse says. A spiral one -- the kind kids use in school -- will do. Pick the cheerful blue one. Use it to make a list in case your emotions get the better of you – or because you are moving robotically through the day due to exhaustion from getting up during the night to check on your mother.  Just consult the list. No memory required. It works nicely to record the daily duties that are the equivalent of laying bricks on the path to the grave.

Administer the medicine. Count the pills looking like brightly colored beads into the day-of-the-week pill case. Prime the injection for the dose of insulin that Mom insists on giving herself – her last opportunity for self-sufficiency.

Ignore the bruises. The marks, blue-black and purple on her paper-thin skin, are necessary. They confirm attempts to handle the pain, balance blood sugar, remain among the living.

Make the appointments. Oncologist. Chemo. Blood work. Coordinate the schedule so that everyone in the family knows who is driving to what appointment on which day. Never miss a day of work while ensuring Mom never misses an appointment.

Drive to chemo appointment. Engage in idle chat on the way to the doctor’s office, distracting Mom with a story about Aunt Betty and her drinking. “She drinks, she smokes and she’s going to out-live all of us,” Mom declares in a tone that indicates she finds this unfair. Switch to describing the antics of your dog, Barkley, who she refers to as her grand dog. This will help her to avoid anticipating the miserable hours watching drugs, the equivalent of poison, drip into her veins. Pull up close to the building’s entrance and help her out, then go to park the car and scurry back so you can ride the elevator up with her, holding her arm gently as she exits and totters toward the oncologist’s office door.

Make chicken soup. It’s the one thing she can eat, even on the days when chemo sours the stomach and wrecks her appetite. Peel and chop the carrots. Dice the onion. Thinly slice the celery. Pull chicken from the carcass. Add it all to the chicken broth and simmer until the kitchen is fragrant and there’s no scent of decay.

Clean the television screen. This guarantees a clear picture for Mom’s viewing pleasure. There’s nothing like “Dancing With The Stars” to distract an 85-year-old woman with lung cancer. It’s not exactly the dancing that distracts her. It’s Maxim Shmerkofsky, the handsome Russian ballroom dancer, who takes her mind off her disease. Later you’ll remember what Mom always said when she saw him: “He can put his shoes under my bed any day.”

Do the laundry. Mom’s soft pajamas, feminine and trimmed with lace, pass through your hands from the laundry bag to the washing machine. Pretreat the stains. Add the detergent. Wash and dry. Fold them like the relics they soon will become, laying them with reverence back in the drawer.

Make the arrangements. This is another suggestion from the nurse who told you to get the notebook. Do it now, while Mom is still alive, she says. This euphemism for visiting the undertaker and picking out the box for her ashes doesn’t make it any less grim. The nurse tells you that you’ll be glad you didn’t wait to do this chore. Nothing about it makes you glad.

Call her friends. It’s important to do this while she’s still lucid enough to enjoy the conversations. Get out the address book with the picture of the cute puppy on the front. Begin to methodically go through the list of friends. Follow the letters of the alphabet: They lead you to names signifying life-long relationships. Call them first. Dial the numbers and hand Mom the phone. She doesn’t tell her friends that she’s calling them for the last time. You don’t either.

Watch her die. She falls asleep one day and is never awake again. The hospice nurses call it actively dying. Months later you’ll try to remember the last conversation you had with her.

Listen. Play the last message Mom left on your cell phone. Repeat over and over again. Hear her voice reminding you that she needs you to go to the bank for her. Remember when you added that chore to the blue notebook.

Adjust to the loss. You can’t. You wonder what you’re going to do now that you’ve got all this time on your hands.

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About the Author

Vicki Mayk is a writer, teacher and editor whose work has appeared in Ms Magazine, Hippocampus, Literary Mama, The Manifest-Station, and the anthology Air, published by Hippocampus Magazine and Books. Her book, Growing Up on the Gridiron: Football, Friendship and the Tragic Life of Owen Thomas, was published by Beacon Press. She teaches adult nonfiction workshops. She earned an MFA in nonfiction from the Maslow Graduate Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University.

Vicki Mayk
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