I watched a movie last week. It opened in a hospital with a mother on her deathbed.
Her young son standing by her side, holding back tears.
She looked over at him with tired eyes. And said sweet things like I love you, and you’ll be fine, and don’t you worry about me.
Before she drifted gently away.
But death doesn’t look like that.
All glitter and glamor and Hollywood.
And I didn’t know it until last year.
Before anyone dies in the movies, they get to say their final lines.
They get to finish their role.
They get to play their part.
But death doesn’t work like that.
Death comes in when you’re all alone in the hospital on Sunday night.
Because visiting hours are over. And your husband has gone back home.
When you think it’s just a bad cold, but really it’s pneumonia.
When they say you’re in ICU just as a precaution, but a third of hospitalized pneumonia patients don’t make it.
When the doctor comes into your room far later than he should for the day,
And you have to take notes with shaky hands because no one is there to take them for you.
And your two daughters are scattered across the country.
Planning their Christmas visits to see you.
And they have no idea what’s coming.
And neither do you.
That’s how death works.
So you scribble down jagged notes in your tiny book and put it in your purse to tell Tom the next morning when he returns to your side.
But you never get the chance.
You’re the one-third.
And all alone, you slip into a coma.
With no one to tell your final lines to. No one to hear your goodbyes.
In the movies, the hospital patients look like mannequins.
Sickness is painted on with makeup.
Medical equipment is just another prop.
There are flowers on the bedside.
There are flowers.
But that’s not what death looks like.
Death looks like me calling Southwest Airlines in a panic to try to move my Christmas trip five days earlier because my mom might die.
Death looks like packing a black turtleneck dress next to a reindeer sweater because I’m not sure what the next seven days have in store.
Death looks like crying at an airport bar on a Monday afternoon while my flight’s delayed for two hours.
There is no glitter, no glamor in death.
And when I get to the hospital I’m rushed down dingy corridors lit by humming fluorescent overheads. It smells like latex and bleach and sweat (that I realize only later is actually my own).
Family members are on their phones contacting more family members. Everyone looks up when I arrive, but no one smiles. That’s what death looks like.
Like a monstrous version of the woman I call mother.
Blown up with so much fluid. So swollen I’m scared to touch her. Scared she might burst.
Death looks like eyelids held shut by medical tape.
Big puffy blisters all over her turgid face.
Black and blue bruises covering arms and cheeks.
Tubes shoved up her nose.
Needles coming out of her skin.
And small splotches of blood on the blanket from everywhere she’s been stuck.
In the movies, even the dying have a good hair stylist.
But mom’s soft hair was matted up on top of her head in a sticky, messy sumo-wrestler style bun.
She was foreign to me…unfamiliar.
I had to squint and study to recognize my mother in this ballooned woman lying on that hospital bed.
She looked like death.
Death looks like an oxygen monitor that keeps dropping further and further away from 100.
Death looks like a plastic bag that won’t fill up with urine.
It means she’s too sick. It means her organs are broken.
It means she’s not getting better.
It means she’s not coming back to say goodbye.
Death looks like planning a funeral four days before Christmas.
And opening the presents she got for me on the floor of her living room. Underneath her pink and white tree. Without her there to watch. Or hug. Or thank.
Death looks like two sisters with no mother.
Without a second take.
Without a denouement.
This is what death looks like.