by Tara K Howe
The zero-degree parallel of latitude is fixed by the laws of nature, while the zero-degree meridian of longitude shifts like the sands of time. ― Dava Sobel
I settle into the curve of the road when I drive to her place out past Glanville where the station transformers take power into the hills. Inhale wet straw, dew from hollow tubes channeling the history of the loess. This is not the prairie of my youth, but it could be. I do body and energy work for clients on hospice and I’m driving to see Pam.
The half mile stretch of gravel I turn onto from the main highway is my favorite passage out of the mundane and into surreal. I cannot see her house from here, nor the asphalt behind me. The smaller road, like a second order stream, carries me further through the Palouse hills and into the origin. I’ll make several more turns, gravel eroding to dirt, before I come to her daughter’s house on a clearing. The big shop looming first, the German Shepherd next. Every move inward, a deepening of my contract.
Pam is 84 and dying of cancer. Most older hospice clients are dying of cancer. She had tumors in the bowel that metastasized to the bone. There is something unique about the feeling of a person with mets in the very matrix of their skeleton. Tessellated pockets of emptiness, a hungering away of tissue, there is a heaviness coexisting with lack that typifies the palpable communication of loss to my fingers. And because she is already on hospice, already in the final stages of dying no matter what we do, we have talked about the pros and cons of deeper pressure alongside her spine. On the one hand, no one really knows yet if deep muscular pressure can increase rates of metastasis. On the other, the pain in her back is sometimes so excruciating that her meds are not enough for relief. The call is for her to make.
She loves the pressure, wants bare skin on skin; my hands to smooth instead of probe, balancing the way she necessarily receives IVs and changes of catheters.
Flesh is a multilayered universe. In our embryonic state, the tissue set to become our finely layered epidermal cells bathes with the origins of our nervous system—sharing sensory wholeness in the ectoderm before differentiating into layers of conversation. Later in life, when we touch, a tangible ring of emotion broadcasts itself. I am sad today. I am content. I am confused or mourning. The most compassionate and efficient way to hold someone begins with acknowledging this overall state. We think, as Americans removed from so much basic contact with one another, that this type of discussion is New Age rhetoric, but the sensitivity with which we feel one another comes from a long animal past; an incredible evolutionary history that allowed us to determine the state of being of our kin, our enemies, our allies. Dogs often are the first to sense cancer in their people, and certainly are the ones to lay day and night by our sides when they feel our emotional or physical pain. Humans are no different in our potential to feel one another at this level. Some of us just practice more regularly and refine our conscious discernment as a result.
Pam is days away from death and sinks quickly and easily into a state I do not try to access. My time with Pam has become as much about Pam as it is about her daughter, Maggie, and the resulting conversations we have while Pam drifts, I massage, and Maggie quilts.
“My mother is an artist,” Maggie explains, lifting the footer of the machine to rotate the piece she is stitching. “She painted landscapes, even after she came to live with us, before she was too weak to get out of bed.”
Families feel you, too. They know when they can trust you with words, with touch, with the care of their parents, spouses, children. I am always amazed that families accepts me into the fray. This is everything sacred, and I am a stranger.
But then I’m not. We are not. Together we are not only all dying, but we are all also trying to figure out what that means. I don’t know that I have any preconceived notions, but I certainly have senses about it that I have developed by being on site, in person with imminent death. And I think of the many houses I have been invited into.
Low-income apartments in rural Idaho, one floor, one bedroom, rented when one’s spouse got sick. Hospital equipment dominating the living room where a husband lies on the couch until discomfort transitions him to rented hospital bed.
Houses made from hand-hewn wooden beams, canning jars lining counters, grandchildren’s old sleds, toys and boardgames at the periphery, a country woman walking wood floors until the end.
Television and junk-food-filled kitchen/living room combos with photos of family from floor to ceiling. A sense of celebration in space, small arguments in the kitchen, cigarette smoke draping the front step, and a woman fading in and out in a backroom.
Sterile spaces. Motor homes. Hospital rooms.
I think of the map of deaths laid out over the Palouse, the reaches of regional care limits often extended because we are a small community and how can we say no to someone living just outside a reachable limit? I think of the map and I feel it, this being-ness of which I am a part.
I pass the power station on Highway 9 and become the ten acres of land inhabited by Pam as she died—with her daughter and son-in-law as they mourned—the turns in the road that implicate neighbors and cattle alike, and the ever watchful gaze of the shepherd. The overhead power lines lead me right to where Pam stood next to her own bed before death. Not literally; her body was bed-bound and nearly comatose. She was at the point of restless oscillation between consciousness and that other realm that seems to indicate a kind of personal discussion with death. She would occasionally open her eyes, speak a few words to her family or ask for basic needs like water and reassurance, and then sink into hours of body jolts and moans, lessening lucid moments, and the tether to life.
Still, I sat on the edge of Pam’s bed the last time I would see her and just held my hands at her ankles. I let my eyes soften, my expectations recede, and there she was, some aspect of her being standing beside her body just watching. I felt her body’s breath slow and calm as it moved down her legs. She didn’t do or say anything. She didn’t seem to know I was watching. She just stood there and took in the scene.
Pam died a few days later.
Maggie told me she seemed peaceful. That Maggie herself, and her husband and their children were able to say goodbye.
The longitudes of death that reach across the Palouse are inlays to my own sense of place through community, longevity, and impermanence; a marked integument of a land and people I have been permitted to touch and be touched by. When it rains, or summer-warmed midnight moisture settles in, I seep into these skins, surrender to the lay of the land, and I am carried home.
Tara K Howe was birthed by the insane beauty of the West and writes to all things embodied. She has spent most of her life in some form or another helping to foster human reconnection with land and body. Her poetry and travel stories appear in a variety of small magazines. Find her most recent outreach here: palousewalk.weebly.com