Speaking of transition


Rain slashed our summer lawn party as guests arrived. Within minutes, the sky cleared. A rainbow appeared over the lake as if orchestrated by my sister. Backyard rainbows were a common theme in childhood photos of her.

A family friend asked: “How are you handling your sister’s transition?”

It was a jarring word. The year was 2014, and I was familiar with “transition” meaning body modifications and fashion choices to make oneself appear more like the other sex. But what did this have to do with my recently deceased sister whose birthday we were celebrating?

“Her transition?” I asked, confused.

“Her crossing over.”

People used euphemisms for my sister’s death—she “passed away,” “completed her mission,” or “went home”—phrases freighted with comforting beliefs I didn’t share.

“Passing away” suggests an acquiescent, unnoticeable departure. “Completed her mission” implies she was no longer needed in this world and exited in triumph. These phrases concealed painful but important facts: my sister’s sudden, violent death was caused by catastrophic head injuries inflicted (I believe) by her husband. She had a strong sense of purpose, and much work to do.

Also, no matter where my siblings and I lived, we always thought of our parents’ house as our home. If my sister had “gone home,” she would have been there with us at her party, sipping bubbly, enjoying a light buffet.

At the time, I couldn’t decide if saying “transition” instead of “death” reflected wishful thinking or whether it was apt. My sister had been transformed. She was self-evidently, unambiguously dead. People automatically used past-tense verbs when speaking about her.

Even so, she had not ceased to exist. She was present in some form—as memory or emotion—for everyone at her party. She was there, but not there, in another room, maybe. Sometimes I dream I’m looking for my sister and I discover grand, hidden rooms in my house.

Six years after my sister’s party, the same family friend asked me: “How are you handling your brother’s transition?”

My brother was still alive. He had been diagnosed with GBM, an aggressive brain cancer. He had soldiered through months of treatments and was on hospice. Meaning, he chose to stop receiving treatment for the disease because it would end his life soon regardless. Hospice care provided him with in-home nursing support and medicine to manage pain and agitation.

As hospice workers delivered the motorized bed in which he would die, my brother and I talked.

“Ask me where I am,” he said.

“Where are you?”

“At mom and dad’s new house.”

I shook my head, puzzled. He was at his own house. Besides, our parents had lived in their house for more than fifty years. They weren’t planning to move. “Which house?” I asked. “By the lake?”

“All I know is, I’m at their new house.” He, too, seemed perplexed. “I’m in two worlds at once. One foot on each side.”

Astride the threshold of what, he didn’t know.

Some people imagine death to be effortless and peaceful. I’ve yet to see one of those. Ragged breathing, delirium, involuntary grimacing, skin discoloration—dying looks and sounds terrible. Parting with one’s body is terrible work.

At my brother’s bedside, I told him: “Hey, it’s OK for you to let go. It’s OK to die.”

By this time, he could barely move or speak. Still, his response was unmistakably sardonic: “I know,” he said wryly. Thanks for granting me permission to proceed. If only death were so easily accomplished.

He was “actively dying,” which may sound like an oxymoron but it appropriately conveys strain and toil. My brother’s active dying went on for days. At the end, we were timing his breaths, measuring the interval between each exhalation and inhalation.

One of his dogs, a spaniel named Early, plodded into the room, got up on the bed, and settled onto my brother’s lap.

“Thirty seconds,” I said, reading my watch. “Forty-five…one minute…two full minutes.”

Rain clouds loomed over my brother’s lawn party, but no rain fell. The sun broke through. Everyone said it was a lovely event.

A couple years later, I became a hospice volunteer. I’ve visited many people who are actively dying. It’s uncanny to be in liminal space with a dying person, and to sense the nearness of this unfathomable threshold.

During a recent visit, a patient’s wife said to me, “What are we doing? We’re standing here, holding the door. That’s our job. Just keeping the door open.”

I’m OK now with the word “transition” in reference to death and dying. It implies transformation rather than destruction. The body perishes in death, no question. But something about the deceased persists, consequentially, among the living.

What’s jarring to me now is “transition” as a euphemism for rejecting or wanting to escape one’s body, wishing for it to be transformed into something it can never be. It strikes me as unreasonably hostile toward oneself. We’ll have to leave our bodies soon enough regardless. I predict it won’t be an easy parting for any of us.

My sister with rainbows in the back yard during the 1970s.