I knit while my mother lay dying. I knit while my ex mother-in-law lay dying. I knit, in fact, while most of my relatives-by marriage, lay dying and while, we the family kept vigil. If you’ve never been fortunate enough to be part of a large, obstreperous Italian family, you might now know about vigils. When a member of the family falls terminally ill, the call goes out. Everyone even remotely close enough, familialy and geographically, to love the stricken one gathers at the hospital. No one goes home.
There can be anywhere from five to twenty-five people gathered in the hospital “family” room, taking turns sitting by the bedside. Snacks are acquired, cell phones are whispered into, tissues are crumbled. There is a lot of pacing, a lot of coffee or tea, some reading and at my mother in law’s vigil, a lot of knitting. Until my mother-in-law’s passing, I had knit alone, sitting by the bed as my own family is of Ukrainian descent and does not vigil. They go home. This is both better and worse, but mostly worse.
Better, because you get to sleep – sort of; worse because you’re generally alone, or at with only one or two others and those others are sitting mute, and tearful, with grimaces or scowls to show their pain. There is no coffee or tea or even water to sip, and certainly no reading or knitting. The only thing allowed is crying. Wailing is encouraged; not crying at all is frowned upon. This is a terrible way to mourn the end of a person’s life.
The person in the bed had good times and bad times, did wonderful things and terrible things. He or she was probably beloved, and all that needs to be remembered. And cried over certainly - but laughed over too. And there needs to be as many relatives gathered as possible. For remembering; for tradition and for comfort.
That’s why, as I am experiencing this, colder, smaller version of death today, I chose the Italian way, the larger, roiling, messily emotional way of the vigil, the way of knitting through, the real Zen of dying. Yes, I know that technically “everyone dies alone”, but how much better to die surrounded my family, who probably loved you but maybe didn’t really. People who will see you through to the other side and who will walk with you as far as they can go. People who will hold you and brush the hair from your forehead and will whisper words of comfort and love to you. I chose this every time. I don’t want to die alone, in the coldness of propriety and long faces and tears.
My father is dying today. I don’t know how long it will take because we don’t really know why he’s fallen into the unresponsive state he’s in. The doctors and hospital staff have no clue. Its not a coma, its not a stroke; we know what its not - but not what it is. As such, we have no idea how long it might go on. He's been ill for two years, a state he put himself into when my brother died. But now, after a long, slow decline, his heart rate is erratic, but high, not low.
So we sit and cry, and stare mournfully at him, and stand by the bed and call to him to try and get him to respond. But there’s no knitting. I wouldn’t dare bring it – I’d be struck down by the dirty looks. And so, it’s harder and more painful than it has to be.
Yesterday, influenced by my family's peculiar version of Eastern European stoicism – and over my desperate longing for their comforting presence - I told my daughters not to rush to the hospital. I told my eldest to go ahead and do her food shopping for the week. I told my youngest she didn’t have to interrupt her afternoon to come and hold my hand. I’m a big girl, I told them. I can do this, don’t interrupt your lives to come and sit here – we don’t know how long this will go on. And they didn’t believe me, and they argued with me, and it felt wrong to them, and the words felt like stones in my mouth to me, even as I was saying them.
Of course I should have let them come. I needed them. I needed the all-encompassing warmth of the vigil – even for an hour. Whatever it was they were doing was not as important as this shared sorrow. My father is a difficult man. And he really didn’t care much about his beautiful granddaughters and didn’t even know or mark their birthdays. They wouldn’t come for him – except as a matter of form – they come for me. And I missed them terribly yesterday and I won’t make that mistake ever again.
I still may not be able to knit through and find solace in the comforting movement of yarn through my fingers and softly clicking needles – but I can certainly have my daughters, who will bring the warmth and love of their father's big Italian family with them, there to hold me close and warm me against the chill of my family. And I called them this morning and they’re coming to the hospital on their lunch hour. Today, at least for a brief moment – there will be a vigil.