Dying to Be Born

by Margaret Bishop


I was happy being with my friend while she was dying.
She made me laugh in the morning at the breakfast
table, after we talked about the night before.

I had cried out like a wild animal
and she opened the back door to investigate,
before realizing it was me, asleep in the guest room.

I awakened from my nightmare to her voice,
It's ok, you just had a bad dream.
Do you want to talk about it or go back to sleep?

I couldn't talk. I didn't want to go back to sleep.
I wanted to live inside this moment forever;
Ann sitting beside me at two a.m., patting my arm,

except she was dying and I was supposed
to be taking care of her. I mumbled something
about going back to sleep. Ann got up. She paused

in the doorway. With a faraway look in her eyes,
she said, I guess I am like a mother to you.
I felt something I'd never felt before
but always knew was there, just waiting,
for this moment.

I tried to talk. I wanted to tell her but no words
would come from my open mouth. Ann walked
back to her room to continue working on
her funeral service. I drifted off to sleep,
content as a newborn with a belly full
of warm milk.

In the morning, I, for the first time,
lit the candles in her cathedral like kitchen.
Ann watched from the table,
gazed out the window beyond
and said, While you light the candles,
I'll give thanks and watch the guy mangle the lawn.


That evening, Ann arose abruptly from the supper
table. She emerged from the bathroom a short time later
and stood facing me with glassy petrified eyes.
Her hands clutched at her throat. She couldn’t

I took her arm, guided her to her favorite
easy chair in the corner of her bedroom
and sat on a small round hassock facing her.
It’s ok, I said, while stroking her arm. Trying to pretend
that I was not terrified, too, took me back to the ICU.

The ICU where I spent thirty years in the nursing corps,
waging war against death as if it were a disease
that could, or should, be cured. The ICU where time
is measured and decisions made in split seconds.

Three years retired, my Timex Expedition watch
was still set to military time. The clocks in Ann’s house
moved to a slower rhythm. I hadn’t learned how
to tell time here yet and I raced ahead,

What do I do now
if she's having a stroke?
Or the cancer has spread to her brain?
Or she's hypoxic?
Or she's having an atypical seizure?
Or … ?

I checked her breathing
her pulse
her grip strength
her eyeballs
her tongue,
until thankfully,
I ran out of things to check
and we just sat, holding hands,
until her voice returned.

She told me this had happened before,
when she had surgery to remove her thyroid,
so she knew how to handle it. Though she
reassured me about how I
had reassured her, we both remained unsettled
as we settled in for the night, she
in the hospital bed
that was delivered this afternoon, me
on the couch,
to be close by in case she needed me.

I secured her left rail up, so she
could use it to reposition herself
and left her right rail down, because she
was still able to get up on her own;
thus, our nightly ritual began.
I placed her mother's bell, tissues, tums,
a glass of water on her bedside table,
then paused in the doorway,
until Ann said, You're on your own
if you have a bad dream tonight.


I assured her I would be fine,
then suddenly found myself captain of a skiff
adrift in a turbulent sea, my compass lost
when Ann’s clear blue eyes glazed over.

For ten years my guide, I knew Ann loathed
being held up on a pedestal and treated
like some kind of guru,
but how do you look
at someone who touched you in that place
you were never sure existed
and now that you know
it’s the only thing you live for?

Pacing back and forth at the foot of her bed,
as if on stage, Ann mumbled incoherently
and made wild sweeping gestures
as if she were Toscanini gone mad
in the middle of Mahler’s sixth symphony.

Wanting desperately for her to have the good death
she had spoken often of—and naive and or arrogant
enough to think I had any control over this—
I thought, what if the tempest tugged her over
and under before I could shepherd her safely
to the other shore? Or she broke her hip
tripping over something only she could see?

Ann paced. I thrashed. Sometime before dawn,
I took my watch off and surrendered,
awakening in the tentative first light of day to
Ann’s strong sure voice,
as she leaned out and over the rail of her hospice bed,
turned towards me on the couch and said,
It's ok. You just had a bad dream. Go back to sleep.
I won't be getting up.


Ten years before her terminal illness,
Ann and I met at a hospice
conference, she as a mental health
counselor, I as a nurse. Nineteen
years older, she soon spoke of me as,
my young friend.

I had no idea I was lost until
I saw my reflection in her blue eyes,
beckoning me home. Opening
her short arms wide,
she scooped me up, gathered me in,
and spoke my name as if
I were an answered prayer,
not a rhythm method failure.

I didn’t know I was hungry,
so very, very hungry,
until she plumped me up
and when I was strong enough
she taught me how to fish,
to feed myself from the bountiful
seas of my night time dreams.


Three days before she died,
I returned from an evening out
to find that Ann had refused
to let Lucy, my relief caregiver,
put her to bed because
she was waiting up for me.

Waiting up for me,
in the same miserable defiant playful
state as three hours ago, still wearing
the pink booties, that had arrived as a gift
for her cold feet, like boxing gloves
on her clenched fists.

I gave her morphine. I tucked her in and crawled
into my air mattress. Feeling sleepy
sooner than usual, I asked,
Ann, do you need anything before I drift off?
No, I'm fairly comfortable,
she replied.
Good, cause I'm quite comfy down here,
I said. When she exclaimed, Hot dog!
in that playful tone I didn't expect to hear again,
it felt like we were just a couple of kids
in their bunks at summer camp. I nestled
under my covers and drifted happily off to sleep,
awakening some two hours later
to the sound of Ann stirring above me,
in search of her mittens.


I was forgiven by Ann,
two weeks before she died,
the morning after I tricked her
into taking Ativan. She hadn’t slept
in days. I knew she didn’t want it.
I was exhausted.

I reminded her of what she
had said last year, after I stayed
with her for the first time, during
her bout with pneumonia, Margaret,
there will come a time when you
have to make the decisions.
I pleaded
with her, please, Ann, I think this
is one of those times.

Though her speech wasn't clear,
her gestures were.
With her head shaking, NO!
Both hands signaling, STOP!
Her eyes aflame, she was
a formidable opponent, until
she held out a white flag by pointing
to the bottle of Tylenol across the room.

I crushed one, sprinkled it
in applesauce, and topped it off
with a touch of Ativan.

In the morning at the breakfast
table, where she insisted
on starting each day,
though she had quit eating long ago,
struggling to hold her head up,
her eyes open,

Ann referred to
our little tussle last evening,
then whispered,
You gave me Ativan didn't you?
I confessed and she mouthed,
I forgive you.

I didn't give her Ativan again,
until six hours before she died
when she whispered,
I'm suffocating.

There was no tussle this time
as I placed the tiny white pill
underneath her tongue,
followed by an extra dose of morphine,
and tucked her in for the last time.

Margaret Bishop has discovered the joys of creative writing late in life. After retiring from a thirty-year critical care nursing career, the subject of this poem inspired an interest in Jungian dream work, the surface of which she dog paddled on for years before making the deep dive. This led to the awed discovery of creative parts of herself, such as a charcoal animal portrait artist and nonfiction writer, and to the Haden Institute, where she obtained a certificate in Spiritual Direction. An avid tennis player, she plays with unapologetic abandon.