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Chris Magyar

Following the Process

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I'm back in Denver, in my childhood home. It's full now of relatives and visitors, though on the brink of being half empty. Many things have changed in three decades, but the neighborhood is not one of them. Some street signs have been spruced up; some trees are taller; some house colors have gone from taupe to tan. Everything looks like slightly older to me, though it wouldn't look old to someone seeing it for the first time. It would just look as it is: a mature suburban covenant-controlled community surrounding an elementary school and some meandering greenbelts, with too many streets sharing the same name and too few home models to fill out its acreage with an illusion of variety.

One change is the rabbits. When I was a child, we'd have the occasional fox up from the creek, or an errant goose looking lost in a fenced backyard, or the splayed corpse of a roadkill prairie dog, or an alarmed squirrel racing across a fence top, but we never saw rabbits. These new interlopers are field hares, brown and lean with upright ears, and they scamper everywhere now. They dart in front of car headlights across the cul-de-sac, or dash between manicured flower gardens. They run in chaotic directions, disturbing what seemed so orderly to me in my youth, an encroachment of nature's most mindless breeders, mammalia effluvia. Today, one huddled in a lightly falling snow by the hibernating rose bushes, methodically eating a patch of brown grass.

Very little is done about the rabbits. They are a nuisance, but no full-scale war to eradicate them has been launched. Very little open space remains anywhere near my parents' house -- when I was young, there were acres of ranchland to the south, all the way to the horizon -- so the rabbits are passively, grumpily accepted as part of the process of nature's pushback. They have metastasized.

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When my grandmother, the one we called Nanny, my mother's mother, passed away five years ago, my mom did something instantly legendary. Nanny was always a beautiful woman, and somewhat vain about her appearance. Born in 1919, she was a fiery redhead from a family with a dozen siblings, and she apparently celebrated her way through the Depression and War, maintaining, even into her widowhood and grandmotherhood, the air of a fun-loving party girl with a whip-cracking speaking cadence. When we arrived at the church for her funeral, she was in a side room for a pre-service viewing. My uncle mentioned to my mom that "she looks pissed off to be dead," and sure enough, the mortician had presented her as a stern gray-haired schoolmarm with a severe frown.

My mother reached into the casket and attempted to prod her features into a smile, and pushed across her forehead like it was pie dough, to smooth the furrowed brow. All the while she complained, "How could they make her look like this?" We all found this scene to be hilarious, because it brought out my mother's feisty personality and put it into direct, darkly humorous contact with Nanny's legendarily cold vanity. The rest of the service was a blur. That moment was the tribute I'll remember.

Later, when my mother spoke of the hole she felt, the terrible void that losing a mother leaves behind, and how she still wanted to just call Nanny ... I thought of the process of grieving, the stages so often cited. I don't know what they are. In my mind, they became 1) futile attempt to physically fix the problem, 2) complaining, 3) a void, 4) what we never spoke about after that. Acceptance, I hope.

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My mom looks angry. She'll be cremated, so I won't be able to carry on the peculiar family tradition of funereal hijinks, but I feel the temptation, when sitting with her, to push her face around, smooth the frown lines cancer has placed there, return her face to a semblance of order.

She stopped speaking a few days ago, and now sleeps in a wash of morphine dreams at all times. If she wakes, it is only to scream from pain.

The hospice is beautiful. The level of care and attention is almost overwhelming. Everything that can be done to make her comfortable is being done. The only thing the hospice cannot provide is the answer to our biggest question: when will she die? Instead, we speak of The Process, which is mentioned so often it has become a proper noun. Is that irregular breathing normal? It's part of The Process. How about the fluids? Should she have oxygen? No, this is just part of The Process. The swelling? We can manage the pain of it, but it's all part of The Process. (How can a Process have no next step? How can humans have been dying for this long and still be unable to predict this Process? Aren't we just watching a Random Accretion of Typical Problems?)

We talk to her, and around her. I hope that the morphine doesn't cloud her senses too terribly, because I like to think that she dreams, and our voices infiltrate her dreams and place us there in her mind, the way an alarm clock will worm its way into your morning dream narrative, or a need to pee will manifest a waterfall.

But when it's only the two of us, I fall silent. I watch The Process. I keep an ear on the rhythm of her breathing, irregular and percussive as a jazz drum fill. I study the frown lines, to see if they ease with a bolus of Ativan. I watch the artery in her neck pulse with rapid, desperate life.

Tonight, the nurse said that her heart rate is increasing. This is also part of The Process. She's not far from the heart rate of my unborn child. Just last week, I heard its bird-like thrumming. Our hearts are in such a hurry at the beginning and the end.

This Process, this death by nature, it's awful to behold. I want to solve. I want to smooth. I want to wipe the rabbits out, and I want to eat a meal at the kitchen table with my dad at 10 o'clock, myself at 7 o'clock, my sister at 4 o'clock, and her at 1 o'clock, laughing, complaining, asking annoying questions, and not frowning.

But I'm fine. I'm coping. It's all just ... it's a ... you know.

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