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'Are You Disappointed I Haven't Died?' – A Conversation with a Terminally Ill Woman

"I sleep a lot, almost as if my body can't really be bothered with the whole staying awake thing."

by Jasmin Schreiber
25 April 2018, 8:15am

Photo courtesy of unsplash user Christian Newman

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany

Jasmin Schreiber is a journalist and writer based in Berlin, currently training to offer care to the terminally ill. Her work won't involve medically nursing patients, but offering them comfort, counselling and emotional support. On her blog, Jasmin writes about life, death and mourning, and shares the experiences she's had on her path to becoming a volunteer carer. It was on her site that this account of counselling her first patient, *Gerda, originally appeared.

*

"Do you know the last time someone called me by my first name?" she asks me. "It was six weeks ago, while I was having an X-ray. My nurse actually called me Gerda, which was really nice."

Gerda's eyes look wet and tired. She is always tired. I'm sitting at her bedside and we're playing cards, or at least trying to. She can barely see the deck and I don't understand the rules. We're like two characters performing a comedy sketch. "But your family speaks to you?" I ask. "Sure, they call me nana or mama, but not Gerda," she says. "Everyone who used to call me that aren't around anymore. I'm a dinosaur," she adds as she corrects my card move. "It's your turn."

Gerda is dying, which is why I'm here. Her family contacted me on her request after she read one of my blog posts. Gerda wanted to offer me the chance to write about her final day. "Please watch me die," she asked me when we first spoke, "you can learn something."

And that's how I ended up here, playing Canasta. Gerda's fingers are thin and knobbly, the skin hanging off the bones. "Take a hold of my hand," she instructs me. I take her hand in mine and immediately notice how swollen her joints are and the way her fingers bend, as if she could grab something at any moment – my nose, my mind, my heart or maybe all three. But that's the point: Gerda grabs me from the inside and I deliberately let it happen.

"Are you disappointed that I haven't died?"

"When I die, my daughter will wash me, like I did for my mother," Gerba explains. "She'll wash me and clothe me, and then I'll lie for a night right here in this house. After all, I'm still her mother, and you have to look after your mother, even if she's dead. And besides, we have to say our goodbyes, the house and me. The house has to get used to the idea that I’m not going to be around anymore. It will take a bit of time, you know?"

No, I don't really know. I don’t really know anything about any of this, because I've never been invited to watch someone die before. Sitting next to Gerda, I feel like a five-year-old who has never really experienced anything at all.

She lived through two World Wars, a divided Germany, outlived two husbands and raised three children – two of whom are still alive. She has four grandchildren, and throughout her life has looked after 23 pets, mostly cats.

"Feel my pulse," she tells me. I turn her hand around, which is still lying in mine, and place my fore and middle fingers on her wrist. One hundred beats a minute, resting. "My heart is racing, it's sprinting for the line," she laughs. Hearts countdown, I suggest. "Oh that's nice, I'll remember that."

She grabs my cards and shuffles them afresh. "When a person is dying," she says, "life just slows down somehow. I'm a fading tree. I'm never hungry anymore because I can't taste anything. Apart from salt, that's all I can taste – but it's hardly an exciting taste when that's all you can taste. And I only pee a little, if I can talk about peeing. I also sleep a lot, almost as if my body can't really be bothered with the whole staying awake thing. If you never really wake up properly, it's pretty easy to go back to sleep."

There are long pauses between her thoughts. She is exhausted. Nevertheless, she's won again, and I still have no idea how – and, more importantly, how a person even wins a game of Canasta.

"So will you write about my death?" she asks, making it clear that she's too tired, and I'm not smart enough, to keep playing the card game. "No," I reply. "But why not?" she says, genuinely upset. I ask if she doesn't consider her death too personal for others to read about in detail. "If it helps, you can change my name to Gerda – I've always liked that name," she explains. "I want you to observe then write about it so my daughter can print it out and keep it as a way of helping her deal with my death."

Suddenly something jumps on my lap. "That's Felix," Gerda says, introducing me to her ginger cat. "I know the name isn't very imaginative, but I'd run out of ideas and the name is as good as any other." I stroke Felix on his back as we exchange suspicious looks.

"Are you married?" Gerda asks me. "A boyfriend?" she tries after I tell her that I'm not. "Not anymore, we recently broke up," I say. "That's strange," she responds, "a woman who isn't afraid of death should definitely be married." But I am afraid of death, very much so, I explain. "But you’re happy to face your fears, which takes guts. People who aren't afraid are not living right."

Gerda leans back and closes her eyes. For a while, we just sit in silence. Her breathing becomes laboured. She tries to cough now and again, but it's difficult for her.

"I'm really looking forward to death because then I’ll finally have peace."

"Take my hand again, like before," she tells me. "That's nice. You're very warm." I ask if she's afraid of death. "Not as much as I'm afraid of dying. I hope it doesn't hurt. I'm really looking forward to death, because then I'll finally have peace. Does she believe in the afterlife? "I change my mind every day. I don't know and I don't think it's that important. If there's nothing there, then I won't realise there's nothing there. But if there is something, then I'll know soon enough, right?"

Again we're silent.

"I don't think I'll die today."
"No?"
"Are you disappointed that I haven't died?"
"What? No!"
"I'm a little disappointed. I would have loved to have died for you, it really wouldn’t have bothered me."
"That's a very strange sentence."
"Well, I would have been your first proper death as a volunteer...I would have been a little proud of that."
"Do you want to bet on when you'll die?"
"Yes, of course – I used to love betting on race horses because I'm very competitive. I'll eventually get to be your first death and maybe your prettiest, as well"

I'm not sure if she's making fun of me now. She gives nothing away; the perfect poker face. I break our latest silence by asking if she's happy with the way her life has gone. "Yes, I really did everything that I could have," she smiles. "Now I'm at the end… everything is as it should be. Come over and visit me another time and we'll try dying again."

There wasn't a second meeting. Gerda died on the 7th of March, 2018. She was the first person I had counselled that had died – and yes, the prettiest.

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