I have had the blessing of being a participant in a person’s death. My mother’s death. One moment there were three of us and then just two and the remains of a dearly loved one. My mom wasn’t feeling well she had been feeling “off” for two days. Some bowel cramps on Saturday afternoon but by Monday she said she felt better, just a bit weak. Later in the evening things shifted, her breathing become short” rattled”. I know enough to know it sounded like she might be dying but I didn’t know enough to believe it really was time. She became a bit scared and said “maybe I should go to the hospital so they can give me oxygen”. I told her they will do tests, put tubes in you and not be able to do much but in hopes of making her feel taken care of we decided to get her in the car and go to urgent care. She didn’t appear to be in crisis, just weak from not eating much for two days. Hospice wasn’t in the picture nothing seemed to warrant their involvement yet. Just two days ago she was doing here daily trips down the stair, out the long driveway to the road. First for her morning paper and in the afternoon to collect the mail. At 96 she was getting along pretty well.
But on that Monday evening, while my sweetie Linda brought the car up, I helped Mom into a warm sweater. It appeared that she could walk to the stairs but might need some help on the stairs. I was glad Chaim our strong and gentle 29 year old son was in the house. Uncharacteristically Mom clutched my arm navigating the four steps to the bedroom door. Then she clutched the door frame. Now behind her I held her under her arms. As her fingers dug into the door frame she began to slump. “Mom I’ve got you, stand on your feet. Mom can you stand up?” This wasn’t working, I called for Linda; “help me”. “Just sit down” Linda said. And so we did, I sat in the doorway with my Mother in my lap. “It’s okay, I’ve got you, I’m here” The same words that came when I held my children when they were sick or distressed. “It’s okay Mama, I love you, I’m here”. Not fully conscious but not fully gone Mom breathed in short gasps followed by long pauses. I held her head, stroked her cheek, there was an acute clarity in the moment. Yes, my mom just died, died as I held her.
Her death was an event I speculated about for years now. Would she be dead one morning when I checked her room to see why she wasn’t up prowling the kitchen for breakfast? Would she have a long protracted illness that required her to be bed bound and in need of full time care? Could I do that? And for how long? Would she die quickly with a book in her hands the way she wanted to? I never once thought it would be as I cradled her in my lap.
Four years and two months ago Linda and I opened our home to my mother. We moved out of the master bedroom so she could have a large room with sitting area and its own bathroom. My mom was so unhappy at the assisted living home she was in in Buffalo. Although she knew she could no longer live alone after two years there she still felt like she was in prison. She finally decided she would take up our offer and move across the country at age 92.
Linda and I both birthed our babies at home and believe that it is also the best place for our elders to die. But you don’t know if your ideals will be enough to get you through until you do it. The last few months my ideals were being eroded I was wondering how long I could do this. But sitting there on the floor between the hall and bedroom in the space between life and death, the I could, should I, ideals didn’t matter. I held her, touched her hair, listened to her breath. We laid her on her bed and waited for the EMTs, she had a do not resuscitate form filled out so no worries about them trying to bring her back. She had the foresight to do that and we had the form near the front door. This was a time just for farewell. I didn’t want to move away from her body, my arm under her shoulders, my hand on her cheek, in her hair. I felt her hands slowly get colder. Colder and stiffer than usual. I remember in the first few months of her coming to my home I would fill a glass bottle with hot water for her to roll in her lap while waiting for breakfast. I didn’t do it many times, never sure if she appreciated it or not. If it made a difference she would have to tell me and she didn’t. There was too much to do in the kitchen already. The fingerless gloves I knit for her became matchless after only a few weeks. The lost one never reappeared in her closet or in the waste can; which I learned to check before dumping. There were occasional things that she unintentionally or unwisely threw away.
This cold was permanent. I got up and got a wet cloth to wash her face, unconsciously making the water warm but not hot. In her last minutes she brought up some watery brown blood that now covered her chin and her shirt. The EMT said she may have had gastro-intestinal bleeding, “oh that makes sense”, with the abdominal pain that gave way to nausea and difficulty taking in food. She had a history of blockage, the symptoms weren’t alarming, I emailed her doctor who said just to proceed as is and keep her informed of any changes. This was a big change, and too quick to tell anyone. Now I only want to sit and hold her as I adjust to the reality, hold her until they come to take her body away. Mom willed her body to medical research, just like her husband had done before her and I plan to after. For me it seems like a wonderful thing to do. I love anatomy and take pleasure imagining students being fascinated as they take apart my remains, “oh look at this femur, it doesn’t sit so deeply in the acetabulum as I thought it would”. I think for my parents it was more a combination of frugality and expedience, less to arrange and pay for.
I call my daughter Lily and ask “do you want to come see grandma before they take her body? She says “I will come to be with you.” This is perfect; hers was the first birth I experienced and now she sits with me at the first death I have been with. A person’s death, my mother’s death. I have witnessed the death of many animals, some at my own hand. Raising animals for meat has been an ongoing lesson in death. All who live also die. The large animals; cows, hogs, I hire out and stand and watch with respect and gratitude, saying thank you for giving your life to feed my family. Many chickens have died in my hands being small they take less skill and force. There is grief when an animal goes an odd feeling that is hard to describe; not completely sad, but subdued, not quite proud but content, not quite relieved but grateful.
Grief is so much more complex that we are willing to see in this culture; ”I’m so sorry for your loss” the person on the phone says, sometimes stiffly, or tenderly, or awkwardly. Social security office, the phone company, the retirement system, the VA office. I cancel her newspaper, ‘no, we’re not unhappy with the service it was my Mom’s subscription and she died.” “I’m sorry for your loss” is a good line but too often it feels hollow, rote. What can we say to the people we know and care about? “I love you; I feel tenderness; I care for you; I hold you close to my heart.” I guess each of us might prefer different language. My only real advice is don’t ask “how are you doing?” a question too hard to answer.
Well how am I doing? There is relief, a spaciousness. The first few days I walk around in a bit of an altered state. I have experienced the thinning of the veil between the worlds and my mother has passed through it. Without tests, machines, IV’s, monitors and best without a lot of pain. I am grateful and honored and blessed that I was there.