Of course, there is no such thing as perfect, especially when it comes to death and dying. But like many things, the perfection of how one makes their transition is in the eye of the beholder.
Those who follow this blog on a regular basis know that my mother’s health was declining for the last few years, with a dramatic drop over the last few months. She was in incredible pain from severe arthritis and also from hips that likely had crumbled during a series of unfortunate falls. Because of heart issues surgery was not an option, so she had to endure as best she could. If that wasn’t bad enough, she contracted a horrible intestinal bug a few months ago, followed by a worse infection when in the hospital to fix the first one. In the midst of diagnosing these issues, the doctors also discovered cancerous tumors on her lungs. Yes, it was a mess, and yet there were beautiful moments right up until her death, which occurred earlier today (September 4, 2015, 3:00 p.m. MST).
I received word this morning that my mother was unresponsive and likely wouldn’t make it through the weekend. I immediately hopped on a plane, wondering if I would arrive at her bedside before passing. I tried… but didn’t succeed. I received word while in the stop-over airport (Atlanta) that she had passed. I was sad I wasn’t with her, but also immensely relieved that she was no longer suffering and was in fact, at peace.
I’ve made several trips to see her this year, but the most profound visit occurred just two weeks ago. My previous posts have talked about some of the things that occurred. But others will always still stick in my mind.
Once I arrived there two weeks ago, all she wanted me to do was sit next to her bed and hold her hand—morning, noon, and night. I complied as much as I could in-between getting her up for bathroom breaks, meals, and turning her over in her bed. She just wanted me to sit with her. And I did. One particular night I had my phone by me and responded to check-ins from several friends who were sending their warm thoughts my way. I mentioned my mom’s hand-holding wishes to a friend and she replied that her mother wanted nothing more than the same thing at the end of her life. This reminded me that my father also requested this simple gesture when he was in the hospital prior to his death. After this awareness, I started to notice that as my mom stirred or startled awake, she would open her eyes, make sure I was still there, then tighten her hold and go back to sleep. I wrote to my friend that I felt as if her soul was testing leaving her body, but wanted an anchor to keep her here until she was really ready to make her final transition.
The next morning my mom left me absolutely stunned. As usual, I got her up for breakfast and administered her morning meds. But just after I cleared the dishes, she said to me, “I want to thank you for something.” I looked at her and casually said, “What’s that?”. Although her thoughts had been blurred the few days prior, she was clear as glass in her response. She said, “I want to thank you for assuring me of what my body was doing.” My mouth dropped and I sat there speechless. How could she have known what I texted to my friend? I hadn’t said the words out loud—I only typed the words into my phone. In retrospect, I wish I would have asked more about how she knew what I had typed, but it really didn’t matter. She understood, was assured, and that’s all that really mattered. She went on to share stories from the past that I’d heard a hundred times, but I listened without complaint, knowing it might be the last.
Throughout my time there, it was a challenge to get her into comfortable positions as her poor bones constantly ached. Later in the day following our morning discussion, she woke from a nap and said she was so comfortable that she wanted me to take a picture of how I had laid her down so we could remember the position for the future. This time I was puzzled. Anyone who knows my mother also knows that she absolutely loathed having her picture taken, let alone one being snapped when she was lying in a hospital bed. Baffled, but compliant, I took a couple pictures with my phone. I mentioned it to a friend and she agreed that it was a strange request at the time. Mom made no further mention of the pictures.
However, I now know why she had me capture her pose. Today, while sitting in the airport on my seemingly endless lay-over on my way to Colorado, my best friend called to see how I was doing. I mentioned to her that I was torn for whether I wanted to see my mother’s body before she was cremated. The funeral home was going to allow me to come view her lifeless shape since I hadn’t been there for her passing. While talking, I remembered the picture mom had requested and realized that she somehow knew I wouldn’t be there at the time of death and so she wanted me to see her lying comfortably—a much better pose than what I would see now that her soul has left her body. When I got off the phone I looked at the picture on my phone, smiled immediately, and just shook my head. My mom had given me the gift of a VERY rare photo, so that I could be at peace with my absence while she made her transition.
A bit later, I decided to walk down the hall to grab a cup of decaf, mostly to warm me since the airport’s A/C was running full blast. I had about an hour before my plane would board, so I sauntered to Caribou Coffee which was part of the commons area on the concourse. As I walking to the café, I heard a pianist playing in a courtyard bar and mentally acknowledged how unusual this sight and sound is for an airport. She was playing some lively song as I walked by, but I didn’t recognize it and just went on my way. As I was sprinkling cinnamon into my latte, I noticed a sudden mid-song switch to a jazzy tune my mother would play on the organ in our living room while I was a kid. I have no idea what it is called, but I haven’t heard that tune for at least 30 years. I stopped and looked at the pianist, started smiling and shaking my head, then of course, broke into tears. The pianist played that song for about 20 seconds, but it was just enough to let me know that mom was right there with me… while I was getting myself a cup of her favorite beverage—coffee. (Truth be told, she hated anything other than the straight stuff, but we’d joke that I’d share my latte or mocha with her if she wanted… which she always quickly turned down. BTW, my brother told me that the song is called “In the Mood”, but Glen Miller. I will never forget this title again.)
So, although my mom went through the trenches on the way to the world beyond, she created beauty on her path nevertheless. I hated seeing her struggle and suffer, but I now see the perfection in a seemingly messy and imperfect end.
I’ve yet to make it home, still on the plane in route to a house with one less soul. When my dog passed away in the spring, his spirit visited me that night, letting me know he was okay—dancing freely after his own two-year illness. I hope mom’s soul does the same tonight when I lay myself down for the night. I know I will sit in the recliner I bought her for Christmas, where she spent much of her time until she could no longer maneuver her way out of it. It is in her bedroom where she passed gently today. I want to feel her energy, her soul, our history. I want her to know I’m there… and I want her spirit right there with me.
When I was waiting for my first flight today, I texted my sister to let her know of my arrival later this evening. I asked her to tell mom that I loved her and that I was on my way, but if she had to go before I got there, I would understand. Whether my sister told her or not, I know she knew all was well with me if she needed to leave and she could fly to higher ground. I have her peaceful picture. I heard her jazzy tune. I drank her favorite beverage—well, a variation, at least…. And it is, indeed, the perfect ending.
(The picture on the right was taken on mom’s 80th birthday, when I surprised her with a dream of hers– a ride in a helicoptor! She told me after my father died in 1990 that she wanted to do this before she passed away. She forgot she said this and likely never thought it would happen. The 30-minute journey took us through the Royal Gorge, near Canyon City, Colorado. It was quite the ride, indeed– full of twists and turns, skimming the canyon walls. Right before this picture was taken, she said, “That was great– can we go again?”. Given that this was six weeks after a surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm, I didn’t want to push my luck. I gave her strict orders not to have any cardiac events in the following year so I wouldn’t feel responsible for weakening her heart during the flight. I’m certain this day only strengthened her heart though, as it most certainly did mine. Here’s to wonderful memories and dreams fulfilled, mom! I love you and wish you well on your part of your journey.)