The past week has been the most intense week for our family. My mom experienced a dramatic decline in her cognitive and physical functioning. She hit “the wall” I’ve heard described by others who have lost a loved one to cancer and became completely bedridden. She couldn’t talk, swallow (other than tiny amounts of water), and slept virtually all the time. I thought of her as a monarch caterpillar that had turned into a chrysalis, for it was necessary to go within and attend to the hidden and mysterious work that needed to be done. Earlier in the week, it was emerald green, and as the week progressed, the chrysalis became more transparent as a butterfly formed inside and clearly was getting ready to emerge.
I also became fascinated with fiddlehead ferns that spoke to me of opening and emergence. I was drawn to the spiral pattern, which is symbolic in itself.
It was a week of small miracles and seizing moments that I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back, and I’d like to share a few with you. I began last week already exhausted and stayed overnight at my parents’ house because they needed another person around to help my dad care for my mom. That evening, I wasn’t sure whether I should stay home the following day and care for myself or go to work because it’s a busy time of year with a long list of important, end-of-the-year deadlines and tasks to attend to. Not knowing how long my mom would live, I wondered if I should save my sick days for later in the week when there might be an even greater need for my presence. Later, I told a hospice nurse that the hard part was running a race but not knowing what kind of race it was (marathon? 400 meter? short sprint?) and how I should pace myself. If only we had a crystal ball that could reveal how close we were to the finish line!
I trusted my intuition and did not to go to work. But I didn’t tell my parents because they worried about negative consequences of me missing work, so I acted as if I were going. I planned to take advantage of some much needed time to rest, clear my head, exercise, and charge my battery. I was just about to leave their house in the morning when I noticed the vases of withered lilacs and decided to replace them with fresh lilacs and change the water in the many vases of beautiful flowers throughout the house. Had I been up against the pressure to get to work on time, I would not have been able to take care of the flowers, and doing so felt important. I stopped to let my mom smell the fresh lilacs for a few seconds of bliss. After finishing the flowers, I gave my parents a hug and was about to head out the door when my mom called to me in a voice that was at the same time hoarse, weak, sweet, and loving, “You are great!”
Those were the last energetic, coherent words I heard her speak, for when I returned later that day, her functioning had declined. She looked so sweet and dignified sitting upright in a chair wearing a pretty red dress and white sweater with her hair styled neatly, but she was unable to drink unassisted or to eat at all. She did not seem like herself anymore and seemed sad and agitated.
The point is: Sometimes you don’t get a second chance to do something. I had a feeling it was important for me to take the day off, and that’s what I did. My mom’s windows of lucidity (which tended to be early in the day) were closing more each day, and I never saw her so lucid again. I followed my intuition that day and throughout this whole journey and have no regrets as a result. I knew exactly what to do and when to do it, and everything seemed to happen at just the right time, leaving no unfinished business.
Within a day or two, my mom was fully bedridden and it was exceptionally difficult to understand what she was trying to say. We had to lean in close and listen with all our might as it took every bit of strength and concentration for her to whisper. The last understandable words she uttered to me crystal clear were: “I love you so much.” At that point, she communicated through subtle gestures rather than speech. She loved kisses – giving and getting them – and there was such sweetness to that.
We tried to care for her at home for the remainder of the week, but her physical needs became too much for us to handle. We made frequent, frantic calls to hospice to send a nurse out to help us even with simple things such as repositioning her without causing her undue pain and suffering. I reached my breaking point one night when I felt her dignity was being compromised and realized that something must give. We needed more help – and private nursing care seemed cost prohibitive since we could not predict how long she would need it. I felt so desperate, and a friend assured me that the answer is always a surprise. Sure enough, later that afternoon – which was the Friday heading into Memorial Day weekend – we were informed that a bed was available in a lovely, brand new, two-bed house affiliated with hospice and had her transferred there the next morning. Although it was a grueling decision for my dad to make because my mom had wanted to die at home, when we visited the house and met the angels (mostly volunteers) who staff it, we knew it was the right place for her and that they could provide the round-the-clock care she both needed and deserved. What a blessing to have the burden of her physical care lifted from us, leaving us with more energy to give her love and comfort and to be her family rather than her nurses. Finally, I could sleep.
And that’s when the little miracles began.
My mom had a dear friend in her twenties who was one of her bridesmaids. They hadn’t been in touch in decades, but all of a sudden – without knowing my mom was sick – this woman began searching for her online and was able to connect with me via the Facebook page I set up for my mom so friends far and wide could leave her messages and encouragement and express the ways in which she had touched their lives – so she would know how much she was loved and had made a difference in the world. The day after my mom was admitted to Gateway House of Peace, this woman and her husband drove three hours each way so she could see my mom and our family. Without setting a specific time, my husband and I happened to pull into the driveway right behind her and her husband! Although my mom was virtually unresponsive and sleeping deeply, we gathered close around her and listened to all the memories her friend shared about their times together so many years ago. The stroll down memory lane lifted my dad’s spirits, and it was interesting and amusing for my daughter to hear about what her grandmother was like when she was only a few years older than her.
The night before, I asked my husband to accompany me to Gateway in the morning and play guitar and sing for my mom like she did for her hospital patients as a volunteer. So when the time was right, he took out his guitar, and we sang “Sunshine on My Shoulders” because my mom loves John Denver. Then we sang “Amazing Grace” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” – and everyone in the room was belting it out by the end. My mom became alert enough to indicate that she could hear us. It was so amazing. Then the older folks began singing an old song my mom used to sing to my dad. We filled that room with JOY and MUSIC! It was a CELEBRATION! (And I absolutely adore my mom’s friend and her husband!) It felt as if my mom were on a raft rather than a hospital bed, and we were on the shore giving her a joyous send-off.
That evening, I had a vision of my mom as her former flight attendant self awaiting takeoff.
We had one more day with my mom before she passed very early this morning. I spent hours holding her hand, stroking her head, telling her that I love her and that we all will be fine, doing a light visualization, and encouraging her to let go. I assured her that letting go will be so easy when she does it, and she will go on a marvelous journey. It will be so wonderful! But she kept holding on, even after our whole family had gathered around her and assured her it was okay to let go. We played her favorite music quietly all evening, and in the middle of John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” a small jet actually flew by!
Eventually, my dad and one of my siblings left, my teenagers went upstairs to watch a movie, and I went into another room to try to get some much needed sleep, although I don’t think I ever actually fell asleep. I said goodbye to my mom for the final time and noticed some tears welling up in her tear duct. A little after 2 a.m., my son was about to go to sleep and went downstairs to say goodbye to Grandma. (He said this time it felt different; it felt like goodbye “for real”.) My other sibling had fallen asleep in the recliner chair next to my mom’s bed, woke up when my son left the room, and had a few very meaningful moments with my mom. Then her eyes, which had been closed all day, opened wide and bright for several seconds. She looked toward the door and then slipped away around 2:17 a.m.
I absolutely wanted to be with my mom when she passed. I wish I could have felt the energy at that moment and seen her open her eyes right before she took her last breath, but that gift was bestowed on her child who was in tremendous need of such a blessing. When I came downstairs a few minutes later, I entered the room and clapped, so happy for her, and then sang “Amazing Grace” by myself. Something I didn’t notice at the time (although both of my children did and told me later) is that the instant I stopped singing, some objects in the room fell.
I scattered rose petals around her head and put tulips on her chest, and she looked so peaceful and even happy, no longer in pain. It was a beautiful, gentle transition. The look on her face was both a comfort and a blessing to my dad when he returned.
Eventually, I went back upstairs to try to get some sleep, and I heard a faint melody that sounded like an electrical current that kept repeating over and over. At the same point in the “loop,” I heard the cooing of a mourning dove, over and over. It was rather haunting and lovely. The melody sounded like fifth chords played on a marimba, and the mourning dove sounded like a wooden flute accenting the end of the phrase. Finally, I sat up to try to determine if these sounds were “for real,” and I no longer could hear the melody but still heard the dove. The way the two elements had fit together so perfectly, over and over again, was uncanny and felt soothing. I notated the music when I got home a few hours later and gave it the title, “Mourning Dove Blessing.”
And my daughter saw her very first butterfly of the year as she drove home.
I don’t know about you, but I love hearing stories of transitions in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. I think it’s important to share our stories.
My mom lived a beautiful life and in the end died a beautiful death. She loved flowers, especially lilacs, and passed when all the lilacs on our trees were withering.
I wish everyone could experience such a lovely transition. The hospice staff and the volunteers and staff at Gateway gave my mom such compassionate, tender, loving care – gentle caresses, loving words, and devoted attention. The hospice nurse who arrived to pronounce the death touched her so sweetly, spoke to her so kindly, with tears in her eyes and compassion for her struggle. People who do this work share such intimate, personal moments and become family. One such angel explained that to her, my mom was her own mom, who also had passed. They continue expressing love for their own parents and dear ones through loving the dying people in their care as if they were their own parents and dear ones.
I don’t think of this as my mom losing a battle with cancer. Rather, the delivery service that came for her took the scenic route, for whatever reason. She was a flight attendant early in life and loved to fly, but a week before she passed, she spoke to me of a bus. She was desperate for me to call hospice to find out where the bus was headed. People are quick to blame such “hallucinations” on the pain meds, but my mom speaking of a bus rather than an airplane means something to me. It was a long road for her.
May her journey be marvelous and filled with the most beautiful and wondrous love, light, music, and goodness! And may all who knew her carry on her legacy in our own unique ways, inspired by her love and kindness.
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