Oct 30th, was a glorious day. The sky was a brilliant
blue, the sun shone fiercely golden, the roses
bloomed in splendid pinks and reds. My mother
died at 6:25 that morning, and I was holding her
hand. I know, somehow, that she waited, because
Sunday had been so bleak and rainy. And she waited,
too, for me to wake and enter her room. The hospice
nurse told me that my mother had been ready to
go for about an hour. Quickly I took her hand
in mine, and she breathed her last breaths within
minutes. She knew I wanted, needed, to be holding
her hand when she left.
Last month I described the agony of discovering
that my mother had pancreatic cancer, and the
shock my whole family felt when we heard she only
had months to live. As it turned out, she only
had one month, but what a month it was. What a
beautiful, painful, illuminating, heart-breaking,
and inspiring month it was.
It was the most difficult thing I have ever done.
Yet, it is possible that I learned more about
life in this last month than I have ever known.
The process of dying, it turns out, is the most
intimate thing, as intimate and loving as the
process of giving birth, and just as much a part
of life. There are moments, for the dying, that
must be enriching, ennobling, embarrassing. There
are moments, for the caregivers, that are gratifying,
empowering, frightening. For everyone, there are
rewards: the priceless gifts of a smile, a touch,
a loving glance, a tender mercy.
I learned a lot about people too. Perhaps most
significantly, I discovered in my mother such
courage, such bravery, so much strength that it
blew my mind. I never knew that about her. I knew
how much she loved me, how much she loved us all.
I knew how little it took to make her happy, and
how little it took to throw her into a total panic.
When her remote control wouldn't work, when she
had to fill out a form, when her lamp broke, my
mother was a total weakling. But when she had
to deal with cancer, and unimaginable pain, and
impending death; she was a pillar of strength.
What a wonderful thing to learn about my mother.
I saw my family bond even closer together in their
love and support of each other and for my mother
than I thought possible. I learned that I could
lean on my magnificent daughter and she would
be there, every day, like a rock, a rock I could
hold, and hug, and share tears of sorrow with.
I learned, yet again, how deeply sweet, and kind,
and loving my husband is, how sensitive, caring
and vulnerable my son and brother are, how thoughtful
and generous of time and spirit all their significant
others proved to be. I found out that many of
my friendships, as well as theirs, were so strong
that we could never have suspected their collossal
depth, and that some people can embrace this kind
of situation and bring you comfort in so many
different ways, while others simply can't; they
have their own unique wounds and life experiences
and must keep their distance.
One of the most valuable things I learned was
about hospice, and this is something that must
be shared, because it can help others. When we
first brought my mother home to live with us,
she was still able, with our help, to walk around,
to eat at the dinner table, to enjoy her beloved
Yankee games. Within ten days, however, she became
bedridden, her strength ebbing, her normal interest
in the news and sports and everyday life waning.
My daughter and I began the serious care-giving,
changing rapidly from fetching meals and root
beer floats, to feeding her ice cream from a spoon
and changing her diapers. Our backs were breaking,
our nerves were shattered, our hearts were breaking.
We had called hospice on the advice of my cousin
and another close friend, and they began to visit.
At first it just seemed overwhelming (too many
names and faces; we could manage on our own) but
within days we knew we couldn't go on without
them. There was the Team Manager, and the Team
Nurse, the social worker, the triage nurses, and
finally, the continuous care nurses. There were
constant deliveries of supplies and medicine;
the bedside commode replaced by the diapers: the
morphine pills replaced by the sub-cutaneous pump:
the wheelchair replaced by the hospital bed.
But thank God for hospice. When the time comes
and you find yourself in this situation, be kind
to yourself and call them. They will save your
life, and in the process help your loved one go
from this world to the next with respect, dignity,
and peace. They are all about pain management-
for the dying, who need it desperately-and, as
it turns out, for the living. They are compassionate,
spiritual, practical, and thoroughly competent
at what they do, because that is what
they do. So, let them do it and be grateful that
people like them exist. I want to thank VITAS,
and in particular, Carol Rees, Lisa Alarcon, Carolyn,
Iris, John, Lewis, Eve, and Floyd. I apologize
for not knowing most of their last names. They
came in the day, and in the middle of the night;
they entered our lives briefly, but they impacted
our lives eternally.
Missing my mother has become a part of my life.
Sometimes I wonder how I'll get through a day
without calling her. But I take great comfort
in the fact that I was able to surround her with
love until her time on earth was through. And,
I take enormous comfort in the words from a poem
by Henry Van Dyke, contained in a book given to
me by Carol Rees. It describes a ship with beautiful
white sails heading out to sea, until she is only
a speck on the horizon. Suddenly, she is gone
from sight. Yet, just at the moment when someone
says: "There, she is gone!" there are other eyes
watching her coming, and other voices ready to
take up the glad shout: "Here she comes!" I know
those who were eagerly awaiting my mother's arrival
must be suffused with joy.