Posts Tagged ‘Loss’

The Thinker

Suicide’s devastation and odd harvest

Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see…
that suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.

From the movie M*A*S*H

To me, suicide is one of these impenetrable mysteries. I think I can understand how someone who has had the bottom dropped out of their lives might want to take their own life. What is there to live for if, for example, all your living relatives were killed in a car bomb attack? Nonetheless, feeling as if you want to kill yourself and actually doing it are two different things. Our life force is incredibly strong. No matter how much pain we have in our lives, no matter how bleak our future looks, almost always something will pull us back from the ultimate act. Instead, we seem to prefer to kill ourselves slowly through the usual vices like drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, food and risky behavior.

Nonetheless, suicide happens. In 2001, approximately 30,000 of my fellow Americans killed themselves. The favorite method is to use a firearm. You are most likely to kill yourself if you are male, white and age 75 or older. You do not expect someone who is relatively young and very gifted around 6:30 one morning to plunge head first from her eighth floor dorm room. This young woman, age 18 and from a good home, was a close friend of my daughter. She, along with her many friends and her devastated family are left to grieve, wonder if there was something they should have done to prevent it and to struggle with the powerful feelings a suicide will surface.

At first, the story of her friend’s death came in muddled. We heard that she fell down a stairway. Where? At home or at college? It must have been a very long stairway to cause massive brain death. There was no hint that the death was a suicide. That came later during a gathering of friends of the young woman. At the gathering were a school counselor, friends and parents of friends and many, many suicide notes that she had written, including one to our daughter.

I met Taylor a couple times. Like most of my daughter’s friends, she was bright, goofy and artistic and she had a skewed perspective on life. She showed up most recently early last month when she attended her belated 18th birthday party. She had come home from a university out of state for the occasion. They laughed, ate pizza and a birthday cake, and watched videos. It felt somewhat quaint. Here was my daughter, a high school graduate taking a gap year between high school and college and she was still able to muster a small coterie of close friends for a birthday party.

Six weeks later Taylor was suddenly, tragically and pointlessly dead. She left few tangible memories: a long missive in our daughter’s yearbook, a few gifts received over the years, and one last unfathomable suicide note. My daughter is mostly quiet but we know that she is wracked with pain. She feels great anger at her friend, but in her final act, Taylor left no way for her to reply. Suicide closed all channels of communication. She feels survivor guilt. Should she have noticed her suicidal tendencies? She also feels a prematurely early brush with mortality. When you are 18, you should think of life as limitless and the possibilities boundless. Death is an abstraction. No more. Here is one more radioactive thing to sort out as she struggles into adulthood. Fortunately, her boss cut her some slack. She did not lose her job while she struggled to sort out her feelings. Three days later, she headed back to work, in part in the hope that it will distract her from her constant circular thoughts.

Most likely, her pain will linger. At 18, my daughter has to try to make meaning from an act that really has no meaning. She has to figure out how get beyond survivor’s guilt. In the end, she has to find a way (if it is possible at all) to move beyond her anger and her feelings that her friend was a coward, into acceptance. More likely though her feelings about Taylor’s death will forever linger, rising its angry head during moments of stress in her life. She has no choice but to come to terms with her loss. She lost a close friend, someone she thought she knew intimately but apparently not well enough.

We are keeping a close eye on our daughter. At some point, she may need grief counseling. I can imagine but not really understand the magnitude of the pain her family is going through, particularly today when family becomes the center of our lives. A million charitable acts, a thousand hugs and expressions of sympathy can never wipe away the devastation her family must feel. An amputee can learn to have a productive life again, but can never erase the memory of life before the amputation. So too a family struck by suicide will never be the same again. It can go on, but it will never be the same.

Taylor was declared brain dead, but her young organs were still alive and were harvested. I presume that many of her organs are now occupying new bodies. Likely, her organs are helping others live better and more hopeful lives. While nothing can erase the devastation of her death, some small measure of good came from it nonetheless. Perhaps her youthful heart now beats inside the chest of a woman with severe heart disease. Perhaps her kidneys will mean that two lucky people will no longer have to make twice-weekly trips for dialysis. I cannot help but honor her family for making these were painful but correct choices during a time of utter devastation.

Taylor’s mind and spirit are gone. Yet pieces of her body are still alive in others. While her family and friends remain devastated on this Thanksgiving holiday, other families are probably celebrating their perverse good fortune. I do not know if Taylor would have wanted her body used this way or not. Perhaps she chose to fall in a way to kill her brain so other parts of her body could be used to bring others happiness that she did not feel. Her tragic death is more evidence that life itself is utterly baffling. Yet even in a death this bizarre and tragic, a few are getting the chance to live again.

 
The Thinker

Two years later

Two years later, I feel acceptance and serenity.

When a loved one dies, there is no accounting for the nature and length of the grieving process. Nor is there a way to know for certain whether you have really moved beyond their death. Yet here I am two years after my mother’s death. When I think about Mom at all, and most days I do not, those are my feelings. I accept that she is forever gone from my life. I find myself wholly at peace with her absence.

When I learned of her death, I was racked with powerful bittersweet feelings. Feeling unhappy, distraught and an emotional wreck were to be expected. I did not expect to also feel relief and happiness. I was relieved that her misery was over at last. I was glad to resume a normal life. In addition, I was happy that just maybe my mother was now in the presence of the God she had so slavishly worshipped. Perhaps she was even reunited again with her long deceased parents and many deceased siblings.

The first few months after her death felt surreal and were unnaturally quiet. It seemed like her death was just an extended absence. After all, for much of her last thirty years we lived apart. At best, I spent a couple weeks a year with her. It had become normal to be away from her. What was not normal were the last fifteen months of her life. She and my father had been living their retired years in far away Michigan. Her health had reached the stage where living at home was no longer an option. They sold their house and moved across the Potomac River from me to a retirement community called Riderwood. However, by that time she could hardly stand up and had to be carried up stairs. When she walked at all, it was with her walker. I went from seeing her once a year to once a week or more. Unfortunately, the time I did spend with her was rarely pleasant. Each visit demonstrated that her body was falling apart. Finally, there was little more of my mother than a shrunken old woman in a nursing home bed, ashen in the face, her eyes occluded and blank, her hair a surreal unnaturally white color. Near the end, her disease would not let her utter a word or even turn her head. You were never sure whether she heard you or not. I put on a brave face in her presence. I bawled in the hallways or in the privacy of my car. At some point how could anyone, including the dying, not take some relief from death? My mother’s death was ultimately merciful.

It took about six months before I really felt the aftershocks. My mother was the emotional heart of our large Catholic family. She was a loving person but she was far from perfect. She grew up impoverished, traumatized by the Great Depression and burdened with the impossible expectations from the God she loved yet that seemed to require ever more sacrifice and duty. She exuded duty and guilt, values she probably would not have wanted to transmit to me but which I absorbed anyhow.

My forebrain understood all this, knew that she loved all her children and was a product of circumstances. My neocortex had a different opinion. It still resented my perceived insufficient nurturing and the harsh punishments she meted out when we were children. I navigated through life but felt more and more detached. Inside, I was filled with turmoil. My neocortex was like a vast, dark storm cloud desperately wanting to discharge some lightning. My forebrain wanted to keep it at quite a distance.

Eventually I found myself disgorging my confused feelings to my therapist. Through therapy, I learned that to resolve my feelings that I had to do more than blab to her about them. I had to share them people who could empathize. Attempts to talk about my mixed feelings about Mom with my Dad were deflected. This left my siblings. One sister did not reply when I cautiously raised the issue in an email. Another listened patiently then gave me a different perspective of Mom, for being younger she had witnessed much less of her dark side. It was an older sister who I met for dinner one evening when she was in town who at last let me discharge my voltage. The one thing I had not anticipated was that I had a sibling who was far more upset with my mother than I was. It was clear from the endless tears flowing down her cheeks as we talked. “It’s is just hormones,” she claimed. For me, while I loved my mother some part of me also loathed her. Yet my older sister claimed that she never loved my mother at all. Her tears suggested otherwise.

At first, I had no idea I was on the road to recovery. Yet within a week, the storm clouds had disappeared. The voltage was gone. The skies were blue and the sun was shining in my life again. Since then I have felt simple acceptance at her passing and a serenity that suggests my feelings for my mother have finally been wholly reconciled.

On my first motherless Mother’s Day, I made a point to drive out to the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland where her cremated remains lie. This Mother’s Day, I felt no such compulsion. When I am near Silver Spring I certainly intend to pay my respects again. However, the sense of duty is gone. This suggested to me that whatever unintended apron strings were pulling at me from her grave had been cut. Instead, I concentrated on the one living mother left in my life: my mother in law. I made sure we sent her a card and called her on Mother’s Day. I wished her a Happy Mother’s Day and many more to come.

Somewhere in the space-time continuum, my mother’s spirit is still present. She is happy for me. She is glad I cut those final apron strings. At times, I imagine that she is whispering to me. She is saying, “Get on with life, Mark. Life is to be cherished and savored. Do not forget me but do not let my death hold you back either. Be free of me so you can make the most of your life. Someday we will meet again, and when we do we will meet in love, as friends and as peers.”

Thanks Mom. I love you too.

 
The Thinker

The honor never ends

There was no need to buy a Mother’s Day card this year. There was no mother to call on the phone today either. I am feeling a bit like Opus the penguin today. Maybe I should be spending $1.99 a minute on a Dial-a-Mom service. Nah, it would not be the same. Just as there is no place like home, there is no mother like your mother. One thing is for sure: my mother will not be opening any mother’s day cards this year. She passed away last November.

I do still have a mother in law, for which I am grateful. I am sure she is a terrific mother (although my wife might quibble) but she was of course not my mother. She came with the marriage and in the unlikely event that my marriage dissolves, she goes out with the marriage too. Moreover, unless I elect to travel 2500 miles to Phoenix, it is unlikely that I will see her. Nevertheless, I call her Mom. She seems to like it and it is an easy thing to do. I signed the card my wife picked out for her. As mothers in law go, she is better than most. Nevertheless, she is not my mother.

I do honor my wife on Mother’s Day, since she is the mother to our fabulous daughter. I usually buy my wife a card for Mother’s Day, and do her chores. Yet this year it skipped my mind, probably because I did not need to buy one for my mother. What my wife really wants for Mother’s Day is downtime and a foot rub at bedtime. That is easy enough to accommodate.

That is not to say that I did not honor my mother at all. Mother’s Day weekend is an appropriate time to pay a visit to her grave. My father and I contributed plenty of fresh flowers for the cistern on her grave. With luck, they may look good for a week or so. We actually did our duty a day early. The Saturday before Mother’s Day is a popular day at the cemetery, yet I suspect it will be even more jammed today. For a while there I felt we needed to take a number. My mother will have to forgive our flower arrangement. There were no women present to artfully arrange them. We did the best that two heterosexual men with engineering mentalities could do. I brought yellow tulips; yellow was my mother’s favorite color.

It is entirely possible that with my mother dead that she will “see” more of me now that when she was alive. When she was alive, she was hundreds of miles away, and not easily accessible by either airplane or car. At best, I visited her annually. Now her cremains are interred in the Gate of Heaven Catholic Cemetery in Aspen Hill, Maryland. Visiting her grave means crossing the Potomac River, not the Appalachian Mountains. The cemetery is not too much out of my way when I go that way, so I suspect I should be able to pay my respects at least once a quarter. I will be one of many people helping to keep the floral industry in business.

In her last year of life, she seemed to want rest more than anything else, for her disease meant that sleep often alluded her. There is no doubt that her cremains will remain at rest. Yesterday was the exception. It was almost lively with all the visitors at the cemetery. Peace is one of the cemetery’s key attributes. If you like meditation, a cemetery seems an appropriate place to visit. It is a good place not only to pay your respects to loved ones, but also to contemplate your own mortality. It does not take too many minutes of contemplation though before further contemplation becomes challenging. When surrounded by death on all sides, all one can really say about death is that it is. It is beyond argument or dispute. Rather than be the creepy place imagined in horror movies, cemeteries are spots of utter tranquility in an otherwise restless world. If I craved tranquility in order to get some sleep, I suspect sleeping in a cemetery would have me sleeping like a baby.

Some part of me though does wonder why I go and pay my respects. Exactly who and what am I respecting? What is left of my mother is a box of ash a few feet underground. I am too secular to believe that her spirit hovers above my shoulders when I visit. Thus far visiting my mother’s grave has neither made me mourn nor feel wistful. However, I do feel a certain sense of the sacred with each visit. While my mother’s spirit may well still be around, it cannot be geographically located. Her grave though is a physical place where what is left of her physical body remains.

The meaning of my mother’s life, like birth and death, is shrouded in mystery. Like most mothers, my mother was a nurturer. She provided a foundation and an infrastructure that I took for granted growing up. With an adult perspective, I understand just how much her commitment to her children really meant. It meant giving up her future so we could have a future. It meant millions of carefully prepared meals, thousands of diaper changes, and hundreds of visits to the pediatrician and emergency room. It meant a clean house, laundered sheets, picnics, recitals, science fairs, movies and watching bad family television together on Friday nights. It also of course meant hugs, kisses and caresses. I gave her lots of “go power”. For twenty-five years or so, we largely consumed her life.

All this so many of us could raise similarly talented children with good values, so we could have interesting jobs, enriched lives and make our marks on the world. For all that to happen though she first had to be there for us. It was a Herculean effort, but one at which she met the challenge, not just for me, but also for my seven other siblings. She did it without so much as getting to put one contribution into her 401-K. Her rewards were to be intangible.

That is why I still honor her. For I was launched into this world on her mighty shoulders. I could now be miserable. I could now be impoverished. I could now be dysfunctional. Heck, I could now be dead too. That none of these things have happened I can largely attribute to my mother. That is why although she is not around she is still a daily presence in my life. No gift that I could give her could come close to what she gave me.

Thanks Mom. Rest assured that as long as I am alive, you will never be forgotten. There is no card for you this year, but I still honor you on Mother’s Day, and will every Mother’s Day for the rest of my life.

 
The Thinker

Requiem for a Feline

(Please enjoy this music while reading this entry. The music is part of the experience.)

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness – that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what – at last – I have found.

Preface to Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography

When I blog, I try to let words express the depth of my soul. Sometimes I come close, but words can never quite capture my feelings. Nothing that I can say in this entry can quite express how I feel right now, although the philosopher Bertrand Russell’s quote above comes close.

I used to poo-poo the notion of angels. Not anymore. Sprite, my cat of 19 ½ years of age who was put to sleep Sunday night, was an angel. He was a special angel sent by the cosmos just to me to provide me comfort, solace and love through two turbulent decades of my life. Sprite was simply love wrapped in a feline form. The depth of his love for me was focused and boundless.

Anyone who has had a pet knows how attached you can get to them. However, some pets are singularly extraordinary. That I was fortunate enough to have him as my pet means that there is either is a God or I am the fortunate recipient of a random act of the cosmos.

Sprite, on my lap, circa 2004

Mark me well. I know how people with pets can love them dearly, as I certainly loved Sprite. Nevertheless, Sprite’s love for me was extraordinary and far beyond what I even imagined was possible in my life. During the stresses of life that would have pulled apart ordinary men, Sprite was there for me. His love was like a thousand watt light bulb. He radiated his love on me in such high megadoses I was able to pull through my challenges time and time again. He did it without saying a word, except for an occasionally silent meow. He did it by looking at me intently with his devotional wide eyes and purring contentedly on my lap. He gave all he had and more for 19 ½ years. He would have stayed with me forever had his body allowed it. However, even with a cat with such a gentle constitution, death could not be postponed forever.

Sometime during the last week, Sprite’s intestine became perforated. He developed peritonitis. The twice-daily pills, the daily yogurt, the special cat food and the laxative which kept his symptoms in check lost their efficacy. By Sunday, he had no more appetite and could not even drink from his water dish. He found refuge behind the couch. I coaxed a couple spoonfuls of yogurt into his tummy, which were quickly thrown up.

It was time to visit the emergency veterinarian. I prayed of course that we were not to taking him in to be put to sleep. However, the X-rays revealed the sad truth of a cat who had given all he could give. The perforation could be seen easily, and his kidneys were enlarged and his stomach extended. It is unlikely that surgery could correct the problem. He had worn out. There was nothing to do but spare him further misery by putting him to sleep.

Sprite was quiet but attentive when we wrapped him in a towel and took him into the car. It was evening. He did not fuss in my arms at all. He looked wide-eyed and with wonder at the streetlights, the signs and the stars. He was calm. It seemed to me that they were a comfort to him. Perhaps they were a distant memory of wherever he was before he arrived in this world. While my wife drove, I gently stroked his face. Underneath the towel, somewhere there was a small but consistent purr.

Sprite left this life with dignity and unflinchingly. We held him in a blanket, looked at him intently and stroked him. I told him again for the millionth time how special a cat he was. He truly was the best cat who has ever lived. Gentleness and love expressed the character of his soul. He watched us with his wide eyes, seemingly hearing every word we were saying although we knew he was deaf. He was not afraid but was comforted that we were there for him. The narcotic he was given freed him of his pain.

“Dad, there is no more I can give you,” is what I heard him say in my head. “Sprite, we will meet again, sometime and someday, and in some other life,” I said to him quietly, tears streaming down my face. “And then once again you will be on my lap, and I will stroke you and pull back your bat-like ears and you will be purring contentedly. I love you, son.”

It was my wife and the veterinarian who actually put him to sleep. I could not find the strength for that final act. Simply seeing the euthanasia tube in his paw was hard enough. He watched my wife intently during the euthanasia, half shut his eyes and was gone. He went peacefully, which was right. In addition, he went embraced in love.

We will meet again, best friend and soulmate. There is no way I could begin to repay the love you lavished so consistently on me for so many years. I thank you for your gift nonetheless. I know we will be with each other again. For now my love, au revoir.

Read the rest of this entry »

 
The Thinker

The End

Today was a cold and grey day for a burial. The temperature hovered around forty and the wind blew stiffly in our faces. At least it was neither raining nor snowing. It felt almost cold enough to be like Michigan in winter. Michigan was the state where my mother was born, and where she felt most at home.

Yet it was not to be where she would rest for eternity. Rather, it would be Crematory Garden VI, Lot 743 at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland. My mother died November 10th of last year. It took that long for her cremains to go to their final resting place.

My mother's cremains are buried
Although she was cremated the day she died, neither she nor my father had picked out a cemetery plot. It took a few weeks after her death for my father to sort through these details. In the interim, my mother’s ashes rested where she longed to be in her final months: at home in their apartment. Instead, she died in a nursing home.

The cold and gray day somehow seemed appropriate for this business. Since nearly two months had passed since her death, her interment felt very much anticlimactic. My father seemed to have accepted my mother’s death long before she died. In those last years, she was a shadow of the woman he used to know. He was loving and dutiful to the end, but in some respects, it was as if he was caring for someone else.

There was no fanciful final farewell for my mother. She would have approved. She felt that her life was relatively unimportant. She knew her place in the grand scheme of things and she put herself quite a bit down the totem pole. She would not have wanted much fuss made at her interment.

My father and I were the only family witnesses. I felt someone needed to be there representing her children. My sister, who did so much to care for her during her last years, did not want to put herself through another crying jag. Perhaps this last act in my mother’s life was better left to us relatively stoic men. It would be and was a brisk and businesslike matter. “Shouldn’t take more than thirty minutes,” my father told me. It was more like ten.

It was just a short drive to the gravesite with Sam, a representative of this Catholic cemetery. Astroturf covered the pile of dirt next to my mother’s grave. I carried the box with my mother’s cremains the short distance from my father’s car to the grave. Two respectful employees waited with shovels. I handed the box to a gravedigger who gently placed it in the concrete liner. Just seconds later, the hole was being packed tight with dirt.

Feeling a bit self-conscious, I took pictures with my digital camera. Although my mother’s life was about living, I felt this last act should be recorded for those who were not present. I saw little harm in it and thought it might help bring closure.

It should not matter, but I know my mother would not have chosen suburban Maryland as her final resting place. She was a Michigander through and through. No other climate quite worked for her. When she was younger and more lucid, she expressed the desire to be buried next to her parents in Bay City. My father tried to honor her wishes. However, there was no room for her in the family plot, or indeed her parent’s cemetery. Her health drove her and my father to Maryland before she could ponder other possibilities. In the end, they pragmatically settled on Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring. She was to be buried with his side of the family. At least in this cemetery there was still room for more deceased.

In time, my father’s ashes will be placed next to hers. Fifty-five years of marriage will be but a wink compared to the time what remains of their physical bodies will rest, side by side, together.

While my father is alive, there will be opportunities to pay respects rather frequently. I wonder after they are both gone, will I visit regularly?

I suspect I will visit more often the older I get. For as I age it is inevitable that I will lose family and friends too. Should I make it to my father’s age I suspect I will find much solace from visiting and fondly remembering two sterling parents, the joy they found in life, and their grace embracing its end.

 
The Thinker

Channeling Mom

My mother died about six weeks ago. I thought in the months after her death that I would be pretty out of kilter. I expected to be a lot more grieved than I actually am. I thought I would spend hours crying over her loss, because I did love her and still feel bonded to her. That I am not is due I suspect to the opportunities we had for closure during her final months. It was certainly not fun to witness her progressive decline every week, but I found some catharsis from the experience nonetheless.

Mostly I accept her passing. I awake in the morning fully aware that she is gone but it does not interfere with my day. Yet I still find myself getting teary from time to time. Christmas found us at my Dad’s apartment. I spent some time going through his huge stack of Christmas and bereavement cards. I took special care to read the notes in the bereavement cards. So many people, many of whom I did not know, were touched by my mother. I had no idea because she rarely strayed outside her comfortable bounds of family. Yet over 85 years even someone whose life struck me as very cloistered developed friends. Tears came to my eyes as I read the heartfelt condolences.

Aside from a lifetime of memories there is not much tangible left to remind myself of her. Almost all of her clothes and jewelry have been given away. My wife got a fair amount of her jewelry. A cookbook of her favorite recipes assembled two decades earlier by two of my sisters survives. I will likely recreate her recipes from time to time. However, the food will not taste the same. For as the preface to her cookbook says, “Of course, when I make this dish, I always add a little dash of…” That in a nutshell was my mother in her favorite role as master chef. Every exquisite yet familiar meal tasted the same yet was subtly different. Perhaps we will have family contests in the years ahead to recreate some of my mother’s many scrumptious dishes. With luck, some of us will come close, but no one will quite recreate the original. We cannot cook a meal with passion. For us, cooking is mostly a means to an end, not an end itself. Since my mother expressed much of her love in her cooking, this is perhaps a truest measure of my loss. It sounds silly but the quality of the food prepared here on earth took a dramatic nosedive with her death.

We tried to create a familiar Christmas meal at my father’s apartment. We had many of the right ingredients. There was a spiral ham, purchased at the local BJs. It was very tasty. Nevertheless, it was missing the cloves that my mother would have pierced into it. My wife made au gratin potatoes that needed a wee bit more time in the oven. They were blander than my mother’s, and did not have that layer of lightly burnt cheese on the top. Salad? My mother would have made a wonderful fruit salad, slicing all the fruit by hand. The rolls came partially cooked from the store. For dessert, we ate Christmas cookies contributed by both my sister and my wife. My mother probably might have made her exquisite Snickerdoodles. For me my mother’s favorite dessert was her Goober Roles. They were something like a cinnamon role, but made with biscuit and slathered with butter, brown sugar, karo syrup, cinnamon and nuts. The syrup invariably stuck to your teeth and the roof of your mouth, but you did not care: they were a sugar, fat and carbohydrate nirvana. You could not stop at just one. In fact, it was hard to stop after a pan-full.

Afterwards I helped clean up in the kitchen. It was quite a mess. Fortunately, my mother had trained me well. For years, she did both the cooking and cleaning up afterwards. Then one day she realized she had eight children: let us do it for a change. Therefore, we did, and to her exacting specifications. Now KP has become something I do on autopilot. I can take the messiest, greasiest pan-strewn kitchen and make it sparkle. Thanks Mom. She (and my father) taught me to stoically accept and take some modest pleasure in the many routine and unexciting chores that invariably populate a family’s life.

One thing my mother would not tolerate was dirt. This surprised me after reading her biography, because she grew up in a cleaning impaired house. She did not get the cleanliness habit until she went to nursing school. There she realized that the world was teaming with microbial life. Much of it, she was convinced, was aimed directly at her family. She got a bit obsessive with her cleaning. Not only did everything have to look clean, it actually had to be clean.

With two weeks off from the press of work, I had no more excuses. Our house is generally picked up. For example, our kitchen usually looks clean. Okay, my daughter may be thoughtless about forgetting to wipe the counter down after making her sandwiches. Occasionally even my wife or I will let a dish sit in the sink after a meal. Moreover, our kitchen table is almost always a semi permanent resting place for all the transient stuff that enters the house. It may be reasonably picked up, but is it clean? Alas, no. It would not meet my mother’s standards.

What it needed was a little Mr. Clean: me. And so yesterday I found myself at 10 AM in the kitchen. My mission: to get the kitchen clean. I could feel my mother watching down on me from the afterlife. “Your kitchen, Mark, is a not really clean.” “Yes Mom, I know. I am sorry.” “There’s no excuse for it. Cleanliness is next to godliness.” “No there isn’t, Mom. And I have two weeks off from work. I have run out of excuses.”

So out came the sponges, detergents and latex gloves. I went to work. I started by pulling out the refrigerator. Just cleaning the refrigerator turned out to be a two-hour project. I removed all the dust bunnies and wiped the wall behind the refrigerator. I threw out dubious food. I wiped down all its interior and exterior surfaces. I got rid of a decade of old photographs and magnets stuck to the door.

This was just the beginning. Abrasive cleansers went on the kitchen counters. They had been wiped numerous times but my discerning eye could still see the dirt ground into their textured surfaces. I scrubbed and scrubbed until it was as white as the model’s teeth on a tube of Pepsodent. Then, I scrubbed and bleached the sink. I wiped the windowsills. I even scrubbed the baseboard. After four hours I stopped. All this work and I was nowhere near being done!

I was exhausted. “Mom, I cannot do this anymore! I don’t have your stamina!” I had grand ideas for the kitchen. I was going to mop the floor. I was going to clean the windows. I was going to scour the oven. I was going to sweep out every cabinet, and remove all the crap in the junk drawer.

Yet I have not given up. For I still hear my Mom’s voice in my head, dreadfully concerned about my filthy kitchen. Tomorrow I will resume my clean kitchen quest. Then I will try to do the same to each room in turn. I will also shampoo the carpets. I will get all the dust bunnies in the corners of every room. I will dust then use Lemon Pledge (my Mom’s favorite) on all the wood furniture.

Then will I stop hearing my mother’s voice in my head? I am not sure. In reality even if I work at this full time, I will be lucky to get a quarter of it done. For the list of things that need cleaning and straightening is truly endless. And if I ever finish, I will have to start all over again. By that time, I am sure the kitchen will be filthy again.

Perhaps at some point I will sense my mother’s benevolent smile. Perhaps though her real thoughts from the afterlife are, “No! You got the wrong message! You are remembering as I was long ago. That’s not how I think now! Life is too short to spend it cleaning all the time. Get a life! Go for a walk! Smell some roses!”

But no, I am remembering my mother at my age: age 48. It is 1968 and that is what she was doing. She is waxing kitchen floors. She is bleaching sheets and our underwear. She is darning our socks. She is hustling us off to church. She is making sure our shoes are shined for parochial school.

Maybe this is how I grieve. Maybe, when my house is finally clean to her satisfaction, my grieving will be done. For now, I am not done channeling Mom.

 
The Thinker

Yin without Yang

Clearly, it is going to take a while to process all my feelings about my mother’s death. For now, it seems surreal. Even when she and my father lived 600 miles away, even when I did not see them for a year or two, still they were always in my present. Both were an easy phone call or email away. With my Mom’s death all that has changed of course. My father is now a widower. Now he is left to pay the bills and try to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. He remains in decent health. Of course, we, his children, hope for many more years of good health and happiness for him.

At 79, he is not quite the man that he was. We see signs that he is losing some of his independence. He still drives a car, but he drives it locally and only during non rush hours. I am grateful because the drivers in the metropolitan Washington D.C. area are unforgiving to someone with aging reflexes. As a consequence in order to come visit us, someone has to drive him here (about 30 miles each way). Today being Thanksgiving, we provided the dinner. My sister Mary drove him over.

Seeing him come in the door to our house – alone – for me drove home the reality of my mother’s death. Yin was without Yang. Yes, death is a natural experience but this seemed decided unnatural. It was exactly two weeks ago today that my mother died. Even if last Thanksgiving my mother had to be helped bodily into our house, that was more natural than seeing my father come through our door without my mother.

My father remains philosophical and pragmatic. He brought with him a number of my mother’s keepsakes, principally a lot of costume jewelry. My wife got to pick through them and retain any items that she wanted. The book I gave to my mother on famous movies stars back in 1974 was returned too. I guess it was on loan. My father said my mother had enjoyed reading it many times. There are still things for him to sort through. Doubtless, many bills will need to be settled. My mother’s possessions are being farmed out to family if possible. The lesser ones are likely to end up at Goodwill. Then there is the matter of her interment. Her body was cremated but her ashes will go in a nearby cemetery. My father still has to pick out the exact plot. He is still a bit puzzled why I would want to attend this last act.

On the surface, my father seems like himself. We played a game of Scrabble (he won). We went for a Thanksgiving walk, a custom in our family so we do not feel so guilty about the feast to come. His mind is still sharp but our Thanksgiving walk came harder to him. I could hear him breathing heavily as we walked.

At our table, he was sometimes the odd man out. Had my mother been with us, there would have at least been someone his own age with whom to discuss things. We tried to keep him engaged but a lot of the conversation simply was not relevant to him. Discussions about TV shows like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer has no relevance in his life. So quite often, he was left alone in his own thoughts. Nevertheless, he seems philosophical about this time of his life. He seems to understand that his time too is nearing an end, and the world belongs to newer generations.

I am glad he has his retirement community. Too much time with my family would probably be a tedious experience for him. However, at Riderwood he has plenty of people in his own age group with whom to chat. These connections are perhaps the most meaningful experience in his life in more than twenty years. Many of the residents at Riderwood also grew up in this area. Consequently, there are endless stories to plumb with residents about the way Washington D.C. used to be sixty or seventy years or so years ago, when he was a young lad.

I hope that he has the time for a late life renaissance. Since he is unencumbered, perhaps he will take Elder Hostel vacations again. Perhaps he will visit distant relatives at times of his own choosing. On the other hand, perhaps he will simply stay at Riderwood where he is so happy, and enjoy time with family when we are in his neighborhood.

Since husbands tend to die before their wives, we are also wondering whether he might start dating again. Riderwood has many widows. A courteous gentleman like himself should be in high demand. Time will probably tell us whether he will even entertain female prospects. None of us wants to see him lonely. Fortunately, he does not appear to be the least bit lonely. He makes his own social life.

I may be projecting, but being spouseless after fifty-five years must be difficult on many levels. The void must be difficult to fully accept and work through. So we watch him with some wariness, sanguine that his last years are likely to be happy ones, but wary nonetheless. Since we live locally, my sister and I are also feeling our way through this change. How can we best support my father during his last years? Right now, we do not know the answers. We want to give him the space he deserves as a grown up in full control of his faculties, but we also want to be ready to step in when needed.

Yes, it does feel surreal. It feels surreal to play Scrabble with my father, to have his mind still so sharp, yet to have my mother irrevocably exiled from our lives. In a way, my mother still lives on. In my desk drawer are two cassettes of conversations with my mother taken some three year ago when she was of sound mind and body. I have yet to transcribe the oral history that I took. I need to. However, right now I cannot work up the courage to listen to the tapes. Her passing is still too near. I too need a little distance in order to gain perspective.

While I mostly feel fine, I sometimes wonder if I am like a soldier suffering from shell shock. Perhaps rather than being at the end of my grieving process, I am just at its beginning.

 
The Thinker

Eulogy for my mother

My mother’s memorial mass is tomorrow. I prepared the following eulogy when my turn comes to say something after the mass. This is a different perspective of my mother suitable for consumption by our immediate family.

Soon hopefully I will be focusing on other things again. For those of you who are wondering I find myself at peace over her passing. I think most of my grief occurred watching her decline. Now that this is behind us I think I can move on. However, I will certainly never forget my mother, and always hold her close to my heart.

First, I think we should all take a bow for the loving care we gave Mom. We all went beyond the call of duty. Even those of us who do not live locally came frequently. Mary’s tenacity and hard work throughout this whole time was overwhelming. She made Mom’s limited time at Riderwood a rich experience. She kept her mind engaged on projects like decorating the kitchen. She allowed Mom to sample the fullness of life as long as possible. When Mom fell or her conditions worsened, Mary jumped in with both feet and with little notice. She took on a big responsibility and she came through it with flying colors. Thank you, Mary. And thank you sister Teri, for the intensive care you gave Mom during her most critical times, including being with her at the end. Thank you all. A special thank you though also goes to my wife Terri. She visited Mom every Wednesday in Renaissance Gardens, almost without fail. The picture poster board was her idea. She gave Mom the deep, loving and focused attention that she craved. As a fellow Michigander, she was a critical bond to the home and culture that Mom loved. I believe not one wife in a thousand would do what Terri has done. Although I knew she had these traits when I married her, I still feel overwhelmed by her magnanimity and character. I am not sure I could give to my mother in law what she gave to hers. Clearly, I am a husband who is quite blessed. I love you dear.

My most persistent memory of Mom is of a woman always in motion. From before we were up (when she or Dad put on the first pot of Maxwell House coffee) until after we went to bed (when she could be found in the living room darning socks) her hands were usually busy. Even her sleep was restless. I do not know where her energy came from but I found it intimidating. She seemed to never stop doing things for us. She always kept our house immaculate. The furniture was always dusted and buffeted. Our sheets were changed like clockwork every Monday. I have memories of her in Endwell once a week waxing the kitchen floor whether it needed it or not. She never seemed to take a day off. She seemed to work as hard on Sundays as she did during the week.

Mom’s essence, I believe, was to be a doer. She was happy as long as she was doing something. She was usually miserable when she wasn’t doing anything. For example, she did not have to make spaghetti sauce from scratch. It could have easily come out of a jar. She knew what she could cook would be so much tastier than what could be purchased. She was right and we were her beneficiaries. From my perspective, the food she served was uniformly excellent. Often the aromas would fill the house for hours before the meal was served, making me all the hungrier when dinner arrived.

I also remember littler things that showed me that she cared. During my teenage years when I worked evenings at the Winn Dixie, I would get home hungry. But she had saved me a dinner plate, wrapped in aluminum foil, and would pop it in the oven. She knew I preferred her home cooking to anything I could buy so there was never a reason for me to miss an evening meal. Yet this was just one of numerous little things that she would do for me. When I came home from college for the weekend, she volunteered to do my dirty laundry. A few hours later, it arrived all neatly folded and ready for me to take back to the dorm. Little things like this spoke to her magnanimous character.

Mom was the sort of person who made a house a home. While Dad always struck me as the logical center of the family, Mom was its emotional heart. Mom was a woman very much in touch with her feelings. There was little in the way of ambiguity about Mom. You knew how she felt about things because she told you very explicitly and in a tone of voice that eliminated any ambiguity.

A few things about Mom will always puzzle me. One is why she discounted her own intelligence. Here was a woman who had earned a degree in nursing from Catholic University. Her degree was equivalent to Dad’s. She had loads of common sense. Like my wife Terri, she was a whiz at crossword puzzles. When we watched Jeopardy on TV together, I could rarely beat her to the answer. Nevertheless, for some reason she felt she was Dad’s intellectual inferior. She seemed to think that the person with more facts crammed into their brain must have better judgment. I have learned: it ain’t necessarily so.

As you know, shortly before I turned a teen I promoted myself as her favorite son. She would agree to it only in jest. I knew she was too evenhanded to actually pick a favorite. In retrospect, my attempt at humor answered to a deeper need within me. Mom herself has admitted that when I came along she was a bit frayed at the ends. She had three of us boys in diapers at the same time, plus a busy household to manage. Clearly, I wanted a whole lot more mother time than I actually got. A baby cannot understand the burdens of a full time mother with a plethora of children. But oh how I ached for more time with her. One way to get it was to play the favorite son game.

During the last years of her life, and the last couple of months in particular, I found that my mother had few distractions. She now lived close to me, so I could have as much of her attention as I wanted. Those of us who cared for Mom in the nursing home had a tough time of it. Yet it was not all bad. It was a bittersweet experience. To me it was right and appropriate for me to do intimate things like help her to the bathroom or feed her lunch, when she surely did far more for me in countless episodes throughout her life. While extremely difficult at the end, her last months were also a profound growth experience for me. Even in dying, she taught lessons.

From Mom, as well as Dad, I learned doggedness. For both of them marriage was for life, and for better or for worse. I think that perspective is something many of my siblings share. It contributes to so many long-standing marriages in our family.

One area of disagreement between Mom and myself was Catholicism. While it did not agree with me as an adult, I cannot help but have deep respect her profound feelings about her given faith. I know visits from priests and lay ministers comforted her enormously in her last months. Moreover, I am impressed in some ways with the Catholic Church as an institution. When she was in the hospital in Midland after her fall, members of the church stopped by to pray with her and give her Holy Communion. Although I suspect I will never be a Catholic again, I have inherited a feeling of reverence for the sacred from her as well as from Dad. Certainly, Jesus taught us to work toward being good people and to live by high values. She was dutiful in practicing her faith. I will cherish the memory of hearing her and Dad saying their prayers on their knees next to their beds before starting their busy days. I know her faith carried her through times that would have destroyed lesser women. I cannot help but respect that power.

Of course, right now the loss of Mom is too near and tender. It will take some time for me to gain some perspective on the meaning of not having her in my life. Right now, my mind is clouded with distressing images of her during her last few months. Yet I believe that as time passes these images will fade. Instead, I will remember the essence of my mother. The images that will persist will be those of my Mom humming to herself in the kitchen while she made another meal, or tending to her flowerbed on her knees. She took great pleasure in simple things. This is perhaps the most profound lesson that she taught me, and one I have yet to fully absorb.

While Mom is not here in the flesh, she is definitely here in spirit. She will always be in our hearts. So much of the person I became can be traced directly to Mom. So in a way I am the walking embodiment of Mom, as we all are. Because while we live, she still lives on. So I cannot grieve too much today because she is not just all around me, she is a part of me. She is not gone. She is in the air. She is in each breath I take. She is in every step I take. She is integrated inside me. Knowing this I can accept her passing. I am relieved that her suffering is at an end. I believe her spirit is still around, unfettered and free at last.

Update 6/26/2011. I continue to be surprised, more than five years after her death, how many page views this post received, usually several dozen or more a day. I assume many of you reading this have lost your mother as well, and perhaps are working on a eulogy for her too. Please feel free to use this as a template and change words as necessary to fit your own mother. Of course, something that comes straight from the heart will usually resonate the most. My heart goes out to anyone who is going through the loss of a parent. Please know that grief is a process you will get through, and that grieving is actually both good and necessary.

If you want to see a picture of my mother and learn more about her and how she raised us, click here.

 
The Thinker

85 Years and 8 Months

My mother died this morning at 7:42 a.m. She died at Renaissance Gardens, a nursing home at Riderwood, a retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland. While she died peacefully, her condition (Progressive Supranuclear Palsy) made her last few months quite unpleasant. While we are of course grieved to have her gone from this life, we are also relieved that she is no longer in pain or distress.

A picture of my mother, taken in Christmas 2004.

She was born in the midst of the Great Depression in Bay City, Michigan. Her parents, poor Polish immigrants, somehow raised twelve children while eking out a living that kept the family in poverty for most of her childhood. Since she grew up in adversity, she knew adversity. It shaped her entire outlook on life. Despite being in a desperately poor family, she was able to latch on to the American Dream somehow. Partially because there was a war on, and partially because her older sister Essie and her husband found the money, she went to nursing school in Washington, D.C. There at Catholic University she met a tall, blond and skinny man six years her junior named Jim.

While she never expected to be married, Jim was persuasive. They were married on June 21st, 1950 in Bay City, Michigan. Over the course of their 55-year marriage, they raised eight children. I am one of them. An engineer’s salary greatly exceeded her father’s salary as a butcher, but my siblings and I still lived a fairly Spartan and no-frills existence. Somehow, Mom and Dad raised eight of us. We absorbed their work and education ethics. Among my eight siblings, three have PhDs and three others (including myself) have graduate degrees. My marriage of twenty years is in the middle of the pack. My sister Doris celebrated thirty years of marriage this summer. My parents can also count nine grandchildren to their credit.

My mother was a submissive mouse of a woman to her husband and was too shy to make many friends. She was only truly comfortable with her own sisters. She seemed a tyrant to us children growing up. We do not hold that against her. She was playing from the same script she learned at her mother’s knees. While my Dad was invariably calm and logical, my mother was the full of emotion. To call her a tyrant though is to paint too broad a brush. She was also a mother who gave of herself to an almost dysfunctional degree. She would take no day off. Even on vacations, she was making meals and washing clothes. Despite eight of us to care for our house was always immaculate. She changed our bed sheets weekly. There was never a trace of dust on the furniture. The dining room floor was waxed weekly, whether it needed it or not. (Much later in life, she realized that Mop-N-Glow was good enough.)

She filled our tummies with delicious and healthy foods that had most of us salivating for more. She expressed her passion mostly in her cooking. Many dishes, such as spaghetti sauce, she made from scratch. Her pressure cooker steaming away and the percolator filling the house with aromas of Maxwell House are memories none of us could possibly forget. The yellow cakes with chocolate frosting that she made for my father seemed as numerous as stars in the sky. Whether cooking, cleaning or just fussing she was always in motion. She expressed her love through action.

Yet she discounted her own abilities. Despite having earned a B.S. degree in nursing, working as a teacher for a number of years, operating as scrub and psychiatric nurses, she considered herself stupid. She idolized my father’s intellect and generally allowed him to make the important decisions. She grew up steeped in the mysticism of Catholicism. My father also felt similar devotional inclinations. Our childhood years were full of devout and some might argue dysfunctional Catholicism. Daily rosaries, weekly masses and periodic trips to the confessional were an accepted part of growing up, as were parochial schools, when they could afford it. Every morning before they started the day they prayed together at the side of their bed. We knew our mortal from our venial sins. We were always looking over our shoulders wondering if God was frowning at us for our latest minor transgressions.

After her children had flown the coup, my mother was a bit lost. She never returned to work so instead invested more energy being the good submissive wife who catered to my father. Too much togetherness between them was probably not healthy. However, they had their values and there was no changing them. Marriage meant forever because God himself had joined them. Both played their marriage script, often sniping at each other in a tired passive-aggressive fashion, to the bitter end.

As my mother declined, their roles reversed, much to my mother’s horror. All she knew how to do was to give. It was infuriating to her not to be able to give, but to have others take care of her. Every little decline added to her unhappy state. My father floundered a bit in his new caretaker role. My family stepped in to support him. Our family (principally my sister Mary) saw the obvious. When it was clear they could not manage a house together anymore, we worked through the logistics of moving them from Michigan to Maryland.

It was family in the end that I think brought home to my mother the realization that she was indeed not just loved, but cherished. For my sister Mary and me, who live locally, caring for her meant a lot of grunt work. For me it was weekly visits. Mary did the same but supplemented it with so much more. Every day was a challenge for her to make my mother’s declining life have some meaning. Others visited when they could, which was surprisingly often, considering it meant plane rides.

The end of my mother’s life is really but a footnote to a long life that spanned 85 years and 8 months exactly. My mother’s life was about service to family. To her husband and children it was about doing things to place us in a safe and stable family environment. Nevertheless, she also had something of a previous life. She was not married until the ripe age of 30. Before marriage, she was a good but unnoticed woman who won affection by being at her parent’s beck and call. Her acts were quite extraordinary. For example, she cared for her severely mentally ill mother while nursing her colicky first child, my sister Lee Ann. This meant years of constant interruption and almost no sleep. No grunt soldier slogging through the Rhineland worked harder.

Now she is at rest. We know what her life was about, but I sometimes wonder why she went to such extraordinarily lengths for us. For now we do not analyze, we simply mourn her absence. Millions of us die every year, yet each of us has powerful individual life stories. Her life story too is very powerful. Yet to me at least she remains something of an enigma.

I feel that whatever she is supposed to do, her journey is not over. I think she has other lives ahead in other bodies. This life was a lesson for her. If she is granted another one, I hope it is one where she will have some time for reflection and ease. I hope it is one where she no longer basks in someone else’s life, but is one where she becomes the person she was meant to be. That is my hope for her. It is my hope that death for her is not the end. Rather, I hope she is a chrysalis and through her death she is transformed into the beautiful butterfly so hard for any but her family to see. It is this hope that gives me comfort while, understandably, I am feeling for a while adrift without my moorings.

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The Thinker

In Life’s Last Throes

It is Thursday evening and I am on the road in Helena, Montana. I arrive back at my hotel after a long day of work. In my email box was an ominous note from my father about my mother: “I cannot say that (her) death is imminent, but it may be… she didn’t respond to anything I said… couldn’t get Mom to close her lips on the straw, or suck.”

Ominous indeed. My wife had paid her a visit the day before. While my Mom was not in great shape, she could at least make something resembling conversation. Until now, I had no reason to think her death might be coming in the next few days or weeks. I figured there were months ahead at least before she died. This suited me. I thought maybe I was ready to let her go, but I was not. Not yet.

I spent my last night in Montana sleeping badly. I anxiously checked my email in the morning before my predawn flight back home. Nothing new. I had a sinking feeling that I would arrive back in Washington to find my wife greeting me in tears and telling me that my mother had died. When I arrived back at Washington Dulles Airport in the middle of the afternoon, I promptly called her. My Dad sent a brief email that made me feel a little hopeful. The cloud of doom lifted, at least for a moment. Nonetheless, the persistent headache that I often get under persistent stress would not go away. I popped two Tylenol.

By evening, another email arrived with the prognosis I had been dreading. “The nurse practitioner thinks Mom may die within a day or a week, though no one is certain.” Elevated pulse. Elevated respiration. Urinary tract infection may have spread to the blood. Since she had ordered no extraordinary means to prolong her life, my father stopped her IV, ended the antibiotic, but agreed to give her oxygen and a liquid morphine to relieve her misery.

No, dammit, I was still not ready. I was not ready for my mother to die. This was too fast. Just two days ago, she could swallow food! How could she be spiraling so quickly toward death?

With the help of more Tylenol plus an accumulated loss of sleep from my trip, I managed to sleep soundly until 5 a.m. or so. That is when the thought resurfaced: my mother is in the last throes of life. I tried to get back to sleep but never fully succeeded. It was morning and the headache was back. It was time to pop some more Tylenol.

My wife had to go to work for a while. We planned to visit my mother afterwards while I took care of things that had to be done, even when loved ones are dying. This included chores like buying groceries. It was after 3 p.m. before we arrived at her nursing home, some 30 miles away. We both steeled ourselves. If my mother had days to live, this might very well be the last time I would see her alive. For now, the thought was too large to get my mind around, but I felt its awful weight anyhow entering the nursing home. My feet felt like lead, but we finally made it to my mother’s room.

My father was there. For some reason, although he has been married to my mother for 55 years, the cloud of doom that hung over my wife and I was not affecting my father. He seemed almost happy. In the hallway out of earshot, he explained. “Your mother has been dying for three years. She will soon be out of her misery and with Our Lord.” For my father, his Catholic faith was an instrumental coping mechanism in what was for me what seems a very bleak time. Still I could not fathom his perspective. Your life partner is almost dead. How can you be so chipper?

My Mom was face up on her bed. Mostly she was asleep, but occasionally her eyes would open and she would observe her world from her narcotic haze. She could neither move her eyes nor turn her head. Her fingers were deadweight in my hands. Her breathing was labored, punctuated by occasional coughs. Mostly there was a vacant look in her eyes, but often they seemed to be able to focus on me.

What can you possibly say to someone who cannot talk back and is in the very last stages of life? Her mouth was dry. We used a sponge to give her moisture. I told her I loved her of course. I told her the whole family sent love. We let her know that other siblings were on the way to see her too. We think she understood, but she could not say anything. She could not even utter a grunt.

An oxygen tube went into her nose. It was tethered to a noisy machine six feet away. There was little to really say or do. All I could do is hold her hand. My wife took the other hand. My wife tried to give her drops of water. She asked my Mom to open her mouth. She could not open her mouth voluntarily.

A nurse practitioner came by to assess her situation. She had not seen my Mom in a few days either. She too was shocked by her rapid deterioration. There was little she could do to add to her comfort. A lip balm went on her chapped lips. She tried to clean out her dry mouth with a rubber sponge soaked in water on a stick.

And so my mother drifted in and out of sleep, sometimes seeming to watch us with half an eye open, her breathing always labored, her pulse always high. We pulled back her blankets because she seemed feverish. We took turns talking to her.

What to do so close to the end? The hardest part for me was simply not dissolving into a veil of tears. My wife seemed to find strength that I did not have. She spoke to my mother of simple and pragmatic things. Although my wife has known my mother less than half the time I have known her, both are very bonded to each other. In some ways, my mother’s passing may be more traumatic to my wife than to me. Both grew up near the same area of Michigan. Both shared similar Midwestern values. Heck, they even look quite a bit alike. My wife has been an angel of mercy to my mother these last several months, visiting at least once a week by herself while I worked. If there were a daughter in law of the year award, she would win it without trouble.

But what to say? Eventually I found my courage to say what I felt had to be said. While she could not speak, I knew she knew that she was rapidly dying. “Mom, I love you,” I told her. “I love you more than I can tell you. I cannot begin to tell you just how much you mean to me. I am so sorry to see you suffer like this. I know the last months in the nursing home have been very hard for you. But for me they have been a precious time. Because I have had the time to be with you. Because I have had the opportunity to take care of you for a while, like you cared for me. Because I have enjoyed our time together so much, and feel it is a blessing to have had this time with you at this stage in your life.” She was looking intently. I could tell she understood me, but had no means to say something in return. Nevertheless, I articulated it. “And I know how much you love me too, Mom.”

She drifted in and out of sleep. As a deeper sleep caught up with her, I gently slipped my hand out of hers. I kissed her on the forehead. “Be at peace,” I said, tears welling up. My wife did the same thing. We hugged each other on the way out. It was not until we were in the parking lot that I started bawling like a baby.

I have a feeling I will be crying a lot more before this is over. For the moment, she clings to life. However, her hours are now numbered.

At this point, I just want her out of her suffering. I hope whatever Supreme Being that may or may not be out there is merciful and swift. She has suffered enough. Please let whatever merciful uberforce is out there bring her back to the source so that she is free again. I hope, pray even, that she does indeed have a soul, and this life is but one lesson in an eternal life. I hope she learned important lessons in this challenging life. Perhaps she will be reincarnated. Perhaps she will begin a new and more hopeful life after a period of reflection in another dimension.

Although I still feel some horror in witnessing the process of dying firsthand, I am also not quite so afraid of it. For in the end death is simply an ultimate peace, and she has earned her rest many times. Her misery will soon be over. In addition, those of us who mourn her passing can begin to grapple with dealing with the rest of our lives without her. Of course, she will always live on in our hearts. In that sense, she is already immortal.

Rest in peace, my beloved mother.

 

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