Sunday, July 12, 2015

Waiting 5

 My mother passed away on July 4th, 2015 at the age of 88. I spent the last two and a half weeks of her life with her, much of it in hospice waiting for her to pass. It was the first time I had been that close to the dying process and I am grateful I had that time with her. It was a very strange experience, often fascinating, sometimes surreal. (5 of 5 posts)
It has been ten days since that first phone call. We have taken over the room with roll away beds and easy chairs. As we've become fixtures around here the staff have been very accommodating. We fall asleep to the sound of my mom's breathing and the oxygen pump. It is part dormitory with a touch of slumber party, this vigil. My mother is very hard of hearing, but we are told that hearing becomes acute at this stage. "What are you giggling about?" my mother asked a few days ago, back when she was still speaking. Normally she would only hear us if we spoke loudly facing her. I think she likes the sound of her girls giggling. And yes there are moments of giggles amidst the sadness. One of the many incongruities of this strange time.

We think we are near. The signs that they told us about are appearing. Maybe today. No more talk, just sleep. Her breathing is jagged. Part of me is fascinated by the process of dying, how defined it is, at least the outward manifestations. What we don't know is the inner experience.

My sister sings songs to her that they used to sing when my Mom took her to kindergarten. I talk to her about our travels together. I reminisce about a trip we shared in France. I had gotten aboard our train and then reached my hand down to her. Just then the train jolted and pulled forward. I stood in shock as she grew smaller on the platform. Finally I threw my bag down and jumped. After that we clung to each other when we boarded a train. We are going to go separate paths for awhile, I tell her. 
It will be OK.

I wonder how I'll react afterwards. I've been focused on the mom with Alzheimer's and haven't allowed myself to think of the amazing person she was before. I didn't want to spend time bemoaning that change. I wanted to appreciate the person in front of me. Even in a diminished state she has been a kind, loving person, her essence intact. I've been mourning gradual łosses all along. Soon I can allow myself to miss the whole person, the person I've known over a lifetime. It would have been harder without the Alzheimers. Perhaps it was a gift. To let go of the person she was with all her faculties would have been wrenching. This is hard enough.

Nurse LaRosa tells us that if Mom passes tonight, one of our CNAs asked her to call her. She wanted to come in and wash Mom, an act of love for her Rose. There are rich connections that have been formed with the staff here. The loving care they have given our mother is special. They had two weeks of her in her normal state with which to bond. What amazes me is how many of them did. They saw the person within and I am grateful.


It is now eleven days since I learned there were signs of impending death, nine days in hospice. It feels as if she is no longer there, but her body is hanging on. This is the hard part. When she was still conscious the time was precious, we could still feel a connection and communicate. Now we just wait for her body to tire of the fight.

My husband is still 500 miles away. I will call him when Mom passes and he will drive eight hours. It is hard for him too, living his life on hold, not knowing. I at least have the certainty of each moment, of each breath that she takes. He tells me he wants to be there to support me, but doesn't want to be in the way. I know he went through this with his mother and I watched his grief. It is comforting to know he understands on a very visceral level.

Cutting & Pasting with Mom's collages below
I think about support. What does that mean? What do I need? I've been mostly with my sister and niece who feel as deeply for my mom as I do. That is a form of support, to be with people who understand the importance of that person. We get support from many of the staff here. They recognize and treasure my funny, warm, loving mother. Hugs are given freely. I feel especially supported by my friend Dora, a second mom to me. Her voice on the phone brings comfort. Many of my friends have lost parents. They reach out with kind words. Normally I am not very good with accepting support. There is a bit of a stoic strain in me and right now this is something to get through. I think perhaps the need for support will come later, when grief can fully surface. I remember my husband had a large photo of his mother on our refrigerator for months after she died. Every time he put food in his mouth, he thought about her.

I have a painting I did recently of my mother, now hanging in my studio. She is cutting and pasting, her equivalent of collage. She used the language of her old career as a first grade teacher. I look at her last book of collage images. She last cut and pasted on June 15th. I find the Mother's Day card I sent her collaged in. My husband had the forethought to put the painting in the car. He remembered us having one I had done of his mother there at her visitation. Her painting was of our weekly Scrabble game, commemorating when she put down a seven letter word. It conjured up her presence doing something she loved. I would like this to do the same for my mother.

We are going into a holiday weekend. Tomorrow is the Fourth of July. It seems a fitting day for my mother to pass. She loves the American flag. When we drive by one she always notices it. Flags stand in her planters and at my father's grave. When I see flags they make me think of my mother. She has always said she is so happy that she was born in America where she got an education. Her mother came from the Ukraine. Boys were educated, but not the girls.

My sister strokes one of my mother's arms, I stroke the other. I'm not sure who came up with the idea of telling a loved one it is OK to let go or how valid that is. We decide to try again. I remind my mom of our travels in Europe, how she dreaded the next city on our itinerary, not wanting to leave the familiar. Then she would grow to love the new city and not want to venture to the next. Change was always hard for her and this is the biggest one she will ever face.
I talk of how fulfilling her life has been, how she's loved each part of her life. Of the people she's touched. I once told her that my philosophy of life is to take my little piece of the world and make it shine. That resonated with her and she adopted it, writing it out and posting it over her desk, next to a flag of course. We told her that her piece of the world was shining.

It is the Fourth of July in the middle of the night. The nurse has come in several times tonight. Each time she checks my mother's heart and says it is weakening. We sit on either side of my mother's bed. "It's OK Mom", we say as we stroke her arms. "You can let go".

It is a time that seems to call for a blessing. Not a normal practice in our lives, but this is not a normal time. My voice choked with tears, I recite the one she has always loved. 

"May the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and grant you peace."

 A few minutes later she passes from this world.


A special thanks to the staff of Lutheran Hillside Village in Peoria, Illinois who cared for my mother in her final days and treated us all with great kindness and compassion.

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