This is a matter of life and death
As Dr. Seuss said: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened”.
The other week was the one year anniversary of my mother dying. To honor the date, I shared, on one of my social media feeds, this beautiful picture that I took of her hands, as she lay dying. I had walked into her room that day… she looked rough… but the light was shining in the window, bathing her hands with light. I just pulled out my phone and snapped a pic.
I came to love that picture. The hands that stroked my hair while I was curled up under her arm at six years old, the hands that kneaded all that bread and made all those cookies over the years, the hands that straightened my bridal veil at twenty. Loving, caring hands.
I had the luxury of clearing my plate and sitting by her bedside for the last two days. She was never awake but her hands would shake or she would startle a bit and I would just take hold and settle them, calm them. It was my turn to tend to her with my hands.
I was blown away this week by the outpouring of comments and caring thoughts that my post brought. Some expressed sadness for me…but I replied: no sadness, only love.
It had been a long goodbye: six years in dementia care. Six years earlier having cleaned out her apartment. The last few years she wasn’t able to speak, but that sparkle in her eye told us that she knew we were family, we were special visitors.
My sister and I fell into a lovely pattern of having lunch with Mom on Sundays; one of us spoon feeding her and one of us doing her nails. She still cared about her nails and her red loafers; she always pointed out her favorite shoes to us.
I hadn’t always been close to her. Through my 30’s and 40’s, I was too busy, not interested in a relationship, and early on in her dementia journey I wasn’t there enough. But I managed to find a way to turn that around, to show up, and to just savor that last year or two.
Each Sunday, after tucking her in for her afternoon nap, I reflected and said to myself: this may be the last time. We had a lot of those last times. We were lucky. When she fell ill on her 88th birthday late last November it was a quick slide downhill. I’m glad she didn’t suffer long after that.
Her passing was extraordinarily profound and beautiful for me. Not what I had expected. Those days I sat by her bedside gave me time to digest the inevitable. To be at peace with it. To whisper to her: “it’s okay Mumsie, you can go to heaven now…” So, when it happened it was all okay.
One comment someone made to my post was: “Mom’s should never die….” But they do, and it’s part of life. One of my best friends told me on the phone the other evening that she got to hold her niece’s new baby last week. She said it was the most precious, sublime experience…. What a beautiful entrance into the world. All these entrances and exits are part of life and when we accept them with love and grace, we feel that love, not sadness.
* * *
I had a second experience 8 months after my mother’s death, when my father passed away unexpectedly this summer. One day he was here and the next he was gone.
We had a long history of disconnection: he had left my mom, myself and my three siblings with very little support when I was 12. I didn’t see him much over the decades…but as a young adult I did find a way, through the loving encouragement of a friend, to make my peace with him. Although I still didn’t see him much, I called at Christmas, his birthday, Father’s Day… we talked occasionally and it was fine. When I bought my first house on my own 11 years ago, he came and stayed for a week and helped me. We worked hard on the new house during the day and then came back to my old place and showered, changed, ate dinner and visited. He had time to get to know my 10 year old son for the first time. Last year I was researching a project in the Okanagan, where he lived, and I took him along with me on a road trip for the day. We spend the day driving and talking and connecting as best we could.
I was just starting to work on that project, in his city, and was looking forward to the additional opportunities to see him but this summer I got a call: he had collapsed and had been taken to the hospital. No worries, he was going to be fine, they said. The next morning he passed away.
This situation was different for my siblings; my sister had not talked to him for 25 years… I was so happy that I had. That I had some connection with him; that I had said all the things that I wanted to. There was nothing unresolved in our relationship. How lucky was I – that I had tended to this…in time. His service, a few months ago, gave me peace and closure. Not sadness.
* * *
So I have had one long prolonged parent-death and one sudden one. In both cases I know that it is very important to stay in connection. Resolve those issues, don’t leave things unsaid; show up. But even more so: grab the moments of grace when they cross your path. Be open to them.
I spoke to another friend the other day about her parents and she told me her mother had said the best time of her life was a trip they had taken together in a motorhome to the Grand Canyon – she’d traveled all over the world but somehow the magic of the relationship time on that trip tipped it into first place…it may have been an ordinary trip or ordinary circumstances, but it ended up being an extraordinary experience.
She also told me about an experience with her father: he had accompanied her on the train to Gatwick to see her off, back home to Canada, but upon arriving at the airport, they learned her flight was delayed four hours. Instead of leaving her there, they took off together for a while, and had a lovely long walk through a neighbouring village. Unfortunately, my friend was dressed for the airplane, not for a long walk (she said she had nylons on, not socks for her shoes…) and it made walking this long distance uncomfortable for her feet. Her father responded by taking the insoles out of his shoes and giving them to her (apparently they had the same size feet!). His generosity, the time they spent together, was a treasured gift to her.
We agreed that these are the moments: the photograph of the hands, the walk in the village, the renovation of a house. We can’t plan them, we can’t arrange them and they don’t always occur on the “grand tour”, at the big orchestrated events. We have to be open: open to receive moments of grace. They can crop up when we least expect them. Smile when they happen.
* * *
A beautiful TED talk to watch is: “Say Your Truths and Seek Them in Others” by Elizabeth Lesser.
In it she talks about reconciling with her sister before becoming her bone marrow transplant donor. How the bone marrow transplant was one thing, but their relationship needed a “soul marrow transplant”. The idea that energetically or spiritually there was preparation to do that might improve the medical outcome. Lesser starts the talk by describing how her early career as a midwife taught her three important lessons:
Uncover your soul – look for that soul spark: we are all born with a unique worth that we unfortunately start to cover up as we grow and conform to the family, society, culture, gender.
Stay open, stay curious – ask the pain what it’s come to deliver: something new wants to be born.
Experience sacred awe – by stepping off the “hamster wheel” that plagues all our busy lives and entering the transcendent dimension of deep time: in which one is just “being”.
This is one of the most heartwarming and inspiring talks I have seen in a while, I wholeheartedly recommend it.
* * *
I feel blessed and transformed by my own experiences this last year. If you have parents around, don’t wait. Connect. Savor the days, the chores, the duties, be ready to catch the moments of grace. Be there so you can then have the grace needed to accept the exit from the stage, the concert’s ending.
It’s a matter of life and death.