We sat beside your bedside. Our hearts were crushed and sore. We did our best to the end, ’til we could do no more. In tears we watched you sinking. We watched you fade away, and though our hearts were breaking, we knew you could not stay. You left behind some aching hearts that loved you most sincere. We never shall and never will forget you, mother dear. ~Anonymous
Most of us are familiar with the Last Supper of Christ, whether we are Christians or not. I grew up with the teachings of the Bible, and I am very familiar with this story. We had our own version of this with my mom a few weeks ago. There is comfort in being a Christian in the fact that we know my mom is in heaven and has been liberated from her wheelchair where she spent a good portion of her life.
I remember the evening I arrived in Hills, MN, after a long drive with road construction and traffic delaying my arrival. I made it there nevertheless. I walked into the room to find my dad, who looked tired and depleted, relieved to see me. My mom looked like she was unresponsive and resting. I didn’t know what to expect, and even though I mentally prepared myself for what I might see, I was not prepared for what was going to happen over the next 24 hours. Seeing a close relative depart from this earth is an experience like no other and is not for the weak. The process is not like in the movies where they take slow gentle breaths until the exit of the last and final breath, releasing them from the bonds of their physical bodies. Although the end was pleasant, the hours leading up to it where mentally and emotionally draining.
My dad’s sister reserved a room for me at the nursing home across the street where I stayed on Friday night after visiting with nurses and family that work at the assisted living facility where my mother lived for the last year.
A few weeks prior to this visit, I flew to see my mom, and she was still able to interact and complain about my style of clothing and my awful shoes. I told her that I was going to buy her a pair of Chuck Taylor so that we could be twins. She had no interest in that. While I was there I looked over doctors’ notes and the file that contained the information about my mom’s current condition and the progression of her cancer. The results gave a grim diagnosis that she would not live beyond the next few months. We decided to put her on hospice, and I left feeling that if I didn’t see her again, I was content that I spent this quality time with her. This was the day after my birthday, and I would be leaving the following day for a week to study Yoga Therapy Applied in Medical Settings at Kripalu. Kind of ironic.
But now, I was back at the nursing home. Two weeks had passed. The next morning I awoke, ate breakfast, and headed across the street to see mom. Her condition was the same as the previous day. One of my dad’s sisters was in the room with mom when I arrived, and we decided that mom’s nails needed to be repainted. I showed my mom the options that I thought that would be nice and told her I could get some orange paint to paint them with instead. She grunted with dissatisfaction. She hated orange. I painted her nails and talked to her about all of the times that I painted her nails in the past.
I knew that this would be the last time that I would paint her nails and that it would be for her funeral rather than going out to eat and socialize. I visited with her for a while and then walked across the street to eat lunch. When I returned, my dad’s other sister was at my mom’s side. Her breathing was now more active and labored then before. The cancer was definitely progressing. The wheezing and clearing was getting stronger and more frequent as the hours passed. I asked the nurses to increase her pain medications so that she could be comfortable. Terminal respiratory secretions were becoming evident, and my dad’s sisters were tending to my mother’s needs as fluids accumulated on her mouth and lips. I had to leave and come back multiple times before my reflux passed and I was able to be in the room for extended periods of time. I was having difficulty with the fluid at first, and it would cause me to gag and dry-heave.
I sent text messages to my sister-in-law to let her know the time was near after visiting with the hospice nurse. She said that they were on their way. After some time passed, I responded, “It is getting bad. Are you sure that you want to be here?” She answered in affirmation. I replied, “Prep papa and my brother for the worst. She is nearing the end.” The words “death rattle” were whispered as the hospice nurse said that she would not make it through the night. This sound is rattling noise at the back of the throat. My mom was no longer able to cough or swallow, and the accumulation of fluids like saliva pool in the back of the throat making a rattling sound.
The arrival of my family was a relief to me even though it was hard to watch them enter and see her advancement. I had been there during the changes, so I was numb to it. My family arrived, and I was relieved to have them there. Mom’s breathing, although labored with some rattling, was better than the previous hours. We stood by her side for hours as her breath became more subtle. They moved her body and made some adjustments, and we re-entered the room. For us, being with mom at the end of her life was a profound experience, but I found the anticipation was emotionally and mentally exhausting. At times, I wanted it to be over for her not to suffer any more. Then, I felt guilty for thinking like that. I understood that it was a normal and understandable response to a very stressful situation.
More time passed, and my brother said that he was getting hungry. My sister-in-law ordered food and brought it to my mom’s room. We sat and ate. By this time my mother’s breathing was quite relaxed. The nurses came in while we were eating and moved her again. We left the room and reentered. Her breathing was quiet and relaxed now. We sat back and reclined in our chairs, talking about normal everyday conversations like we would do at a dinner table. We started to clean up our garbage, and then she stopped breathing. We jumped to our feet and watched as life left her body.
My mom is gone. Never again to hear her voice. Never again to hear her grunt of dissatisfaction. Never again to hug her.
After a moment, Rufus, my dog, ran to the window. My dad and I looked at each other in disbelief at what we could only anticipate had happened. While driving back to my dad’s farm, he asked, “Do you suppose that Rufus saw mom leave? Was she a spirit or a bird?” I responded, “I don’t know, papa.” Why? We do not know for sure. He had been back and forth among the people that visited my mom that day but never looked out the window. How amazing it was to have my family and I seated at my mothers bedside as she took her last breath. It was almost as if she wanted us to eat one more meal together as a family before she left.
Our life is a constant flow of birth, life, death and rebirth. The cycle of existence is a positive and necessary transformation life. It is our attachment to life that causes us to mourn death. And it is not a bad thing to grieve, but when it consumes our existence, it then becomes an issue. We are wired to survive. The survival instinct of the reptilian brain is very present in my current situation. I have been doing the things necessary to survive and not much beyond that. I see friends, clients, family, surprised at the fact that they are struggling and that they are in pain. Yet there are those that hang on to the pain and struggle so closely that it defines their lives. They become martyrs and define their lives with constant struggle to derive attention and sympathy. Some, like my mom, didn’t want the attention on themselves, on their illnesses, and on their needs. All she wanted to do was cook, walk, and work again– something that she would never see on this earth.
My mother was 59 years old when she left this world on May 7th, 2016.
Our very own Alex Barrett will be riding in the MS 150 on June 11-13th. I have ridden in previous years, and my mother volunteered her time at the feeding stations along the way. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1988 (she was 31 yrs old) and with colon cancer in 2011. My Family and I have donated to Alex’s ride this year with some of the money that was given to us by friends and family. She supported the MS Society and would love to hear that the money went to a good cause.