I see you
in the empty Adirondack chair
in the passenger seat
in the reflection of my own eyes.
I hear you
in every song of loss
in the chirping of the birds
in the wind passing through the trees.
I feel you
in every yogic breath
in every steady step
in the warm rays of the sun on my face.
Stephen Hawkings theorizes that the universe expanded after the Big Bang. But I know that when some radiant Suns collapse upon themselves
All that remains is a Black Hole.
Life. Death.Living. Dead. Are these words with opposite meaning? Are these conditions end points on the same line? Are they different expressions of a human experience? In March of this year National Geographic published an article about the cultural attitudes towards death in a village in Indonesia. It stated that ” For Torajans, death isn’t the abrupt, final, severing event of the West. Instead, death is just one step in the long,gradually unfolding process.” The bodies of loved ones are often preserved for months or years with the loved one remaining part of the family. People continue to talk and bring food to the deceased. A month after reading this piece my own mother passed away. How would I deal with her passing? How would I embrace her spirit? Would I view her as a deceased body, a part of the past? Or would I keep her alive and present like the warmth of the sun or the gentle breeze of spring? As a daughter, to know my mother is to know myself. The more I evaluate and honor my mother the more I understand where I came from and where I am going. My life did not begin on the day I was born. My mother’s life did not end on the day she died.
” I don’t know when the right time will be to bury Ma’s ashes” my father says to me. He has my mother’s ashes in a beautiful urn my sister picked out. The urn is red and elegant and fits in nicely with the Asian theme in the guest room. My father goes into the tranquil room, touches the urn, says a prayer. He tells me he feels close to her. This is his nightly ritual. Each morning he says good morning to the framed picture he keeps on the dining room table. He loves her smile. ” I expect her to laugh or to say something to me.” He laughs and shakes his head. I know he thinks he is half crazy for thinking this way. I think it’s beautiful. I tell him of my own ritual. I look out the window each morning. I see the shrine of Mother Mary, the bird houses, the wind spinner, the trees, nature abounding. “Good morning, Ma!” I know she is there in spirit with the birds in the cool shade. My father tells me he doesn’t feel she is really gone. He tells me how he can’t be sad or sit around crying. ” I can’t believe I was married to the most beautiful woman for 64 years.” My father’s love of life and gratitude lift my spirit.
Last week was my mother’s birthday. We went out for lunch. We walked by the water. We, as always, talked about my mother. We laughed. We reminisced. I left a cupcake by my mother’s framed photograph. “Don’t forget to sing happy birthday to Ma” I reminded him. Like the Torajans, we continue to celebrate, to commemorate, to hold dear those we love. Whatever has a beginning has an end. Whatever has no beginning has no end.
A few weeks ago I was listening to a local radio show which has personal stories that reflect the greater human experience. I thought about my own experience over the past few months visiting my elderly parents and witnessing my mother’s steady decline. I grabbed my iPad and started writing and the tears streamed down my face. I hit the send button. It was carthartic. I was happily surprised when I received a response from the radio program host stating my essay was accepted for reading and broadcast. This would be a great tribute to my parents. I was hoping that the nature of the essay would fast track it for Mother’s Day. I would be able to play the podcast for my mother. I was contacted for a schedule date. April 25 would be perfect! Just 2 weeks before Mother’s Day.
My mother spent most of April in the hospital. She had lots of visitors. We all knew this routine of hospitalization,rehab, home then repeat was a good indicator of my mother’s failing health. I think she had nine lives. She kept rebounding. She had such a joy of life. April 24 I was at work. I got the call from my sister, then the doctor, then my spouse. It was time to start the vigil. I left work to sit with my family and say goodbye to the most loving mother. April 25 @ 0245 my mother had her final breath.
Obviously I postponed my appointment for the reading of the essay. A couple of weeks later, I rescheduled. I asked myself why I wanted to do this. Why do I need to do this? Why do I need to tell my mother’s story?
I was walking in my neighborhhood and stopped to talk to a neighbor. I informed her of my mother’s passing. She shared her story with me about her own loss a few years ago. We were happy to remember our mothers and our interactions with them. It felt good.
I returned to work 2 1/2 weeks after my mother died. A coworker stopped to offer her condolences. She told me how she followed my mother’s progress on facebook and loved the pictures I posted. She told me of her experience as her own mother passed last year. We shared a connection. We became part of the same club. We were unified.
I realize this is why I want to share my mother’s story. No one will ask How is your dead mother? But as daughters we want to tell the world. We want to say this is where I came from. This is who I am. This is the greatness I can become. Here is her smile. Here is her laughter. Here is the goodness she has left for the world. Here is my mother’s story.
Are we out of the woods yet? Are we out of the woods yet?
Are we in the clear yet? Are we in the clear yet?
I have this Taylor Swift song running through my head like a soundtrack of my new life. The last thing I say when my head hits the pillow is “just make it through the night, Ma.” The first thing I do in the morning is check my phone to make sure I didn’t miss the dreaded phone call. Then I breathe a sigh of relief. My life was not always so symbiotic with my mother. It just happened 8 months ago with a simple call from my father. He said my mother was in the hospital. That was an unusual occurrence then. Now it’s the new normal. My mother has spent equal time at home and in the hospital/rehab over the fall and winter. Now the hospital is her primary place of residence. Our relationship has always been close. Now it is like a folie du deux. That’s when twins share the same psychotic delusion. Only in my case it’s somatic. Now that my mother suffers from declining health I sometimes feel the same ailments. Her symptoms stem from a broken body. Mine are from a broken heart. I feel tightness in my chest. I have shallow breathing. I am fearful of death. I cry when she says “it’s not worth it. I can’t do this anymore.” She is old and tired. I know she has lived a good life. I just can’t let her go. The past few months have been teamwork. We have carried each other to the finish line.
My family asks how my mother is doing. I don’t know how to answer. How is she doing compared to what? What time frame are we using? Are we talking about physical health, emotional well being, lab reports, vital signs? Are we comparing this morning to now or comparing last week to today? The other day a coworker asked how she was and I instinctively said fine. Then I said, not really fine, actually she not fine at all.
I used to be the planner of the family. I know what day I am taking off 6 months from now. I have tickets months in advance. I am not spontaneous. I don’t like surprises. I like consistency. I walk the fine line between stability and stagnation. I like order and structure. An elderly parent in poor physical health throws all semblance of routine out the window. I can’t tell you what day would be best to do anything. I don’t know what I’ll be doing tomorrow. My day revolves around visiting my mother. This week she was at the rehab, the ER, PCU, SICU,ICU, and now we are waiting to find out if she will be transferred to another unit. We have dealt with fluid in the lungs, dehydration, rehydration, pneumonia, low blood pressure, high blood pressure, unstable blood sugars. Then after receiving the information from the medical team, the phone calls are made to family members. How is she ? Are we out of the woods yet?
When I entered ma’s hospital room I expected her to be well rested and eager for company. After all, it was 1 pm. Everyone had a late start after the long night in the ER. The nurse was giving her meds in apple sauce. Ma was having trouble swallowing. Pretend it Ruby Tuesday’s seafood trio, I joked. A little smile came to her face. She had a few bites of pudding and barely sampled her entree. She fell asleep. By now the rest of the family was surrounding her bed. The vigil was about to begin.
Ma is one month shy of her 88th birthday. She has lived with heart disease since her 50’s. She is a tough woman. Never complains of pain or discomfort. Just let her rest awhile. I watched her breathing for 7 hours. Just don’t stop breathing. I held her hand. I whispered words of encouragement. I need you to get better,Ma. I want to take you home. She would mouth ok or smile. When she opened her eyes they seemed to dart across the ceiling. She didn’t focus on my face. She received a phone call from her sister. She listened and made a few audible sounds which my sister relayed to my aunt. When the CNA rolled her from side to side she didn’t fully wake up.Ma was always a light sleeper and she was one step from comatose. My sister and I played music on my phone. We sang along to Sweet Caroline. My brother cringed at our rendition but Ma’s mouth would move in attempt to sing the refrain. My brother was hoping we would refrain from singing, but did enjoy ma’s attempt.
Ma had the signs of life. She was breathing, her vital signs were ok, her skin was warm and dry, her kidneys were functioning. She just wasn’t alert. We say she has the Irish gift of gab but today she barely spoke. I had resigned myself to the fact that Ma might not make it out of here. I could tell from my family’s tears, look of worry, and moments of silence that we all felt the same way. Ma appeared to be at the brink of life and death.
Visiting hours were over. I couldn’t bear the thought of Ma dying alone. I decided to talk to the nurse frankly. I expressed my fears to her and asked if the doctor indicated any concern that she might not make it. Despite the high lab values in the ER indicative of congestive heart failure and critical blood sugars the nurse said she was medically stable. I said if my mother makes it out of here we would bring her home with services. She already has a medical bed and we would buy her the intermittent air compression mattress to maintain her skin integrity. I mentioned the price tag of $2000. At this moment, my ever frugal mother, opened her eyes and said, clear as day ” what are we talking about? What’s going on now?” After all the emotion of the day my whole family broke into laughter. ” We are spending our inheritance.”
We all said goodnight to Ma. We didn’t say goodbye. We left in good spirits.
Lazarus was raised from the dead.
I have been haunted by a song from my childhood from the Steve Miller Band. It’s called Motherless Children. Its repetitive line is “Motherless children have a hard time when their mother is gone.” Although I am an adult I can’t imagine a life without my mother, yet that day is frighteningly close. So when I face that realization I recall another song from that era. “When I think of all my times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom. Let it be.”
My mother is 87 years old. We make trips to the hospital more frequently now. Last night was the most recent. I watched her huff and puff with pursed lips and a rapidly ascending and descending abdomen. I listened to the nurse report her elevated lab values. I saw the fatigue in my father’s eyes. I felt the sadness reflected in my sister’s face. I was grateful for my brother’s humor. I was comforted by my spouse’s presence. I felt blessed by my mother’s smile. “Tell me you will make it through the night,Ma.” “Everything will be fine” she said in a whisper.My goal over the past few years has been to honor my mother and father. I wanted to show them that all their effort and sacrifice for family was not wasted. I wanted my mother to know how much a child needs her mother no matter how old I become. On a snowshoe hike last year I wrote down a few words for her.
Don’t ever doubt that you are a good mother
You had Mother Mary for inspiration
You prayed the rosary,said a novena, waited for a revelation.
Mary has revealed herself to you.
Beginning with her Immaculate Heart.
If you want to see our Mother’s love
Your mirror is the place to start.
Don’t ever doubt that you are a good mother.