[First posted in February 2011 on www.deepeningcommunity.ca]
My great-niece was born on January 22nd. A couple weeks later, I was talking on the phone with my nephew, the brand-new father, about how it was going. “We’re pretty exhausted,” he said. “Changing a lot of diapers, up every few hours, checking regularly to make sure she’s still breathing.”
The marvel of it. That described my life exactly. Except the subject of care wasn’t a newborn baby but my dying mother. As I surveyed the stacks of diapers and bowls of pureed food that had suddenly overtaken my home, I thought, “Dying sure is a lot like being born.”
My mind went back to Thanksgiving of 2004, when the members of my extended family had converged on my sister’s home for the traditional feast. Before dinner, in response to my mother’s offer to set the table, I had handed her the silverware. Minutes later, I discovered her standing by the dining room table, still clutching the utensils, utterly bewildered. We had witnessed earlier indications of Mom’s failing memory, but that was the day I knew for certain that we were on the long journey with the identity thief called Alzheimer’s.
After the meal, I found Mom in the kitchen by the turkey carcass, pulling off scraps of meat and lobbing them across the room at my sister’s two dogs. The larger one was wearing one of those pathetically comic lampshade-like contraptions that dogs wear to keep them from messing with their wounds (My sister had given him a pre-Thanksgiving trim and accidentally clipped an ear, necessitating a run to the vet and stitches).
One piece of turkey landed between the dog’s jowl and his unique head ornament, sending him into a frenzy in an effort to dislodge it. For several minutes, we watched as this 100-pound golden retriever lacking peripheral vision careened off walls and knocked into furniture, with an 85-pound chocolate lab barking at his heels. If we needed a metaphor for the journey upon which we were embarking, we had just been given one.
Over the years, my sisters Kay and Debra and I watched our mother slowly lose ground. She forgot how to tell time, misplaced her car in the parking lot outside the grocery store, fed herself and her 18-year-old cat a diet of pickled beets and key lime pie, hid from a 12-foot-long albino alligator with blue eyes that stalked her last Christmas. Feeling myopic and disoriented at each step, we nonetheless threw ourselves into making the best decisions we could about her care, watching rather helplessly as her world shrank from the two-story home in which my sisters and I grew up, to half a duplex in a retirement community, to a small room in an assisted-living facility, to a bed in a nursing home specializing in dementia care.
Last summer Mom told us she was ready to die. She was able to articulate little else, but she spoke her wish several times with clarity. She began seeing a long-dead cousin and told her daughters it was time to gather the family, which we did a few weeks later.
The months that followed were agonizing, as we struggled to honor her wish in the context of an institution that was committed to keeping its residents alive as long as possible—several of them in a near-vegetative state. We saw our mother’s future in their vacant stares. After she spent a few transitional weeks in a wonderful hospice center, we came to realize that the only way to avoid prolonging Mom’s suffering and save her from a slow, languishing, and debilitating dying was to bring her home and care for her.
Kay and Debra, God bless them, put their regular lives on hold and moved to the farm where I live in Asheville, NC, at the end of January. Nothing really prepared us to care for our mother in her final days. Except, of course, thousands of years of human history. Only those of us with modern sensibilities and resources have the capacity to isolate ourselves from the intimacies, both harsh and tender, of dying.
A loving community of family and friends near and far embraced us. Their blessings and bouquets, messages and massages and meals, visits and gifts of chocolate buoyed us throughout. My congregation, Circle of Mercy, publicly blessed us at the beginning, and compassionate hospice personnel guided us through to the end.
On the eve of my mother’s passing, my sisters and I gathered around her bed, read a psalm and sang her a lullaby, as we had every evening since bringing her to the farm. It was my turn to take the night shift. I felt like a midwife, timing her breaths by my watch as expectant parents would time contractions, increasing the dosage and frequency of morphine through that long night drenched in moonlight. “Don’t worry,” the hospice nurse had told us, counting the syringes she had brought, “there’s not enough here to kill her”—either missing the irony or attempting to reassure us in some way.
My mother took her last breath a little before 11 o’clock in the morning on February 13th. As I helped the nurse gently bathe her body that afternoon, I thought back to the day two weeks before when Kay and Debra and I had brought her to the farm. She had never been here before, and she hadn’t recognized her daughters in almost two years. But the moment her head hit the pillow, Mom smiled at us and said, “I’m home.” Four days later she stopped eating, and ten days after that she slipped away.
My sisters and I were bone-weary when it was over, but grateful beyond words for the blessing of accompanying our mother in her final days—a holy and grace-filled time that deepened the bond that has held us since birth and gave us memories to cherish forever. The day after Mom died—weeks before spring was scheduled to arrive here—fifteen tiny, delicate, teardrop-shaped white flowers appeared by the pond at the farm. One flower for each day of our vigil. When I saw their beauty and boldness, that phrase came to me again: “Dying sure is a lot like being born.” A comforting thought for today, my mother’s birthday.