May 31, 1935 – December 20, 2018
I watched my father at lunch last week, noting the grief etched onto his face, the shadow of sorrow in his eyes. It’s sad to see this 91-year old lion without his mate of 64 years. I get the impression he’s processing the loss of his wife a little at a time, because of its potential to overwhelm. Which is smart. And we are there for him, like spotters around a trampoline, our arms open. Helping him keep his routine, which includes lunch with his best friend every Friday. The two old cuties kept the chatter light and lively, a silent pact in the midst of grief.
We lost our Mom to Alzheimer’s two weeks ago, and I feel a bit lost myself. Like a boat adrift, the anchor of caregiving no longer securing me. Or like a tight fist, slowly unclenching after being held together for a long time. All the control issues filtering like rain water down the drain; all the sordid details disappearing into the cracks like dirty thieves. A cleansing, an unfolding of petals, a completion of a life, the fullness of love.
Among the myriad emotions swirling and surfacing, though, gratitude prevails.
We were able to honour Mom’s wish and give her a beautiful end-of-life in her home, surrounded by family, without complications and without any undue pain or suffering. We achieved our mission throughout her brave struggle with Alzheimer’s and aphasia, learning valuable lessons along the way and filling our days with tears and laughter, anger and delight, the mucky love of daily life and the underbelly of angst and worry that adds to the weight of any illness.
I say this with deep respect for those who made a different, equally-difficult decision, or who hoped for and attempted without success to keep their loved ones in their home, and in complete awareness of how incredibly difficult the past three years have been; I do not wish this journey on anyone, yet I do not regret it, either. Isn’t this what life is all about? Big love, big hurt, big recovery. Repeat as necessary.
Knowledge comforts me, and I’m glad I had researched what to expect towards the end. We understood that my mother’s brain was communicating less with the external world and shutting down parts of her body. When she could no longer swallow, even involuntarily, we knew it was just a matter of time. That time – that waiting – was painful and difficult, yet enormously precious. It felt like ritual, possibly one that echoes from our spiritual past.
Each day of her final days, we surrounded Mom with soft music, our loving energy, kind touches and soothing voices. Morphine injections every few hours, done by one of us through an injection site on her upper arm, kept any physical discomfort from being bedridden to a minimum. A humidifier kept her skin and mouth moist, and the lights were dim; she kept her eyes closed most of the time, her brain unable or unwilling to process the visual stimulation.
My frustration with the public health care system never abated; the subject of a future post, because there’s no need to sully my mother’s passing with that nonsense. Suffice it to say that my pigheaded persistence prevailed until I found a private doctor. A calm, efficient woman who inspired confidence, who was willing to come in and examine my mother without undue process or preamble, who came back for a follow-up and was there to confirm, when my mother stopped breathing… quietly and in the middle of the day, just after a gentle massage, a restful night and (thankfully) just weeks after her eldest daughter arrived from out west.
My parents, decades ago, thoughtfully arranged their own funerals. This is a gift that every parent should consider, because when you lose a mother or father, grief makes you very susceptible to the “business of death” – fortunately, when we arrived at the previously-chosen establishment, we had no decisions to make, aside from the date and time. It was good to know that our mother was getting exactly what she had planned, in agreement with my father, so many years ago. We didn’t need to involve him, nor did he want to be involved.
We hired a bagpiper to honour my mother’s Scottish ancestry, and the opening strains of “Amazing Grace” at the visitation put us all in tears, prepratory to the reading of a long eulogy that I wrote and rewrote several times, to ensure that it contained everything my siblings and father wanted to express, too. My brother did a phenomenal job of reading it out to the tissue-holding souls in attendance.
Mom had a lot of friends and was well-loved. Despite the short notice and the time of year, I was touched by the number of people who were able to join us. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I hadn’t realized the emotional significance of these ceremonies; there is so much solace in community grief.
One of those people, a dear friend of the family and a skilled journalist, wrote the following, which I conclude with. He expressed it so well; I felt compelled to share it.
There you stood together. Five siblings, barely containing, and sometimes not, the anguish from the loss of the woman who brought you into this world, while the youngest of the progeny tried valiantly to deliver a eulogy that would make any mother proud. And, when the expected happened, when just saying the words about what made her such an exceptional mother became overwhelming, another sibling stepped in to deliver the message. Five of you standing there, bravely, telling those present how your mother was so loving, caring, nurturing, committed, —how she was the type of person most of us only aspire to be. Sobbing, together in overwhelming grief.
There stood her family, dealing with the almost unbearable loss of the cornerstone of the family—the lynch-pin who held things together and made all the family events happen; the moral compass who taught you right from wrong and instilled in you core values that are now held by her grandchildren and will be passed along to her great grandchildren; and above all the mother who taught you to love and care for each other and that if you stuck together, everything would be okay.
Well she was right and today, once again, you proved it. There you were, together, facing this grievous loss with grace, supporting each other with love. You made her very proud today.