I am going to write about my mother’s life. But first I need to write about her death.
I am intrigued these days by the art of dying well. There is much in our culture that encourages a fear and even dread of death. But deeper still is an instinct that calls us to walk with the dying as they prepare for the ultimate transformation.
Last Wednesday was when I knew things had changed with mom and her path had turned towards death’s door. My sister Marilou called me. Dad had called her to say that Mom was once again in trouble. She’d had several bouts of vomiting in the last two months due to bowel twists. Two trips to the hospital and one to the surgeon who’d done the resection told us that there was really no treatment for a twisted bowel besides lots of fluid and no food.
When I arrived at their apartment, Mom’s look from the couch as I came in told me this time was different. She was distressed, but also her colour was different. She’d become increasingly gaunt as elderly folks do, but there was something else. It was a look I’d seen so often in palliative care hospital rooms. Was it in her eyes?
The biggest change was that she’d lost the ability to talk. She could only point to where her pain was and then slip off into a restless half-sleep again. Perhaps her spirit had already begun its metamorphosis. It was as if she’d begun to cocoon.
Dad read to her from his novel which quietened her. And Dad and I chatted about a mid-winter respite weekend – a train trip to Montreal for the two of us. A bit of denial happening there – the last defense of the suffering. Maybe hearing this, she was making plans for her own trip.
I watched Dad feed her what was to be her last dinner. I’d hauled her into a sitting up position. It caused her obvious pain to sit up and I aborted the idea of getting her to the table to eat. Watching dad spooning food into her sitting on the coffee table, encouraging her, touched me. The love they shared was a tangible, physical, earthy, love grounded in serving one another’s needs.
After that – until she was gone - she would only sip a bit of water and take in a bite of food, mush it up in her mouth for a while and then spit it back out.
Thursday morning I was at the Credit Union with Lynn setting up our new business account. Luckily we’d arrived separately so when Marilou called again – I was able to take off. The nurse at Princess Gardens had called for an ambulance. Dad and Marilou didn’t want her going to the hospital again for another bout of tests and being told “there’s not much we can do”. So I charged over to the rescue. As Marilou said later “if you want someone to block – allan’s your guy”.
Like an offensive lineman I arrived just as the paramedics – two twenty-something women - were about to transfer mom from her bed to their gurney. The Princess Gardens nurse was with my Dad in the other room. The next ten minutes were a few of the toughest of my life. Negotiating with these professional caregivers whose job it is to save lives – convincing them to not do their jobs – and let my mother die in her own bed – just about tore my fucking heart out of my chest.
One of the paramedics was tearing up – I could feel the salt of her tears stinging my broken open heart. And the nurse was red-faced – obviously not a happy camper. But my Dad was calm and clear and backed me up every inch. He told these young women. “Marion and I have talked this through and are not afraid of death. And besides” he told them, “the Princess Gardens motto is “if your needs change – your address doesn’t have to.”
This last quote was for the benefit of the young nurse. Her supervisors were both out of the building and she was out of her depth of authority. She went and got the Do Not Resuscitate paperwork and showed me the box where my parents had ticked off which actions they’d accept. “Send to hospital” had a check beside it.
But once we’d got past their defences. Made it clear that we knew what we were doing. Talked through all the possible medical procedures and options available – and they’d talked to my sister, the lawyer, on the phone – they really shifted.
One paramedic told us about her grandparents and the tough decisions her family was facing. The other young woman talked about how usually there’s no one at the nursing home to stop them and so – following protocol - people end up in hospital as the default place to die. Breaking through that protocol took some doing but they ended up being very supportive of our decision, and wishing us well, and blessing us with the caring hearts that took them into this profession. Their shift from “professionals” to this very human-to-human touch was a part of this transformation story.
I was in full over-functioning mode. I’d been there before with family crises. A high rationality takes over with me. Emotions go somewhere else. My inner “engineer” surfaces. I am calm and articulate (“verbally dominant” as one observer has described it) and working six steps ahead of what the situation really requires. I can end up doing other’s jobs for them and have learned to reign in – a bit – out of compassion for people who are trying to deal with this large imposing man with his white male priviledge cranked up to maximum.
As we discovered, Princess Gardens was more than well equipped to deal with death. I spoke with the Director of Care that evening and we met Friday morning. Mom had spent a restless night but still was not responding except to open her eyes for a few seconds, give me a helpless look, and fall asleep again. Brendan took us through the process of how the residence could help. Everything from a hospital bed in her own room, increased dosages of medications, and even coffee and sandwiches for the family. Dad was calm and collected as we discussed the preparations and what we might expect. He told Brendan, “You’re talking to a couple of pastors. We’ve been through this with many families.”
Something in me resisted being the one being helped. I wanted to be the helper- the professional providing calm and assistance, compassion and comfort. A wave of exhaustion rose from my toes and by the time it got to my head – I was glad I was sitting.
Marilou arrived, having cancelled a mid-winter weekend retreat. I’d advised her to go. I was sure that this process would take weeks - our mother is one tough customer.
I’d used a technique on Marilou I’d often used with folks caught between their own needs and the needs of family – asking “What would Mom tell you to do?”
“She’d say – Marilou I need you. Get here as soon as you can.” was her reply.
I laughed an acknowledged the truth of it. Marilou was the one my parents called when they needed help. Never mind she was in Ottawa and I was just ten blocks away. They knew Marilou would worry until their needs were met. My “every little thing’s gonna be alright” attitude was fine to smooth the waters but when you wanted action – call Marilou.
It took some time for the increased meds to arrive. In a way – it was one of the blessings of the dying well process. It meant that Mom was more awake and aware (although more restless). When her granddaughter called from Victoria, Mom was able to hear her on the speakerphone and tell her “I love you”. Same thing when brother Ted called from the Houston airport on his way home.
Dad sang hymns to her. It calmed them both. I’m sure of it.
I headed home Friday evening. Once the nurse brought in the sub-cutaneous locks to provide Mom with the pain-killers and anti-anxiety drugs on a regular two hour basis, I felt that we were moving into the next stage. Marilou and I and our spouses had a quick chat about arranging shifts for the vigil. I was still sure it was gonna take some time. I knew that she could slip away at any time - but I also had lots of experiences of people with strong hearts lasting days and weeks before finally letting go.
Granddaughter Miriam offered to take the night shift of the vigil. I’d come back first thing in the morning.
Lynn and I arrived just after seven. I took off my coat and boots and looked in on mom. She was sleeping – her mouth open and head to one side. Lynn scared the wits out of dad who was coming out of the washroom as she was going in. He’d just gotten up. He’d told Marion he loved her – said he’d noticed her breathing - on the way through to his morning routine.
We were sitting in the living room comparing notes about the night when the nurse arrived and slipped past us to check on mom. She was back in a minute to tell us she was gone.
I was so surprised.
And I was so relieved.
And I looked to Dad. He took it sitting down. “Well” he told the nurse “She’s been my Valentine for 62 years. Valentine’s Day is an appropriate day for her to go.”
I called my brother Ted. It took four tries to wake him. Their plane had come into Toronto at midnight. I told him. He cursed and said he was on his way.
Marilou arrived minutes later. The four of us went in and had a prayer with Mom’s body. Each of us wept. We sang a chorus of Hallelujah (not the Leonard Cohen version) and Marilou lit a couple of candles by the bedside. My Dad placed a small wooden cross over her heart. I brushed her hair.
The rest of the day was a blur of phone calls. My parents (another blessing) had pre-arranged their funeral services in Bobcaygeon before moving to Peterborough two years earlier. Thankfully most of the decisions had already been made. We just had to put the plans in motion.
Yet another blessing was how well my brother and sister and I, and our spouses, worked together. Not that we agreed about everything. But we treated one another gently and with humour. As the middle child it is my role to poke fun at my siblings whenever I see a chance to get under their skin – but I did my best to hold it check – only somewhat successfully.
I can’t say enough about my Dad. He is often described as a gentleman and a real pro when it comes to pastoral care. When the nurse took the wedding rings off my Mom’s fingers for us, he explained. “The three diamonds on the ring stand for Faith, Hope, and Love – and the greatest of these is Love” - quoting 1st Corinthians 13.
He was loving to the end. The bond between them deeply rooted in their walk as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. They were a team in all they did. They modeled for me a way of living true and simple. The faced every challenge with composure and wisdom. In all things they sustained a sense of humour that bubbled up from the source of a deep joy that is bottomless and neverending. In this world and the next.
We’ll celebrate her life later today at Cambridge Street United Church where Dad last served as associate minister in the nineties.
I’ll be writing in my next blogs about Her Life, and then Her Suffering. Lessons learned from my first love.