September 10, 2011
Bye Mom! I Love You!
My mother died this past Wednesday just short of her 91st birthday and four and a half years after her husband died at the age of 92. As a son, it was a terrible, although not unexpected milestone in the circle of life. As someone with a death sentence of my own, it was doubly emotional, yet full of lessons.
My parents had 59 wonderful years together. When my dad died, relieving him of a very painful existence, my mom was left alone in a modern Long Term Care facility, several hours away from her closest child (me) and virtually blind. She was a very practical woman who was able to carve out a life that sustained her for four more years. It was in the last several months that her health deteriorated significantly and dementia stole away her sharp, clever mind. She became very sad and often said that she wanted to die.
I visited her the Sunday before she died with Dianne, my daughter Caralia and her new fiance, John. In a rare show of clarity, she expressed her excitement about their recent engagement but for most of the time she wasn't making much sense. When I returned on Tuesday, she was in bed, unable to move on her own and having trouble breathing from a full-blown case of pneumonia. She was under palliative care with a DNR order, so she was only being kept as comfortable as possible. She was like this until she passed away the next day at 5:30 pm. She died comfortably with her near-blind eyes staring up at my face. She knew I was there. I held her hands and kissed her while I played Oh Danny Boy on my iPhone near her ear. It was her favourite Irish song (she was a fine Irish lass herself) and I thank Dianne for the idea. The song was winding down as she took her last breath. It was over and was a blessing and a relief for her and for all of us. I cried but I felt at peace now that she was.
During the time that Dianne and I were with her, I had a lot of time to think about what my mother was going through and what that might mean for me. Did she die a "good death"? I hope for that myself, but it made me think about what that meant. Certainly her moment of death was "good" - as good and peaceful as it could be. I would like that too. I want to die quietly and at peace listening to my favourite song. I want Dianne and my kids with me in those last minutes. That's part of it, but there is more to a good death. The key to a good death is a good life and I hoped that my mom felt that she had lived a good life and accomplished all she wanted. Except for the last couple of months, I think she did. As for me, I still have control over the things that will allow me to make sure that I have done all I can and that I've made the most of all my remaining time.
I encourage everyone to think about their mortality early because I believe you have to accept the fact that you are going to die in order to make sure you are living life honestly and to the fullest. It is equally important to talk about death with those who are dying so that you know what they want and to ensure that you have said all you need to say. I talked to my mom about death when my dad died and I know that she recognized she only had a limited time left and that there really wasn't much more she needed to accomplish in her final years. More importantly, over the past few visits I had with her, I was able to assure her that she had been a wonderful mother and wife and that she had many people who loved her. I was able to tell her that I loved her very much and that there was nothing wrong with wanting to die when your quality of life had degraded and you had done all you had set out to do. During the final hours, I gently told her that everything was going to be all right, that soon she would be free of pain and that she would be with my dad. I told her it was okay to let go whenever she felt she was ready. I guess that makes it a pretty good death and it was my great gift to be with her when she passed away listening to the final strains of her favourite song.
Was I right in telling her that she would soon be with my dad? I don't know for sure that it was true, but it was the right thing to say to her. It brought me back to wondering again what happens when we die. I think about this a lot and I will share many of these thoughts with you over the next months. Just as I hope there is something for me, I definitely hope that I told her the truth.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I took from this experience was the importance of being with your loved ones when they die. I have never felt closer to my mother. We shared an intimacy that can only be experienced when you are together in the final moments. I wouldn't trade this for anything. And the fact that I was able to share this moment with Dianne made it even more special because we both got to forsee what will take place between us in the near future. It has brought us that much closer together.
Finally, as I walked down the halls of the facility for the last time, listening to the elderly blind man yelling, "Please, please help me! Somebody turned out the lights!" for the umpteenth time, I saw how life goes on. How when we die, only our existence on this plane ceases and everyone else just keeps on keeping on. We always return from whence we came and hope only that our lives have been good and meaningful. We don't all have to be famous or go down in the history books. We can just be a good mother, father, sister or brother; a good wife, husband, grandma or grandpa; and a good friend.
Like my mom.
Rest in peace and say hi to dad. I'll see you both soon.