Gentle Lessons at the end of a Life

I spent the last week of 2011 and the first few days of 2012 being a part of and witnessing one of life’s great gifts and mysteries. I spent much of this time sitting in a 10ft by 10ft room with many others as we struggled to say farewell to our mother. Some might wonder about the use of my language: yet if a 92 year old woman with a debilitating disease is permitted the grace of passing on from this life to the next in a relatively painless and peaceful way, then I think this is a gift as much as a part of the mystery of life.

I witnessed so much during the short few days I spent in the company of my mother, my siblings, our children and grandchildren. We siblings had to find ways to communicate, to find ways to hear each other, and to briefly attempt to bridge the leaden gaps of time and lives purposefully lived apart. This dance, this tension-filled, awkward sparring may have been done so that somehow the last remaining connection of our childhood might not fall away and instead, might leave behind a clearer, common acceptance of how we were once a family and how, at some point, we happily shared time together and were one. This is a story yet to be written.

Our mother gave us her time. At Christmas, she somehow must have figured out what she needed to do to end her suffering and to go to a place of her choosing. She stopped accepting food or drink and refused her medicine. The staff at her facility, along with the doctors, must have seen this before as they informed us that they would not intervene and would allow her to find her rest when her body chose to go silent. She was to be pain free in a non-invasive fashion and the rest was in her hands.

Most of us are not in the death and dying business; therefore, although we gather and hold hands and have others come and spend time, we are all uninitiated children as we watch our mother’s shallow and gentle breathing, not sure if each breath we observe will be her last. We rejoice and are excited when she opens her eyes and looks around the room in amazement and we all stand motionless when she stops breathing for what seems forever only to have her start breathing again. We talk to her as we hold her hand and feel her gentle squeeze as she responds. We hold dear this process in a meaningful way and hope that each squeeze is her way of talking to us at that moment.

The staff, ever respectful, continues to monitor us as much as mother. The doctor visits and ever so tentatively attempts to offer up suggestions as to what we can expect although bedside, passing-on, sensitive cryptic is a most difficult form of communication to discern. He is sweet and caring but we know no more when he leaves than when he came.

Our children struggle as well. They have the filters of their parents as they witness the family dynamic and must observe and wade through the dance and the innuendo with partially filled glasses of experience. One can only guess what they hear and glean from this family terraforming event and possibly they worry how they might behave or act when their parents are at this final stage in life, and what they will do or how the dynamics will play out when they become the new last generation.

I think our grandchildren; our mother’s great-grandchildren, are really the most fascinating in this act. They range in age from two to eight. They are mostly free of family dynamics, they are more curious and interested in the here and now of the life of this warm and wonderful lady that they know and who has always been in their lives and with whom they have shared and bonded forever. Why is she dying? I really want to be there when she dies, as I have never been to a dying before. Can I go with her? I want to meet her husband. I think we will all be sad when great-grandma dies. The very young and the very old have so much in common; what gets lost in the in-between years?

Mother’s last breath will soon be taken as her body is quite clearly shutting down. The sibling anger, hurt, frustration, and even fear that maybe we didn’t live up to the grand expectations of our parents won’t disappear with the passing of our mother. A memorial will be held; a celebration of life will bring many others into the crossroads of this family for one small last moment and then our lives will continue. They will be changed lives but in what way? I don’t know what we learn from all of this and I don’t know if this is any different from similar events that occurred in my family even 10 generations ago. What I would like to believe however is that generations are an investment in each other and that my granddaughter’s life will be richer and more full of compassion as a result of her 8 short years spent with my wonderful mother. We all invest in our lives in different ways and the seeds of those investments bear fruit across the generations in unintended and unimagined ways. I trust that the strands of my mother’s life will forever be carried forward through the changed lives we live today. It truly is a gift of life.

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