My mother died two years ago, almost to the day. It’s time to begin to tell that story, which will probably take several posts. I hope my sharing helps some of you going through similar experiences.
The death of a parent changes you in a can’t-go-back kind of way. It changes you whether you let it in or not. It bangs down the door and washes over you at some point. So you may as well let it in from the very beginning.
asked me made me promise that I would write this story. I think she thought it might be a best seller (as any good mother would) and I’m sure she thought it would be different than what is being poured from my soul at this very moment. She made me promise, literally on her deathbed, that I would write about her decision to die and what followed. “Use this, Kris,” she said. “Use what is happening to us right now to help other people go through the death of a parent. It might help them.” Her thought was it would better prepare people for their own experiences. My thought now is that the reliving of it required by this writing is painful but I owe her. I promised.
It happens in a split second, even if dying takes days, weeks or months. One moment you have hope and the person who raised you, fed you, scolded you, tucked you in at night, stayed awake until you came squeaking in just before curfew, and cried at your wedding is here. Fully here. Committed, alive and even if fighting illness, fighting. The end goal is one you both picture: walking out of that hospital or rehabilitation center to resume life as we know it. It’s a tacit agreement. You are at her bedside for the most part, with occasional visits to the hospital cafeteria or the sandwich joint down the road. You’re tired from the days of little sleep, worry and hospital food. You write down vitals, medications taken and prescribed, and the progression or disappearance of symptoms with an almost robotic regularity. It gives you something to do and being your parent’s healthcare advocate is what every child should do when called upon. It’s old school but what’s old school is generally hard and what’s hard is generally the right thing to do. Just something middle age is teaching me.
The split second occurs when it hits you that the end game has changed. In my mother’s case, it was when a specialist told her how they were beating the infection she had but she would require surgery to repair the damage that had been done to her body. And when she asked the inevitable, “Will I be able to be the same person I’ve been?” you see the doctor’s face. And he starts to talk about how with rehabilitation, life could still be decent but it would be different and perhaps lived from a nursing home. And you see the light immediately fade from your mother’s eyes. You’re a writer and you’ve read the overused phrase about the spark in someone’s eyes being extinguished but you’ve never really understood it until now. And you will never think of it as trite again. It really does happen and you’ve just seen it. And you hear your mother saying, “No surgery.” As the doctor tries to explain and coax more and more, tries to cure because that is his job, she says louder, “No surgery.”
You know your mother’s iron will, the same will that held a family together through all the trials, tribulations and temporary insanity six daughters can bring. You flash back to your month of grounding for lying. To your sister and her young daughter coming back to your parents’ home to heal after a nasty divorce and your mother saying to you when you protested that you should not have to share your bedroom again, “This is what we do for family, Kris. It’s just what we do.” To your mother’s visit after your first child when she told you it was time to get out that ratty old bathrobe and go out to meet the world with your baby in your arms. She has made up her mind this time, as she had so many others. It is, really, the right choice. But, oh it hurts so much. You don’t realize this is just the tiniest tip of the hurt. You do not know that your body and soul will literally expand and contract to hold the hurt—and your capacity for it is greater than you think.
And in that split second, your world view shatters. You don’t know that it will rebuild in the broken places, you just see it shattering. You don’t immediately fall apart because you’re still in shock. That happens in the days and weeks to come, because no one’s psyche can make the shift that rapidly. So for now you accept that the world as you know it no longer exists and you feel about five years old. Abandoned. Even though she’s still here.
When everyone stops trying to talk her out of it and while she still can make decisions, you convene a gathering of family members—in our case far larger than any hospital would allow in one room but at this point, rules be damned—so she can talk about how she wants to spend her last days. She wants hospice away from home so your father will be able to cope and she can’t die in peace feeling like a burden. You discuss and rank her choices in a very clinical way. Your sisters are breaking down left and right. A few argue quietly with each other. “I’m sure Sister Henrietta can get her into the Catholic hospice. I’m going to tell Mom that,” says one sister. Another sister, angered by the prospect of overpromising and under-delivering, snaps back, “You can’t guarantee that. Don’t you dare say a word to her.” It doesn’t seem that dying should begin this way, with such a meeting. But in our case it did. And my mother still clearly ran the show. Immediately following, your family members start marking “their” days and nights on the calendar. Because your mother doesn’t want to be alone. She may be brave enough to say she wants to die but she’s terrified. And she doesn’t want to be alone.
Our Before had just ended. And thus began our After.