My Mom’s dying is so gradual that I feel like I am watching a tree return to the earth. She hardly moves now, and Parkinson’s is stealing her voice and her expressions, just as she feared.
But if I sit beside her and look into her eyes I know what she is thinking. Her eyes tell me all there is to know, in a place beyond words.
Her hand might reach out to something I cannot see, and sometimes her eyes are looking into another world. But then she focuses on me and I see all her ideas in her mind.
A few years ago she would have told me anecdotes, or advised me, she might even have indulged in some annoying gossip; those were the days when she was well and whole.
Last summer she became elliptical and poetic. Her sense of drama was alive; she spoke of her hallucinations and made grand poetic statements. She was half in a dream world and she became even more articulate and eloquent than usual.
I wrote down some of what she said:
“ How many years do you have left in your back pocket”?
““Do you have any unfinished dreams? How about you? Is there anywhere you want to see? When I look back at my life I notice with some dismay that I have done everything I wanted to do, like a book of coupons”
“…in bizarre moments when I am not making jokes or confessing sins”.
“What is the name of the state that exists when you are not dead, but on the way?”
“Can we reduce the speed”?
“I have a countryside, potatoes, sunshine…”
At 6 am on waking, “Shall we stroll the decks”?
“I am listening, I hear the stories behind the stores, it’s not so much who is getting pregnant by whom, but the gaps in between and what we make of them”.
Last winter and spring I took my youngest children to visit her and sleep on her feather couch, last summer my sister Liz and I took Mom to the cottage, in the fall I took my eldest daughter to spend her birthday with her Virgo Grandma, in the beginning of winter I went back to Toronto and had a few days with all my siblings together with Mom. Then I got really sick and told my Mom I had to go home and rest and I would see her after Christmas.
It was February before I could get to Toronto again, and I traveled by train with my youngest daughter. The little one is full of love and care, kissing her Grandma and laughing at her bizarre comments. Mom gathered her little soft body in her arms and said quietly, “Let me linger over this hug”.
In the last two visits my Mom has talked less about poetry and apparitions and more about me. Words of love and acceptance, compliments about my personality, my life, my marriage, my kids, myself; it felt like she wanted to be sure her third daughter heard some positive remarks, as if she was trying to make up for a childhood interrupted by divorce and separation.
After a lifetime of being told I was plain and ordinary, I heard that I was beautiful. “We all admire you so”, she said, referring to a cabal of Jewish women her mind had created that had all apparently discussed me. “You are so beautiful”, she said, making me feel suddenly very beautiful. “You have a large amount of kindness; I have only a small amount of kindness”.
I soaked up those last words, the love and the acceptance, the admiration and compliments. I felt a bit like a potted plant that has been sitting in old dry earth for a long time, still somehow putting out green shoots against all the odds.
Now she has stopped talking and I don’t think there is a more painful experience than our phone conversations. I call and I can hear her clear her throat, and I can hear her caregiver say, “It is Meg on the phone, talk to her, I will hold the phone for you”. I say” Hi Mama, how are you?” She says, with all her strength, “Hi Darling”. She may have something she wants to tell me but she can’t get it out. She struggles, the line goes quiet.
I fill the void by telling her about my day: the washing machine broke, we had a big storm, and the kids are doing this or that. It is very quiet, I say,” Mama, are you there?” She says, ‘Huh’, so I know she is listening.
Last night, as we ‘talked’ I put the cellphone on speaker and made the bed up in new sheets, and put away the laundry. She could hear the squeaking of the misfit drawers and my rustling around; a mother who never stops moving, just like she was for so much of her life.
I told her what I was doing. I rambled; I talked about the infrequency of people who are truly honest about themselves or their motives. I could tell that idea had her thinking. I talked about the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, a writer who surely influenced my mother and consequentially all of our lives. She sighed. I said, “I know you have something to say and I am imagining what you would say”.
When she does rally to communicate, it is sometimes surreal. Images from the TV work their way into her reality, mixing with her memories; her wildly imaginative mind conjures up anything and everything. There are still hallucinations that are very real.
One never knows what she is going to say; sometimes it is ordinary but unrealistic. When I told her that I was leaving she cocked her head, gave me a flinty expression, and then started to say, “Well, we know we will have to wait 15 minutes for a street car” in a slow raspy voice. Or, she might use all her strength to tell me that she is going to whip up a simple dinner for us.
This is heart breaking because she is no longer capable of whipping up a simple dinner or hopping out to catch a streetcar. But I don’t cry, and there are no tears. I laugh, and say, “OK, Mom”. And I smile into her face, and she sees me with her reptilian eyes, green and cool, and makes a small expression of irritation and love. Just in her eyes; the look that says,’ very amusing’, an eyebrow cocked, a small smirk that says, I am still your Mother.
Last year my heart began to compare her to my sweet pets that have aged and died. I guess it is my closest experience to loving someone who is old and dying. I remembered a frail bony cat that would move its head to catch my eye when I spoke to it. Her fur was no longer rich or thick but dusty and thin. ‘ Don’t tell me to put my cat to sleep’, I told the vet, ‘when she still creeps out to the garden to lie in a sunny patch of grass, a smile in her eyes’.
The one time I put a cat to sleep I felt sick about it. I was late in my first pregnancy and my stray orange cat had a tumor in his eye. I was planning a home birth and I had already lost my other cat to illness during the pregnancy. I thought it would be better if I did not have a death and birth at the same time in the same apartment.
A nice vet came over and gave him a sedative. I cried over his still lush orange fur, and a tear hit his ear making it twitch. He struggled to move, he must have felt scared by what the sedative was doing to him. Then she held him and put in the needle. I felt very sick, overwhelmed by my actions. I couldn’t eat without the food rising up in my throat.
I don’t know if there is a good time to put someone asleep but I don’t want to do that again with another animal. My first pet beloved cat died lying on my chest. After sighing his body went limp and his body released the last bit of urine, a warm spot on my sweater. He was like my first child; we mourned him like a child.
Since then I have had other sweet cats die of illness and old age and every experience is different. Everyone has their own path. There may be times when sedation would be good. But doctors tell you that they only sedate the patient to relieve the pain of the loved ones who are watching. The last gasps are not necessarily calm breaths.
I left my Dad before he died. It seemed like there were enough people around to hold hands, and my Dad and I had always had such a reserved love. I was also holding out hope he would recover.
My sister said that it did get harder, he did fight death. And then they sedated him so that he could slowly stop breathing.
There are times when I don’t like to be stoned, and I am pretty sure my death is going to be one of those times. I want to control the experience myself. I don’t want to feel dizzy and nauseated on top of whatever else I am feeling.
My husband has told me that he wants to kill himself before it gets too late. I have actually heard this a few too many times, so the last time he told me about his desire to end his own life in a timely fashion I told him I will take over the shooting if he becomes too much of a pain. That seemed to amuse him.
As we gently care for our once strong parents, death is always on our minds. We are grateful to have our health and our lives, but it is without the lightheartedness of youth.
We wonder what sort of elderly people we will be, who will look after whom? Will we be good tempered and brave? My Mom is giving us her very best. In fact on my last visit she managed a full sentence, sitting up after dinner. She slowly pronounced, “I am losing my faculties” she said, “but I am trying very hard to be brave”.
I would be proud to go into death as good temperedly as my Mom, “Like a character out of Dickens’” she joked last time after a big cough. She is moving off very slowly, “Shall we stroll the decks?” “Can we reduce the speed”? She is getting every last drop of milk from the saucer.
The spirit in her eye is still flickering, love travels from one eye to another. I am sending love, I am feeling love and I recognize love.
My last visit with Mom may not be my last visit. My fingers are ready to fly over the keyboard, book a ticket, pack my old worn bag, get back on that little plane and fly back to her side.