I had never watched anyone die before. Probably as close as I had come to witnessing death was at the movies, which turns out to be as accurate as how the glitzy hamburger photos on a fast food menu resemble what actually comes in the box.
Mom was ready to depart. She was days away from turning 93 and her knees, hip, and neck gave her constant pain. She’d beaten cancer five months earlier but it was back with a vengeance, and she did not want to endure more treatments. She had a PET scan done for a new diagnosis and within a week of that commenced to fade quickly. We were still thinking she had a month or two left.
Home hospice care was called in on Tuesday for 8 hours a day. My sister called on Wednesday afternoon and said I needed to drive down Thursday. When I arrived in California Thursday evening, home care had already expanded to around-the-clock.
When I arrived, Mom gave me an angelic smile of recognition and beamed me her love, but she would only speak in a few scattered words. I knew she heard me but her responses were brief. Meanwhile, her prognosis had already shifted from months to days.
FACING IMMINENT DEATH
We all have our own ways of perceiving death. Over the years, mine has become romanticized, something Frank Capra could have cooked up. I like the idea of seeing spirits pop out of their physical bodies and float away to ecstasy. I have read a huge amount of near-death experience accounts, seen videos, and talked to people whose consciousness left their bodies. Those depictions tell of a blissful out-of-body freedom.
Although I was not thinking about it at the time, Mom’s death was a preview of my mortality. I was most intrigued about what she would experience—as if this would be her final act of guidance as a parent.
No matter how much I prepared for my mother’s end game, actually being there was profound. I did not feel that I had unfinished business with her, for we had talked during my previous visits and on the phone. Yet still I wished I had explained more to her what I knew about dying. She had not been that interested in woo-woo. She would listen politely, but didn’t share my passion for exploring cosmic mysteries. She wouldn’t ask probing questions and was skeptical of any of my sources.
Under those circumstances, I usually keep my opinions to myself. But when one of the caregivers said that Mom had told her that she was afraid to die, I wished we had talked more. She had never expressed any fears to me and maybe had not even realized them herself until she faced it.
WAITING AND WONDERING
Around noon Friday flowers arrived from a dear friend. I took them in to her following Dad. Mom smiled. I mentioned the name Jolene and she clearly knew who that was. I sat by her side and held her hand and within minutes she fell asleep again.
I contemplated to the beat of my mother’s pulse. Here she is experiencing the quintessential question of life: what happens next? In her final hours of living, here I was steeped in literature yet hungry for real-life experiences to validate my cherished woo-woo leanings.
All the stories from the literature about death flashed through my eyes. Would Mom stare off into space and break out into an ecstatic smile as she looked beyond us at something we could not see? Would she open her eyes and give us a message from dearly departed friends and relatives? When she was gasping her last breath, would we see a glow emanating from angels coming to whisk her spirit away?
On Saturday, the daytime caregiver opined that she thought Mom had hours left, not days. The pinkish glow of her face was disappearing. She wasn’t waking to greet us. Sometimes she would open her eyes but them close them as if not seeing anything. She seemed to have no emotional response to anything. My Dad and sister noticed that the varicose veins that had plagued her most of her life had disappeared as if Photoshopped out of her skin.
DYING IS NOT WITHOUT HUMOR
The caregivers, intimately familiar with the signs of impending death, prepared us for what was to come. Janelle (name changed) was very interested in making sure that we could witness Mom’s final breath. She had asked several times for reassurance that we wanted to be there—some clients don’t. We waited in great suspense for something dramatic to happen like floating on a river anticipating a huge waterfall ahead.
Around 2 on Saturday afternoon, Janelle announced with urgency that Mom’s lips were turning blue. Her breath was shallow and she seemed to be going. Mom had not been responsive to voice all day.
We gathered around her and offered our sweet good-byes. You could imagine a talking Norman Rockwell painting. We told her about relatives she would see again, beautiful gardens, an atmosphere of light, a space filled with love stronger than anything she had felt on earth. We also expressed gratitude for her role in our lives, for being a great wife and mom, and that we would miss her for now and would meet again.
Of course we each had our own spin on it. Much of my input had come from accounts of near-death experiences I read, heard, or saw. Upon reflection, I can almost hear her thinking, “My son the dreamer.”
It was not looking like Mom would suddenly open her eyes and announce, “I just saw Mom and Dad and heaven is everything you say it is!” She uttered no mysterious “Oh, wow, oh, wow, oh, wow” as Steve Jobs had said a few hours before he was pronounced dead.
We were all pumped up for the final exit, but I guess Mom wasn’t ready yet. With all of us gathered around, Dad noticed that she still had a strong pulse.
The story came to light of an aunt’s death. She had remained alive for days while my cousin held vigil. Finally a nurse took my cousin aside and suggested, “Your mom could be waiting for you to leave so she can be alone to die. Your presence may be keeping her alive. Go home.” When my cousin reached her home a half hour later, my aunt had died.
With that in mind we told Mom that we were leaving the room for awhile. If she wanted to leave the planet, she had our blessing.
WAITING FOR THE EXPRESS TO THE STARS
Mom stayed around although she didn’t open her eyes. She breathed through her open mouth even though she had oxygen. Several people came over to visit Mom. Conversations were one-way. One of the neighbors, a super compassionate doctor, reported that Mom was relaxed and not in pain. No need for meds even though the hospice had supplied them in case they were needed.
Waiting for someone to die is a most thought-filled experience. What do we do? Keep the mood somber? Sentimental? Clinical? Light? You can tell where I was: my fantasy was that someone like Robin Williams would stand at my bedside cracking jokes until I died laughing (even if my body couldn’t laugh anymore.)
I became aware that many of us don’t broach the subject ahead of time of what we want if we’re in a situation like Mom’s. Much is left to chance and spontaneity. Those being left behind have to make the decisions for the one leaving. We played some of Mom’s favorite classical music and took turns sitting at her side holding her hand, talking to her out loud, talking inwardly to her spirit, praying, waiting for something to happen.
We also learned that the cultural background of the caregivers played a role. The day person believed in opening the windows so the soul could escape. The night person believed in keeping windows closed to keep evil spirits out.
We had dinner that evening while the night worker cared for Mom. Shortly after 7 she announced that the signs were present again: Mom was heading into the sunset.
I have never seen a birth and had never seen a death, but this, despite all that it meant to my physical existence and to our family, was exquisitely beautiful. We gathered around her. We said more good-byes and I love yous and pleasant journeys. The caregiver pointed out the signs of Mom’s last moments. I still hoped for a pink or golden glow to bathe the room, but the cosmic mysteries remained stubbornly mysterious.
Mom died quietly, a natural as opposed to supernatural death. It was like watching someone sleep. She just stopped breathing. She took her last breath at 8:11pm and at 8:12 it was over. Her new life had begun.
Mom had seen my first breath, and I had seen her last.