Wayback in 2018 – The Beginning of the End
I was thinking about roles and responsibilities in elder care. To whom we “owe” care and the effects of open-heartedness, cheerfulness and optimism versus being resentful and cranky. Mother is indicating that she now believes that she cannot live on her own. That Dr. Y told her she couldn’t manage on her own anymore. Wow. What a switch. This time it is not us “making her,” rather, the professionals have spoken. I think she could manage assisted rather than skilled care, but we shall see what the professionals have to say. My friend R writes long missives about caring for her elderly parents and her own inner journey in relation to that work. I don’t write or say much about it. I might be afraid of talking myself out of the good daughter archetype. It is true that I prefer the role of caregiver to that of difficult daughter. She trusts me in that role and sees my skills. But does it mean I like her to be weak? That I like her to need my unique skills and my feistiness on her behalf. Well, yes, it appears so. It gives us a framework in which to have a relationship. Otherwise all we have is the history of our shared pain and cultural conditioning.
Mom has talked at length about what a charmed and easy life she had and how that made the aging journey harder because she was not used to adversity or being thwarted by her body. She is an Aries and I had always considered her a very young soul. Naive, protected, “spoiled” as she says. Also a beloved petty tyrant, a difficult guru, and a self-centered hateful bully. Now we are here. Roles reversing. Opportunities for grace and forgiveness. A chance for us both to grow and perhaps to finally connect. I am no longer sure I need to be aware of any of this. I just need to show up each day and do what is set before me.
In October 2018, Mom fell at Walmart–bones were broken. For a couple months, I lived with her at her apartment during the week, with the sisters covering weekends. More falls, hours and hours in the Emergency Room and a move to Transitional Care at a highly reputable local nursing home. That was actually a relief — pretty good care, more time for my own household. Lots of clearing in Mom’s apartment (we gave away 45 white cotton blouses, counted 27 pairs of white capris, boxed up thousands of pieces of costume jewelry and puzzled over some sexy underwear. Clearing her place made it clear that she couldn’t live on her own anymore.
2019 – The Year of Living With Mom
After the fall, when the Medicare-paid time in Transitional Care ran out, we moved Mom to the Assisted Living wing — a room with a view on the 9th floor. But she wasn’t ready. She was afraid and unsteady and we couldn’t afford all the extras. I started sleeping on the foldout loveseat in her little room. That lasted though a couple months of continuing weight loss and balance issues, then Ethos Hospice became involved and we decided to move her to my home with their help. Safe in a cozy home, with lots of room to maneuver her walker and room for her paints and crafts, she gained weight and strength. Her depression cleared. She felt safe. She did so well that Hospice fired her. That was little traumatic for me, as they took away the hospital bed and other amenities that had proved helpful. But we had a lovely late summer wandering the neighborhood, she in the wheelchair and me pushing and pointing out the sights, both of us chatting with the many children who live nearby. Our neighbor had a Halloween party and we attended. Lots of family came for the holidays. Mom painted with her watercolors and together we took an alcohol inks class (many thanks to Tammy Swift who came to my home for the class after we were unable to join through community education because Mom could not longer navigate stairs.) Her fine motor control was very diminished and that loss of skill was so frustrating for her, as she had always prided herself on her beautiful copperplate handwriting. She made me sign everything so no one would see her scribble. As the new year approached she had a bad fall, shattering her elbow. Covid arrived in the US while she was back in nursing home care. The inability to visit, to move or have meals with other people took an immediate and harsh toll. With her arm in a cast, she couldn’t do any of the things that might have helped her stay alert, so she slid fast and hard into some kind of isolation-induced dementia. Though Medicare would have paid for several more weeks in nursing care, and of course, they wanted to keep her (the profit motive rules elder care — I hope you already know that), her physical therapist helped me spring her just as the lockdown really tightened. The aide that brought her out to my care basically threw her and her stuff at me, no discharge notes or care instruction, whatsoever. Not even a “goodbye Emily.” That experience sure confirmed my impressions of nursing home care in general. (Meanwhile, I know that many individuals give compassionate and excellent care.)
2020 – The Year of Saying Goodbye
Mother’s death in October 2020 (of “failure to thrive,” not COVID), flung me into the pool of reflection. Taken altogether, she and I had been “keeping company” on her closing adventure for nearly three years. All of it was interesting in its archetypal mundanity, but I have overflowing gratitude for the grace of that year. Together we did a great deal of healing, learning and acknowledging one another. When you feed, bath and comfort someone in the messy process of ending, you meet yourself and it takes real effort to look into your own eyes and be honest. A youthful spirit is trapped in a dying body and now depends on her “difficult child” for food, bed and help with the smallest things—picking up glasses from under the bed yet again—and, naturally, she feels everything as loss and helplessness. I recalled the times since childhood when I wished her would disappear or believed my own “I hate you,” or told friends and strangers that I’d been born into the wrong family. I believed myself unloved (and therefore unlovable). I believed her inadequate and jealous, unable to be the Good Mother I wanted. The first fifty years were difficult for us both.
I stepped up when she fell down because I could and because I felt a deep call. I had the space, the time and a willing partner. I needed to forgive and be forgiven and foresaw a chance for both of us to mend. Somewhere in my wild mind, I knew it would transform me.
It was hard and occasionally confrontational. It was fun-house mirrors. It was smelly and messy (and I had had my fill of stinky, sticky things by age 35). My sisters and brothers contributed hugely with caring and clearing spaces. The job of sorting the detritus of a woman who never let go of a gift, whether she gave to herself (frequently) or caught a compliment from a casual by-passer fell mostly to them. Three times (or was it four) Boxes and bins and piles were loaded into cars and trucks and trailers and dropped at every thrift store in a 20 mile radius of Fargo Moorhead. One weekend, while browsing at ARC Thrift, my sister and I found her bags of her rubber stamps at 50% off and a yellow tool box labeled “Die-Cut” in her handwriting. The memories tasted like bitter dark beer to me.
I pray that we all filled her cup with the love and connection she craved so much and I want to share with you an experience I had when Mom was passing.
Mom died several days after she entered that last sleeping phase. She turned her face from life on a Saturday in October at the same time as her adult children and grandchildren finished clearing her storage unit of craft supplies, memorabilia, paper and shelves—she loved paper and storage systems.
That was a hard day for everybody, individually and collectively, and we resolved it by imagining that every scrap of paper, each sticker pack and unidentifiable crafting tool was a spark of light, a soul gift, from EMILY flowing out to the person who finally received it. I believe that soothed us and it continues to be a living image for me. On Sunday afternoon in October’s golden light, my brother, Jerry, his youngest daughter, Samantha, and I were at her bedside. Earlier that weekend, I had been yelling into the unseen, demanding that her ancestors and angels show up to help her because she was in pain and needing something that we couldn’t give anymore. (I was sweetly reminded that humility is a better approach to prayer than “righteous indignation” and bowed to that.) I was sitting on her bed that Sunday when she suddenly opened her eyes and looked at me. The room, the world, lit up. I said “Mama, you’re glowing, I can see your halo! You’re wearing a tiara. Your angels showed up!” She smiled, looked straight into me and said “I love you.” No slurring, no quaver, no hesitation—rather, a clear bell rung for all to feel. All my life I have waited to hear her say those words in that way and now I know why. It vibrates in me still. I felt it pass through my heart and out to my brother, my niece, the family members gathered upstairs, our beloved neighborhood, and beyond, skimming across the earth, a spiraling wash of pure Love. Truly, the Speaker was speaking to the entire world. It rang in my heart then and its vibration continues. I hope its echos ring for you. I can’t tell this without tears. I cry every time I think or speak of that moment. Before that day, I hadn’t cried for four or five years, at least, not in sorrow or joy. (There were a few raging helplessness cries, some involving actual screaming.) It’s been a long dry spell of _acedia (a new word for 2021—a painful absence accompanied by a thirst for God). After 9/11, I was guided into a practice of praying for those departing, anyone whose time on earth is finished (at least for now) and is in need of a little point of light as they navigate what in yogic philosophy is called the Blue Ethers. March 2020 intensified the practice. I mourn them—those millions so far lost to COVID. And perhaps envy their birth into whatever comes next. Like the water bug and the dragonfly—arisen from the same egg and fated never to know one another — we don’t know what is after this. Even the sages and mystics can only speculate, speaking in metaphors and assurances. I don’t know what comes next, but based on attending several deaths, I trust it is not Nothing. I know the body is a husk, a shed skin, a burst chrysalis whose work of incubation is done. I feel sorrow for those of us left behind; we who, perhaps, finally heard the “I Love You” we’ve always needed, only to lose the vessel of that love in the next minutes or days.
Mom went back to sleep. She didn’t wake again, to my knowledge. The front of her body grew chilly and waxy, her back was on fire and her heart beat fiercely. Then, on Wednesday around noon, as we gently bathed and turned her, the body stopped. I believe she left on Sunday and the rest was just shutting down the machine; flipping the elemental switches as the last of the life force drained and was depleted. We cannot know the day or the hour, but there are some pretty good predictors when the life as been long and the decline slow.
The lovely people of Ethos Hospice picked up their equipment. We rearranged her bedroom. Now it is an art studio (I choose not to call it a craft room), full of projects and objects from the salvaged bits of her stuff. Since early October 2020 I’ve been writing and painting and making art out of her jewelry. Cleaning out the last storage unit, we gave away almost everything. But, of course, a few treasures made it from the dragon hoard to our homes and is still being disbursed. I don’t believe Emily released a single piece of jewelry, whether gifted, inherited, purchased or found on the street, including single earrings. So I’m looking at this stuff and and I see faces everywhere, sprites and angels, and I’m dancing a lot trying to move my body through these seasons, so I dance for a while and then I paint or make faces from her jewels for a while and this is how I spend my winter of grief.
2021 – The Year of Grieving Well
Then, it’s Spring 2021 and in early May we travel to Cando to hold a memorial and lay our Emily to rest next to her Ted. Her “treasure box” urn is bedazzled with talismans from her jewel box. Her cards and afghans and a box of treasures ago along to be gifted. I suspect we all feel both eager and anxious about the week ahead. I was thinking we should all play make-believe as we did long ago. I always vote for deep, loving, honest conversations and recognize it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Listen deeply—that seemed like the best intention for me. Choosing my three outfits for the trip I felt Mom’s presence so strongly — she was had such an excellent sense of style and color. I’m usually confused and overwhelmed by this task. With Mom’s help, it was fun and easy.
In October 2021, we planned a sister retreat at Metigoshe Ministries Retreat Center on Lake Metigoshe, a beautiful lake that winds along the North Dakota/Manitoba border. Much walking eating talking and meditating ensued. Also remembering and laughing. Also, playing games, especially WingSpan, a current family obsession. Crossing North Dakota, we were gifted with sighting dozens of hawks, several eagles and any number of deer. This is a familiar trek for our family.
Now it’s the new year—2022—and our grief has settled into the background a bit. To me, it seems a bit silly to keep missing someone who still feels present and who lived a long lovely life. Around us, the talk is all of hope for an end to the pandemic, hope for a different kind of year than the last several, some ease, some lightening and the opportunity to bring the big dreams dreamed during this hiatus into action. I wish that for you and for me. May the power of love flow. Pass it on.
Tusen velsignelser (a thousand blessings) to all.