My Mom passed away super peacefully the day after Thanksgiving. We were beyond fortunate that she did not suffer from the scenarios that often inflict Alzheimer’s patients in their final days. For instance, she ate and drank right up until she began to slip away. No feeding tubes or any other ghastly measures. While she never appeared to suffer, the whole ordeal was pure torment for me. Mostly because I feel like I failed her as a caregiver in those final days. I promise I’m not being too hard on myself. It’s just that death and dying doesn’t come with a manual and now that I have some experience, I’d like a do-over. I’m positive I would be a little more tender, a little more gentle and a lot more patient with the process.
When I say no one really teaches you how to help someone die, it’s a little bit of a lie. The truth is our small Catholic high school offered a class called “Death and Dying.” I took it freshman year. We read the famous book written by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and are you ready for this? The teacher, sweet Janet Roberge, succumbed to cancer the very term I had the class. How’s that for a life lesson?
But that was 30 years ago. Because of the pure shock value of attending the teacher’s funeral, I’ll never forget the class, but I had yet to gain any solid first-hand experience on the topic.
My Mom’s main caregiver, Bridget, and the hospice staff tried their best to prep my sister and me on what to expect that final week. Bridget explained that My Mom looked like she was sleeping, but really she was reviewing her life here on earth. Her soul was “processing” lessons learned. I had never heard of the processing concept. I saw My Mom’s eyes fluttering. Her face even looked contorted once in a while like she was receiving some interesting news. As Sunday moved into Monday, it was obvious My Mom had a little unfinished business, but for the most part my sister and I debunked the theories on the number of days the process could take.
We come from a really strong Catholic upbringing and when members of our family decide it’s time to go, they literally slip away. Exhausted from his duty of caregiving, My Dad waited for me to arrive to hand off care of My Mom, then snuck out in his sleep that night. My Aunt (a term that could never encompass what this woman meant to us) promised my sister’s girls she’d fight off terminal cancer long enough to spend Christmas with them. She died hours after the celebration. My Grandma waited for a visit from her youngest son before passing.
In her right mind, my ever faithful Mom would have made a quietly dramatic exit. She would have squeezed our hands one last time as she told us that death is a part of every life; she would have taken a nice soft inhale, possibly made the sign of the cross, then laid her arms across her chest and pass on. It was now Wednesday and we began realizing the problem. My Mom wasn’t an active participant in the process. Alzheimer’s robbed her of the most beautiful moment in life, the grace to pass to the afterlife peacefully. She couldn’t go on her terms because she didn’t know she could. My sister and I stepped up our duties. We followed suggestions from hospice telling My Mom repeatedly that it was okay to go, that we’d be okay. At times we begged her to go. We also tried praying, playing music and anything else that might help speed the effort along.
Exasperated, we formulated a scenario that maybe My Mom was waiting for Thanksgiving. A cousin that called concurred. My Mom owned that holiday. Turkey day was her favorite when she lived at home with seven siblings and she continued to cook the big turkey dinner for a crowd even after moving to a small townhouse when we were growing up.
Wednesday night I sat vigil alone. I felt so helpless as the clock ticked past midnight and My Mom’s shallow breathing continued. I stared at this amazing woman and wondered what she would do in my shoes. The answer came immediately. She’d pray. I chose to recite the rosary out loud. I’m an active Christian, but my Catholic skills have slipped over the years. It took the first ten Our Fathers just to get the rust out and get the words right. As my fingers crawled along the blue beads, one phrase kept echoing louder and louder in my brain, “Thy will be done.” I felt like such an idiot. As I continued the prayer ritual I found myself all but wailing. This transition would strictly happen in God’s time. This private and holy interaction was solely between He and My Mom. I could witness the sacred event, but no matter what I tried I would never affect the timing. Between sobs I apologized profusely to My Mom for anything and everything we had done that week that made her feel rushed or maybe even irritated. I thanked God for the enlightenment, then settled in the chair feeling absolutely relieved to wait peacefully for the blessed moment, resigned that it could take forever and that would honestly be okay.
Around 3 am a robust, dark skinned nurse knocked lightly on the bedroom door. She entered, but never even looked in the direction of My Mother lying on the bed. She turned her focus immediately to me, speaking in a strong Caribbean accent. “Some people,” she said waggling a finger in an “s” shape in front of me, “say they are ready,” the words trickled out slowly like thick syrup being poured from a bottle, “and they are not.”
As if the encounter of the rosary weren’t enough, I seriously felt like I was in my own version of Scrooge, experiencing a series of powerful visits from spirits during the night. How could she have known I just had a major epiphany? “I know, I know,” I told her. “It’s God’s will…” The woman stood calm, surrounded by an aura of gentle knowing while I babbled like a child. “Yes, this is between your mother and her Maker, but she waits on you.”
“I’ve told her it’s okay to go,” I started to explain, then remembered with absolute clarity why we were having a middle of the night visit from hospice. At around 9 pm My Mom’s breathing had slowed to virtually non-existent. She surely had passed away. Instinct took over and I jumped from my chair yelling “Mom! Mom!” My voice worked like the paddles they use to revive heart patients. Startled, her breathing resumed. I knew immediately I had made a mistake. My sister had told me she did the very same thing with my aunt during her Christmas day passing. It’s human nature I’m sure. The problem was My Mom’s breathing grew a little raspy after the incident. I wasn’t sure she was comfortable, so we summoned hospice. And now looking at the face of this lovely stranger that responded to that call, I had to confront the truth. I had been telling My Mom all week that I was ready and when the moment arrived I proved I was not.
It completely freaked me out that this woman from the islands knew my truth before I did, but I was thankful for the second powerful lesson that night. I didn’t need to confess. She evidently saw the realization on my face.
“Pray for the ability to release your mother,” she said. “Pray for the strength to let her go.” Finally she approached the bed. “She is comfortable,” she told me, “in fact she is speeding up her process.”
Just hours earlier I would have tried to explain that members of our family usually pass quickly, I might have asked how long she would predict My Mom might last. I wasn’t the least bit tempted to comment. I thanked the woman for the visit and welcomed her warm embrace. The timing was in God’s hands and I had work to do before that hour arrived.
I welcomed the sunrise, not to leave the bizarre evening behind but to spread the news. I eagerly greeted Bridget when she arrived for the dayshift and I called my sister anxious to explain my revelations to both of them. It was Thanksgiving. My sister came early, but I told her that our Mom would want her to spend time with her family. She agreed and went home feeling at peace. She too seemed to come to terms with the process.
I spent the day quietly thanking My Mom for all the amazing things she had taught me over the years. The life lessons, skills, confidence and faith she instilled in us since our childhood overwhelmed me. My sister had been recollecting my mom’s days of teaching Sunday school and Monday night catechism at the church a lot lately. I barely remembered those days. She only did it for a few years, until economics forced her to return to work in accounting at Chrysler. I think my sister remembers it so clearly because My Mom was a born teacher. She lit up telling stories to the kids and leading them in song.
Returning to work wasn’t My Mom’s first choice. I know she would have liked to have stayed home and made teaching her two daughters her primary occupation. She cherished teaching us to walk, to ride a bike, to cook, to write, to laugh, to drive, to primp and to pray. Of all her accomplishments as a parent, by far she was the most proud of raising us to be independent. (Although her son-in-laws took exception to this attribute.)
As I ran though the incredibly long list of gratitudes at her bedside that day, I realized the culmination of all her efforts over the years had equipped me for this moment. She had prepared me to be mature enough and secure enough in faith to say goodbye and to know our parting would not be permanent. By clinging to life that week she gave me the opportunity to do a little processing of my own.
When I told her that night it was okay to go, I meant it and I know she heard me. I chose to go home that night in case she wanted to slip out privately in her sleep. I arrived the next morning to see a little smile on her face. I called my sister and told her Mom was ready. “I think she already saw Dad and her sisters,” I said. “She has the cutest smile on her face.”
I drew a chair up close and sat silently with My Mom. There was nothing more that needed to be said. This time as she drew her final breath and her heartbeat ceased I remained still. She was teaching me her final lesson on this earth -- how to let go. Incredibly peacefully and with dignity she showed me how to answer God’s call.