New Year’s Eve. On the last day of the year, many of us are buying champagne for “watch” parties. Stocking up on black-eyed peas. And counting the hours, minutes, and seconds until that little diaper-clad rug-rat, Baby New Year, arrives on 01-01 at 12:00 a.m. But, first, as the Circle of Life dictates, we must wait for Father Time to breathe his last at 11:59:59. Birth is fun to celebrate; death, not. Still, death is a part of life and each of us has a date with it. In the vernacular, death creeps us out. So, if we just don’t talk about it, it won’t happen. Right?
Whoa — think again. Like other topics we avoid at dinner and cocktail parties, Death remains a lumbering, orchid ‘elephant’ in the room.
Yesterday, a friend on Facebook shared a link from thecaregiverspace.org. Martha Atkins, a death educator and researcher, delivered a talk titled “More to Dying Than Meets the Eye”. In her speech, she related the happenings of people in their last hours and the metaphors they use — such as going on a trip or catching a train — when their time draws near.
As I listened to her speech, also available on Ted.com, I remembered my own experiences with my grandmother and my mother. In February 1984, my eighty-five-year-old grandmother developed pneumonia. It was the final blow after falling out of her bed and breaking a hip. Although my parents had told me that Great Mom was unresponsive, my sons and I tried to say things to rouse her, just one more time. Although she never responded, her eyeballs moved under her eyelids and her eyebrows bobbed up and down as though she was talking to someone.
That was Friday, February 17. On Sunday morning, February 19, my mother called to tell me what the nurses told her: that the mottling of Great Mom’s skin indicated that she was in the process of passing away.
“If you want to see her one last time, you need to get here as soon as you can.”
As we expected, Great Mom passed away around three in the afternoon, with her only child — my daddy — my mother, and me at her bedside. To this day, I will never forget the pain I felt when I heard my Daddy break down and weep out loud as he laid his head on her body and clung to her fragile hand.
That was my first introduction to Death.Although I had worked in hospitals and even cleaned up a patient whose body was going through the “death act”, watching my grandmother die was another matter, altogether.
Fast-forward to March 3, 2004. My mother, who had been diagnosed with Stage Four colon cancer, was in hospice at a local nursing facility. As I got ready to have lunch with one of her friends before meeting her at the facility so they could visit, the phone rang.
“Ms. Terry? This is your mother’s nurse. I’m just calling to report that her hospice nurse has found her unresponsive.”
After postponing the lunch, I raced over to the facility. Surely enough, I couldn’t rouse her, either. The Director of Nurses called me out into the hall and pulled me aside.
“If you know anyone who would like to talk to your mother, one last time, this is the time to call them.”
So I called my sons and placed the cell phone on Mama’s pillow while they said good-bye to Grandma.
Because her roommate had been discharged, a week earlier, the extra bed was available in Mama’s room where she shared with me her last seven days and some-odd hours and minutes. And, as it turned out, the heartbreak of not having any classes to teach in Sprng 2004 turned into a blessing, as I was able to be “present” for her.
Yesterday, as I listened to Atkins talk about death metaphors — going on ‘a trip’, catching a ‘train’ — I remembered Mama’s last week. After I rushed to her bedside, she rallied long enough to pet a therapy dog, munch an egg-salad sandwich, and visit with two friends until she got tired and shooed us all out of there.
“Y’all get on outta here. I have to work tomorrow.”
Unaware of what she was really doing, we chalkedit up to Mama’s personality and laughed. As it turned out, Mama didn’t “go to work” until a week later.
Atkins also talked about how the dying behave as their time draws near.They “reach” for things. They talk to or track people only they can see. Two days after the nurses told me that Mama was not responding, I fed her for the last time. Although she ate very little of the plate lunch and spat out the creamed spinach, she wiped out two Dixie cups of “fortified” vanilla ice cream. While I was spooning the treat into her waiting mouth, I couldn’t help feeling like Mama Bird feeding her baby a worm.
As it turned out, that ice cream was the last thing Mama ate. Hours later, she started calling out to people. Once a tomboy who rode horses when she was young, Mama raised up in bed and yelled, “Harse! harse!”. As she rocked her bed back and forth and chanted, “gliddom, gliddom, gliddom” as she galloped along..
That night was the last time she spoke. After the nurses dosed her with morphine drops ,they sent me home where I collapsed until the phone woke me again, on Saturday, March 6.
“Your mother’s wedding band fell off her finger,” said the nurse. “If we put it back on, now, it would only fall off, again, and get lost. We’ll just hang onto it and give it back for the viewing.”
The viewing. Of my mother. In a casket. The visual rendered me numb and forced to sit before I fainted.
Knowing I was too rattled to drive myself over there, I called our go-to friends, a couple who had helped me take Mama to doctor’s visits and the hospital, no matter the time of day.
Mama lingered four more days. On Wednesday, March 10, she started talking to “someone” she saw near the top of the curtain that surrounded her bed. While I couldn’t make out what she was saying, she was plainly answering someone — Jesus? Daddy? Or, perhaps, both?– as her gaunt face became rapturous and she moaned and nodded.
While the dying have their own metaphors, I had mine as well. The image of a plane leaving the hangar and lifting off the runway. Having written some poems about the experience, myself, I shared them with her nurse. As Mama continued to nod and moan, the nurse and I shared meaningful looks.
“Is Mama doing what I think she’s doing?”
“Um-hum. She’s getting orders from the Control Tower as we speak.”
At 1:00 p.m., my mother started making fish-out-of-water faces, as I was told she would do when her pacemaker started to run down. At 1:30 p.m., it quit. And so did she. At 2:00, the nurse who had registered us with the hospice rushed into the room, signed the death certificate, and sat quietly beside me as I waited for someone to pick me up.
As I sat beside Mama’s wasted body and gazed at her jaundiced face, I felt awed at the gift she had bestowed upon me: allowing me to be there at her death.
Weeks later, I signed up for grief-recovery classes at my congregation. One night, during the session, a facilitator told us about a book called Final Gifts. I read it cover-to-cover and then turned around and read it again. As with Martha Atkins talk, the book was invaluable for anyone dealing with the death of a loved one. Months later, when my aunt passed away, I gave the book to my cousins. Since then, I have found out about the companion book, Final Journeys..
I feel deeply honored that my grandmother and my mother allowed me to witness their passages from this world. As I read Callanan’s Final Gifts and listened to Atkins’s talk, “More To Dying Than Meets the Eye”, I treasured the information that each presented, in a matter-of-fact way, about a subject people dread. More and more often, authors such as Maggie Callanan and educators such as Martha Atkins are managing to de-mystify death, the lavender ‘elephant’. Some experiences we live through change us. My parents’ deaths are two of them. Daddy went suddenly, the only way he would have wanted to go. Mama lingered, passing away four months of her diagnosis.
For people caring for family, The Caregiver Space site is a treasure trove of resources and Atkins’s presentation informative and even entertaining.
After you check out the links, please feel free to offer your thoughts, experiences, and even suggestions in caring for a family member headed for the “final approach”.