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.
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