It was obvious by the time that Robbie and I got to the Care Center in Wichita Falls that Mom had physically moved to the final level of life before there is nothing left to do, but let go. She was moved to the Serenity Room, a pleasant room, quietly lit and furnished, and set aside from the other occupied rooms of the Center.
After several hours of being there together with her, Robbie left to drive the sixty miles back to Jacksboro, expecting to come back in the early morning. I planned to spend the night with Mom; we both thought, based on the guesses of the hospice nurses, that Mom had probably another twelve hours or so to go.
Inch by inch, synapse by synapse, Mom had begun dying at least eight years before that day. Friends from Ohio would call my brother and me and tell us they were concerned about Bea. Finally, Mom called me in the Spring of 1994 to tell me herself that she thought it was time that she stop driving a car. In itself, that was a great gift; I’d helped several families in the past with the tumultuous decision, sometimes necessarily involving deception, to get the car away from a mentally failing parent. Mom was making that part of the journey easy for us, but since I didn’t want her to change her mind, I flew to Ohio the next day, made arrangements there with her friends to watch over her, and drove the car back to Texas.
Several months later my brother and and me and our families moved Mom out of the house she had lived in for fifty years, five of them alone. It was a time of mourning for a great old homeplace for all of us, and we “left our mark” by burying a box full of momentos in the front yard. My brother buried a baseball bat, and I buried my high school graduation tassle, along with stubs of pencils and tractor tire valves Dad had carried in his pockets and a Christmas brooch mom had been given by an old friend (Mrs. Byers, for those who remember her).
We moved mom to an assisted living center in Alabama, but after two years there she began wandering into other people’s rooms, and could no longer be depended on to turn off the stove, so we moved her to more affordable assisted living apartments near Robbie and me in Texas, where she lived until July of 2009. She spent her days there walking the halls, looking for her hearing aid, and singing to herself in a strange guttural but rhythmic groan which she claimed was old hymns she remembered (“Mom, you’re singing too loud, shhh!” And would shhh for about 15 seconds and then begin again). We’d pick her up and take her to church, to restaurants for lunch, and to our house for gatherings when our children would visit. We tried so many times to help her make cookies or a pie or cakes, but finally gave up when we admitted to ourselves that that great passion of hers had ended. (I have dreamt about her rhubarb pie, and can even make a reasonable facsimile of it, but it is not hers.)
She liked our dogs a lot. (Who wouldn’t?)
But each day more and more of Mom was going away. She would ask about the “nice preacher” at church (me) and she would wonder when her mom (who died in 1990) was coming. She would call me “Ike” (my dad), Robbie was always “Karen” (her other daughter-in-law), and the pictures of six beloved grandchildren on her wall became the pictures of six strangers. She sometimes sat all day by the window looking out at the grass and the trees and the skies and I am grateful her mind moved into that particular mode of rest.
In July of ’09, Mom fell, with a broken hip, and here is where the story takes me into the only episodes of personal regret I have about the end-of-life experiences with Mom:
I gave her over to the “System” which is different, far different than what I call the Way. The Way is the way of the universe, the way of nature, the way of God. It the way that life is affirmed as life is meant to happen- a beginning born of love, a life lived in reflection of that love and other loves, and then a death, when the living/loving part of life is finished. The System, oppositely, has evolved from our human and demented notions of death as an unnatural state of ultimate illness, which is shaped and enhanced by a medical system full of many kind and skilled people, all of whom need paid, and are paid by a digitally-fueled power plant of insurance, Medicare, and- can I get a witness?- greed.
I gave her to the System when I should have had the calm, the sense, and the advice to allow her to step onto the Way. On the way of the Way she would have gone to a hospice, been bedridden, cared for, and allowed to experience the reason that causes poppies to grow on the earth: morphine. There would have needed to be no pain as infection would have set into the broken hip and eventually spread to her body, which, in all likelihood, would then have caused her to die of pneumonia. It would have lasted about a week to ten days. She wouldn’t have known what was happening. Robbie, my brother, Karen, or I would have been with her constantly.
But, she was in the hospital for about seven days instead, during which she twisted, and turned, pulled at her catheters and I.V.s constantly, got angry at me, Robbie for hurting her, trapping her, doing things “my Lord Jesus would never do to anyone!” Ancient religious fear, learned from shouting evangelists as a child, rose in her consciousness like an infection, and broke. It broke through a lifetime of unselfish service service to others, through years of Sunday School teaching with young people who loved her, through countless visits to older, forgotten women in the community, through so many hymns sung around the piano with her mother, Pap, and sisters, through a lifetime lived in the love of God, and it broke my and Robbie’s hearts. “Is the devil doing this to me?”
She went from the hospital to an Alzheimer’s care unit nearby where she lived the rest of life- eight more months. She walked around there, all day, every day, looking for her young brothers and sisters and her mom and dad. She would eat a little, lose more weight, remember almost nothing, walk some more, fall often from her bed near the floor surrounded by pads, poop in her clothes, complain (but kind of nicely) about much, and then the phone call, and the move to the Serenity Room.
Where she was, at last, serene again. For the final eight hours of her life she was awake, on her side, still, and without pain. Her face was no longer confused and I stayed in front of her as much as I could. I knew she was dying and I wanted more than anything for her to be with one who loved her. I talked to her about who was waiting for her, about Dad, Denny, Robbie, Karen, Joshua, Darcy, Sarah, Emily, Lizzie, and Bob (the last grandchild she remembered). I drew pastels of her which are too difficult to look at and I sang to her- “Amazing grace.”
“It’s Ok, Mom, go now. I love you, I love you, we love you. Dad is waiting, Grandma is waiting…go.”
And, one last breath..eyes still open, seeing me, seeing others..and she was gone. Almost exactly a year ago, to the hour as I write this.
Yes, I wish she could know her great-grandaughter Charlotte was born a couple weeks ago and that her great-grandchild in Australia will be born a few weeks from now, and maybe she does know. Charlotte and the still-unnamed child are the Codas to Mom’s life well-lived.
But such is life, and such is death, and she was on the Way once more, as we are on the Way..