I began writing posts about dealing with my mother’s Parkinson’s disease last year and want to tell you about our last few days together. In a earlier post I talked about how important it is to talk about death and dying while we all still have our wits about us and can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate that my mother was willing to do that. It has made our last days together truly peaceful, knowing there was nothing to worry about but spending time together.
The details are that my mother started coughing one day when I was feeding her lunch. This was the first sign. The cough turned into pneumonia and we knew she would not be able to beat it as she had lost so much weight. I called a few friends who I knew would want a last chance to see her, and other friends just showed up at the right time.
We were also lucky to have the help of hospice and the care home workers who simply let nature take its time. A friend once said, “the body is kind,” and I discovered that it really is when left to its own devices. My mother was given oxygen and morphine to ease her breathing. All the drugs were administered under the tongue, very delicate and non-invasive.
Our best day together was on a Friday, I knew I’d be spending as much time with her as I could, so I brought my sketchbook, my colored pencils, and my iPod and a wireless speaker. I played music that she liked and we simply sat together. She often fidgeted, grabbing the bed sheet with her hands and twisted them in her hands. I was sitting in a chair facing her and lifted up my foot and placed it near her hand, she grabbed it and gave me a gentle foot massage instead.
When you sit at someone’s death-bed everything else falls away. Everything that seemed so important pales in moments like these. Do you best to embrace them, don’t shy away, don’t look for distractions, simply take the time to feel your feelings, good bad and everything in between. Regrets will pass, old hurts diminish, and what is left is nothing but love, pure, simple, exquisite love.
It was hard saying good-bye to mom that day, but it was also opening night of “Tartuffe” and the show really had to go on. When I went to give her a kiss, she said, “I love you with all my heart.”
The show did go on, and I can’t thank the cast and crew enough for showering me and my husband with love and support. By Saturday morning, mom was no longer able to speak. I spent the day with her, watching her breath and listening to selections from Yo-Yo Ma and one of her favorite pieces of music, Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring.”
Sunday morning, I woke up early, I had a feeling. I took our dog Kona for a walk on the beach and saw a glorious sunrise, and I knew.
I arrived at mom’s care home early, Sundays are always pretty quiet. She was breathing steadily and I felt her foot, it was cold. Having gone through my father’s death I knew this was on of the signs. As the body shuts down, the circulation to the outer extremities decreases. I felt her chest, and she still had a bit of a fever — that bold fire refusing to go out. The staff had been sweet enough to set up a recliner chair for me, and I sat with mom. Her room had a window, and a soft breeze wafted through the room. Outside her window is a small courtyard with plants and a small tree. Every now and then the birds sang.
I had my notebook and was scratching out a few thoughts, and glanced up just in time to see her breathing catch, it stuttered for a moment. I put the book down and held her hand. She breathed regularly for a time more and then took her last breath. Simple, gentle. It seems this time of year, as we move from fall to winter, that death is such a natural turn. We are part of much larger, eternal cycles and we fold in and out of them.
I’m convinced that our last days can be as peaceful and beautiful or as harrowing and awful based on our willingness to accept that we are simply guests here. That it is our responsibility to the ones we love to make our feelings known about how we want to deal with the end of life issues. So when you read this, if there is a loved on nearby give them a hug and a kiss and tell them how much you appreciate them. Then, be brave and take the next step. If you know you want to have a 20 piece orchestra at your wake or if you want a Viking funeral, tell them. Put your affairs in order now, put some thought into it. We spend so much time planning weddings, birthday parties, and graduations, why don’t we put as much time into planning our own wakes and funeral?
And lastly, here is my favorite picture of my mother. Some people comment and say that I have a great smile and lots of energy, well you can see where I get it. My father wanted me to be a writer and my mother was a botanist who taught me that nature does abhor vacuums and life will fill in every crevice it can. I take their gifts with me.
I am grateful for all of you who have taken the time to visit and I hope you found something useful in our little story.