The death vigil for my mother continues. For those who are not following the daily journey on Facebook, I am also posting what moves through me on the blog, in case any of it serves you.
My mother isn’t talking much anymore. She mostly sleeps, with the occasional blurt of “Preschool!” or “I’m dancing as fast as I can.” She looks so pretty as she sleeps. It’s like all the wrinkles have flattened out and softened into this beautiful complexion. Dying as Botox. I wonder how many of the wrinkles were there because of all of my mother’s worries. She worried so much in her life, always fretting about whether her children were growing up to be good Christians and whether we’d ever settle down and live conventional lives, the way she raised us to. Maybe as she journeys between worlds, 72 years worth of worries begin to fall away and the skin finally relaxes. I can’t help kissing her soft, unlined cheeks over and over, the way a baby’s cheek is so kissable and irresistible.
Although she is severely anemic, her cheeks are pink from rosacea against her white, white skin, like a porcelain doll with painted cheeks. She looks so beautiful that I wonder if it’s possible that somewhere in there, her cancer is going away. Maybe if she were miraculously getting better, we wouldn’t even notice it with all the drugs we’re giving her. I had this horrible/wonderful thought yesterday that maybe my mother was in the midst of experiencing a spontaneous remission as a side effect of all this love, but she couldn’t tell us her cancer was going away because we were drugging the crap out of her!
But then, this morning, when we decided not to awaken her for drugs in the middle of the night, four hours after her meds would have mostly worn off, she winced and pointed to the side of her head where she has a subdural hematoma from low platelets as a result of this leukemia. That didn’t take away my hope—one can always hope for mysterious miracles—but it did take away my magical thinking.
Yesterday, I spent about four hours just holding my mother in undistracted, closed-eyed silence, making it a meditation. I saw all these visions of my mother as a little girl, holding hands with this beautiful Goddess angel on one side and my dear friend Scott Dinsmore, who died two years ago, on the other. They were swinging her between them, the way one calls out, “One, two, three!” and then lifts and swings a child as they squeal with delight. I figured maybe they were helping her experience a different kind of childhood before she leaves this body, one that is carefree, playful, and without any of the worries that used to line her face. I wonder if there are funnel cakes where she is. She always loved funnel cakes.
One of my mentors, who has attended countless deathbeds, told me this morning I need to leave my mother alone today, that she may not want to leave with me by her side, that some souls wish to leave this dimension alone, that Mom might not go if I am with her. So I now find myself wandering aimlessly, puttering around the house but hesitant to leave it. I found a piece of pottery I’ve always loved. I will take it with me. I also packed up some of Mom’s scrapbooks, the ones she made for Siena. As I was wrapping up a coffee mug I like, I felt a sudden heaviness in my chest, felt my heart race, and grew short of breath. Panic overtook me, and I went running back to my mother’s bed, where she lay still. When I touched her, she was ice cold. I threw myself over her body and started weeping on my mother’s still breast for at least five minutes. And then . . . oh good Lord, she almost killed me . . . she took a gasping breath, opened her eyes and said, “What’s wrong?” Oh. My. God.
“Nothing’s wrong, Mom. I’m just happy for you.”
I asked, “Did you see Dad?” She smiled and nodded and cooed. “He loves me so.”
“Good Mama. Now go back where you were. Go into the light and don’t look back. We’re all fine here. We’ve got each other. We want you to go into the light with Dad.”
But she didn’t. She rolled over and started breathing again.
“I love you,” I cried.
“I love you too, baby,” she smiled.
Oh God, Mom. I’m going to miss you so much.
The death vigil days start to blur together after a while. Is it Saturday? Or Sunday? I know it’s the weekend because I was supposed to be facilitating The Soul Tribe Gathering in Mill Valley, California, which I regrettably had to cancel because I can’t be anywhere but here at my mother’s home right now. Some people in my family were shocked that I canceled an event for which people were flying in from all over the world. Won’t they be disappointed? Won’t it ruin your reputation? Isn’t it unprofessional? Won’t you lose a lot of money that you need to support your family and staff? As if I should be able to just suck it up and perform at peak levels in the midst of all this, as if meeting the expectations of clients or prioritizing money or following through on commitments should be more important than nursing my mother through her transition.
People don’t realize that when I left medicine 10 years ago, I also gave up the ability to “force function.” Prior to that, I always had to be five minutes from peak performance. Even when I was sleeping, I might have to operate on another human being with five minutes notice. I had to perform several complex emergency surgeries when I was on call in the hospital three days after my father’s funeral, when I was only four weeks out from a C-section and still had a healing wound on my belly and breast milk leaking from the breasts I barely had time to pump, when I was still crying for my father and the baby I had to wean to a bottle way too early. If this is what professionalism demands, I don’t want it. If this is what our sick culture expects in order to be considered a respectable professional, I reject my culture. I choose love instead.
This time, I am my own boss, so I have more choice. This time I choose not to bypass this process, the way I did when I lost my beloved father. If I had pushed myself to try to host this Soul Tribe event—which I was very excited about—I would have had to suppress something vital and alive inside of me, something that is grieving but is also a glorious, thriving part of my life force. I would be impoverished by what that would require of me—and those who attend would not get the best of me. I see it as an act of integrity to refund everyone’s money, apologize from the bottom of my heart for the inconvenience and the disappointment, and implore us all to create a healthy culture where death and grief are respected as a universal human experience, one that is as beautiful as birth and its ecstasy. I yearn for a culture in which nobody is expected to operate at peak performance when a family member needs them at the bedside or when acute grief is working its magic on the breaking open heart. Ideally, those in any Soul Tribe would want this for each other.
A couple of years ago, I heard a highly regarded spiritual teacher speak at a conference only days after his father passed unexpectedly. He told us about his loss but showed no spark of emotion, speaking dispassionately about his loss, as if it were some merit badge of spiritual development that rendered him calm and composed in the immediate wake of his unexpected loss. I remember feeling horrified, not that he was so contained and put together, but that he wasn’t with his family and that his Zen demeanor might be misinterpreted by his students as the “spiritual” or “right” way to grieve, as if the goal of spiritual practice is some kind of detached, dispassionate equanimity that guarantees that even losing a parent won’t hurt.
I’m not suggesting that he shouldn’t have been there, giving his dharma talk. Maybe that was exactly what he needed to work through his own grief. Each of us has a right to grieve as we must, and some of us do it by hurling ourselves into our work until we can handle the raw pain of our grief. But I remember promising myself that if I ever lost my mother—the person I’m closest to in all of the world—I would do my best to be real with my grief publicly, even if it isn’t pretty, to show you all that losing a beloved is not something to transcend, but rather something to feel deeply and move through your embodied awareness with authenticity and humility in the face of such raw, brutiful emotions. While I make no claims of any sort of enlightenment (and frankly, the whole idea of having some sort of spiritual ambition doesn’t feel attractive to me at all), perhaps this is how the feminine principle does enlightenment—in the body, in the heart, in the raw, primal gut, all the way human without a lick of spiritual or emotional bypassing. Perhaps this is how we heal, not just ourselves, but each other.
Now I begin the next day. Usually, nothing differentiates one day from the next. The days bleed together. But today (it is Sunday, isn’t it?) Anne Green is coming with her table to give us all massages. (Infinite thanks to the many who responded to my Facebook plea for a massage therapist willing to come to my mother’s home in this small town! It is because of you all that we finally found Anne—and many others who were willing to drive from far, far away. Thank you. Thank you.)
This morning, we will continue to fight my mother’s resistance to give her her medication every four hours. We will feed her peach Popsicles to help the medicine go down. We will be vigilant to make sure she doesn’t hurl herself off the bed. But this afternoon, we will surrender to the hands of a loving bodyworker, because self-care when you’re in the intensity of caregiving a dying loved one is medicine for everyone.
Outside Mom’s lake view window, the sun is now rising. The leaves are changing quickly. When I first got here, they were just showing greenish orange hues. Now they’re flaming coral and autumn-kissed yellow. Some trees have already stripped bare. Yesterday, it snowed. Winter is coming, not just for Ohio, but for my mother. We are ready for your winter, Mama. Please, I can’t bear to watch you suffer. You can go now . . .
Mom is still death-rattling away, showing all the signs that would suggest impending death—only it’s been more than 24 hours like this. Her body is trying so hard to stay here. Her heart is racing at 140 bpm. Her chest is retracting every time she pauses with no breath . . . the gasp for air after 30 seconds of apnea, during which we all hold our own breaths and pray it is her last. Something must still be unfinished for her, and although I have some intuitive hits on what it might be, if I’m accurate, part of it is something I can facilitate, but part belongs to her soul. It’s her work, her deep, deep completion work, the inner work that some people do before the dying process but some only do in their last few days in this dimension.
I will do the part I might be able to help with, which is to work on myself and my own discordant energy around wanting her to stay/wanting her to go. Although cognitively, I’m telling myself (and her) that she has permission to go, that I want her to let go, that we just want her to let go, to fall into grace, to surrender to love, that we’ve got each other and she doesn’t need to keep caretaking us, I know in my heart that another part of me is crying, “Don’t leave me, Mommy! I can’t do this fucking messed up world without you!” That part is my deep, deep work, my own resistance to incarnation, my own attachment to The Mother. I have been praying to the Great Mother, to Pachamama, to the Divine Mama, asking Her to take over that role for me so I can let my birth mother leave. But I’m sure, if you muscle tested me, I’d still have one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes, as would most of the people in my family. Perhaps, in part, our energetic pull on her is keeping her here. I will do some energy psychology work on myself today, to help my energy align congruently with allowing her to go not just in my mind, but in my energy body.
Yesterday, Deirdre June Moignard Miller wrote, “The cord between a mother and child is so strong that it transcends the physical attachment. Your need for her to remain is as strong as her need to let go. Her death involves you intimately and it is natural law that you should feel pulled to her, above all others. And it won’t matter what you “tell her” in words, it will be the energy she will receive from you in the quiet that, in the end, will allow her to release that physical bond. Only until she is confident that the spiritual bond will remain, will she allow herself to stay in the realm she currently is previewing. The decision to birth you was yours. The decision to leave you is hers. There is no separation. It is eternally you and she together.” This touches me.
Last night, I had a dream. We were in an apartment at the top of a tall building. A roommate (someone I don’t know) was throwing her very casual wedding at the community center. There were separate stairs coming down from her apartment and she had put these slippery plastic stairs over the top of the other stairs so I kept slipping if I would go up there and need to come back down. Someone was trying to leave the property on big stilts and fell over. When I went to check on her, she said she was okay, but that she had a big abcess on her back from her drug addiction. Siena was there, with Lorraine Stanco (the doctor who did Siena’s C-section) and her surgeon husband Geoff Stiles in the guest room. Geoff was still sleeping. They didn’t have a bathroom in their guest house so I suggested we put Mom’s portable potty in their bedroom for convenience. I hadn’t seen them since Siena was born, not since my father died. There were projects all over the floor—Siena was playing. The kitchen had a window and I opened the window. There were cherry blossoms outside—the tops of a tree, with a dove in the tree. I pulled the cherry blossoms close and cut the top of the tree to bring a sprig inside for you Mom. You couldn’t believe I could reach it. The bird flew away as I pulled the branch close. Mom was so happy to have the cherry blossoms. She smiled and held them to her face to see if they had a smell. I hadn’t seen her smile that way for a while.
Right before Mom was diagnosed, we were in Mendocino, biding time while we waited for the results of the bone marrow biopsy. Mom made me stop at every cherry tree so she could pet the blossoms.
I wrote about my dream to my spiritual counselor Ted Esser, who does a lot of dream work with me. He wrote back, “Beautiful dream. It’s all there like a poem, isn’t it?
Grown daughter, helping mother—clear, blossom, fly on,
I had to get out of the house. All this caregiving and grieving and waiting for death can make you nuts. So I went by myself to Honey Run Falls, which my mother has always loved. I should have been prepared for the flood of memories that overtook me, but I wasn’t. Only two months ago, my mother and my daughter were here having rubber ducky races, seeing whose ducky could make it down the falls the fastest. Siena’s duck kept getting stuck, and she kept tiptoeing perilously close to the edge of the waterfall to free it. I can still see my mom down on the rock below, protectively calling out, “Careful, baby! It’s not worth it! You win!”
Sitting at the rubber duck launch spot, I tried to tune into the spirit of the waterfall, to seek some comfort, but I was so distracted by the memories that I couldn’t hear the waterfall speak to me, the way I usually can. So I walked to the river and sat on the rock where I’ve sat so many hundreds of times with my mother. As I watched the river slowly flow by, I heard a sound. What was it? A low pitched rumble, then a high-frequency squeal, like an old radio from some black and white movie. Suddenly, to my great surprise, I realized that the sound was coming from me. I was wailing, keening, rocking while this wild animal sound came out of me along with a torrent of tears and gobs of snot and choking coughs. It made me miss my friend, the one who said, “I can’t take your pain for you, but I will go to the wailing wall with you.” It only lasted about five minutes, and then I was flooded with peace, relief, and the presence of grace. I thought I had been open and unguarded in my grieving, but obviously, something was still holding back. I guess I just needed a place away from my mother and the family to let that guttural, primal howl erupt freely. I guess this river is my wailing wall.
With love and gratitude for this opportunity to connect to all who are grieving or will someday grieve,
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