Passings: Life Keeps Happening Anyway
One quiet Spring day, things suddenly changed. Dramatically, definite.
I received the call from my brother: "You'd better come soon." I had taken a short walk to a nearby park, enjoying the calm warm day. When I saw the caller ID, I felt sure I knew what the message would be.
We are never ready, not really. But life changes come, and some arrive too quickly. And we adjust, manage, perform, even while our feelings swirl around an aching heart.
Walking in unexpected days.
This event too, shall go the inevitable way of moments though leave its mark, its quaking pain just beneath unfolding life. Although years shall fall between this day and those I yet live, however many shall come, this scar will exist in remembered quivering just beneath my heart, somewhere deep inside, barely allowing me to stop an oncoming flow of tears, even though I may not cry...
Once powerful roots grew beneath a rocky foundation. But after years of passing time, it lies in decay, though a particular forceful beauty remains, senescence
Stunned sorrow, hurried plans: Things have changed.
I simply walk, move aside, think, “I must use the ladies’ room before I board.” …“Excuse me, may I sit here? And with a guarded smile I sit, placing my carry-on beside my feet. To wait. And that is all for these moments, just to wait. My fingers shake as I hold the purchased-after-security-check nutrient drink. There was neither desire for breakfast nor time for lunch, and catching a shuttle bus out of Sky Harbor International would leave no time to eat there. It seemed time was running out in more ways than one. And I, draining out…too…
Paraphrased truth from Holy Scripture
‘But be aware that God watches over the all earth, seeing every good and evil. He knows each inhabitant, every thought and action, whether it be in night or day, for these are the same to Him.’ From Psalm 33 and Psalm 139
As I had left home that anxious afternoon, the wild plum and Bradford pear trees were white with full blossom, blowing gustily in stiff Oklahoma wind. My suitcase hurriedly packed, I tried to imagine what might have been forgotten, but the call to “Come quickly as you can” had interrupted my plans for that spring Wednesday. The call was not fully unexpected, but somehow as life goes, it still stunned my senses, charged every moment of that day…and changed my forever-after.
Redbud: The colorful Oklahoma State Tree
Now as I tap these words with the keystrokes of a computer, the early springtime bloom of Oklahoma Redbuds has just faded. I missed their colorful flowers at the height of spring, but some few waited for my return home, as if to offer an upliftiing condolence for my sorrow.
Unique to the Redbud tree are its early blossoms bursting from branch, trunk and limbs. It is not a scented flower, but makes up for that by an abundance of vibrant pink-lavender-purple flowers.
Leaving on a Jet Plane
At Will Rogers Airport, I sighed with some relief as my small bag was checked in, boarding pass and gate assignment given, and strode to the security check-in line: Not too long this time of day, and seemed to be moving fairly rapidly as TSA employees called a name, reviewed papers, looked up and spoke concisely, “Next!” I wondered at the diverse faces, unobtrusive movements of those around me, each with bags or coat, one mother with a sleeping baby on her shoulder. Were they tense, uncertain, and were they on a flight for vacation, business, or deployment?
There were no answers to my tattered thoughts, and I was glad no one voiced questions my way as I scooted my bag under the seat in front: Third row back - I could depart the plane quickly.
The two hour flight was a bit bumpy, but the pilot said a tail wind would help us arrive a little early. That was good news since my schedule was so tight to catch the shuttle bus for a trip two hours north of landing. It would be dark before I arrived at my Prescott destination.
As the shuttle driver deftly maneuvered Phoenix I-17 traffic, an orangey globe lowered into grey rain clouds on a sulky horizon. Enough raindrops fell to wet the busy evening world we traveled, and familiar saguaro-dotted hills dimmed against a listless sunset skyline. It seemed the world distressingly agreed with my somber mood.
Watching the darkening clouds, the fading day, I struggled to grasp courage, exude maturity, cling to active faith, control this unbearable aching of a heart that knows what is to come will neither be easy nor changeable. My mother was dying.
Mother, on her 97th birthday.
My youngest brother was waiting at the shuttle shelter. Hastily grabbing bags, we climbed in his pickup parked by a light pole. Wendy’s was in sight and I asked to stop and grab a needed hamburger. We ordered another to take to Hospice for our other brother, who was with Mom. Scarfing down my burger, I listened as Don explained what seemed to be happening in Mom’s critical illness. The doctor had told him that ‘unless an unexpected miracle occurred, she would not be leaving the facility’. Don also informed me that our older brother would be arriving in an hour or so from Texas.
We had previously expected Mom to be at in-patient Hospice for just a few days to gain control of a problematic occurrence, but her strength had not been sufficient to overcome it like expected. Her pain from bile-duct cancer –cholangiocarcinoma-- had become quickly intense, unbearable, and her vital signs began to deteriorate significantly. She had been diagnosed just six months earlier. She said then, "It is ok, God is helping me not be afraid. It doesn't matter if it is fast or slow, I will be all right." She was a nurse and knew what was likely to be.
A background of hope diminishes, partner to uncertainty.
It seemed that during this day there had been a slight upturn in her condition and perhaps she would make it till the weekend. Don described a portion of the ‘demise progression’ that Hospice nurses had explained, and as we absorbed the truth together, a companionship of sorrowful acceptance, and yes, a painful joy began to bud from the pangs of my heart. Mom would be leaving us for Heaven - we couldn’t know just when – but she would soon be freed from the overwhelming, devastating pain she was suffering. Morphine and sedative administered on as-needed basis could relieve most of the horrifying pain but her responses of realization, perceptive interaction, and communication were also dulled, as side effect. I would never before have described ‘painful-joy’ as realistic.
Hospice personnel are a gifted and valuable source of assistance.
That quivering black hole down inside began to calm a little as we siblings shared our pain, the fact that death was near and inescapable; and in speaking the long-held faith that we could be with Mom again in Heaven. It does not remove our agonizing grief, but the solace of faith in God makes all the difference for me, for my family. The progressive steps to watching death occur are of uncertain measure, but perceived in educated experience. These hospice nurses were efficiently caring, expert in deciphering need, kindness in their hands because of compassionate hearts. Even in their busy hours they tenderly cared for the tiny lady in her hospital bed like she was their own mother.
So too, the steps to practicing the faith we claim, is upheld by an immeasurable grace of our Heavenly Father. Caring hospice personnel can assist in understanding some of the processes of dying: God can comfort and strengthen those who trust and ask His help in a time of dire need, us knowing that He answers in wisdom, power and gentle mercy. With belief that life comes after death, for the Christ-follower it is an eternal majestic joy, peace, fulfillment, and makes all the difference-- even within the cataclysmic turmoil of grief, pain and helplessness of present moments.
Some of Mother's beautiful roses, her favorite flower.
Helplessness is strengthened by acts of pure Love
So I stood leaning over bed rails, stroking mother’s white hair from her forehead. A nurse had earlier combed her thin hair into a soft cloud surrounding her head on the pillow. White hair, white pillow, white sheets, white silk roses on the table. But a hand-sewn quilt of pastel prints covered her small form, shielded her oxygen line, and I tucked the cover to her shoulders because she felt cool. The words I could not say spilled all over my mind: I wanted to talk about beautiful roses that Mom grew; her gorgeous Peace original and her Lucille Ball peachy neon buds, that vivid Spanish floribunda. I wanted to thank her again for her choosing pink and mauve floral sheets for ‘my room’ at her house. I wanted to hear her tell more stories of homestead living; of her horse, Bluebelle, who accidentally threw her at the sight of a wild cougar and caused dislocation of her elbow. I wanted to hear her describe the one-room schoolhouse where she graduated, and later taught: I wanted to ask how she gathered courage to move far across the States to better care for a sick husband: How she saw the miraculous light-presence of angels as a little girl died, a thrilling experience as a new nurse.
And I wanted to tell her that the angels were watching over her…but I could not speak the words, “They will come and get you too.” I wanted to tell her, and I wanted to see them…wanted them to hurry…and wanted things to be like they were many years ago.
My Mother lived with this promise in heart and mind.
“Even to your old age and graying hairs, I will be with you. I have made you and will sustain you, and I will deliver you.” Isaiah 46:4
A few of mother's oil paintings. They depicted historical relevance.
There are gifts to be received, even in the letting go...
Early Sunday morning my sister-in-law came in before church. She greeted Mom and began singing softly, “In the Sweet By and By”. Startled she stopped, looked at us then back to Mom and asked, “Are you singing with me, Mom?” A barely murmured response, ‘Uh-uh’. Delores continued the song and Mother hummed along, barely audible. It was a brief stunning gift of reprieve, a portrait of praise by mother to her Savior, who even then, I think, allowed the angels to hum along with her. Then the wrinkled brow and a fidgety inaudible speech came…pain…again, ghastly pain, and soon swift submersion into medicated rest. Surely, her Shepherd was very close. Perhaps beckoning to His angels...
But, "Precious in the sight of the Lord, is the death of His saints." Psalm 116:15.
Uncertainty, sorrow, stressful change, helplessness, viable emotions swirled the hours. The persistent fact was that Mom’s vital signs were declining, yet she clung to existence, to earthly life, not quite released to eternity. We could only wait. Reminisce. Remember. Be there! And cling to the hope of our faith…it is going to be all right. Death is part of life. Life comes after death. She is now peaceful, resting, not in pain. Tell her she can go. “It’s ok to go, when you want to, Mother.” "We'll be all right."
The timelessness of a mother's love is just that; forever!
Her skin was softly thin, lined by blue veins, brown spots, scarred from basal cell lesions. Her eyes stayed closed and A and D ointment softened her lips. “Pretty lips, sweet lady” one of the nurses had told her. They spoke clearly and softly to her as though she could respond. “We’re going to prop your back a little with this pillow.” If there were any murmur, a wrinkled forehead, slight movement, a nurse would bend low to interpret some inexpressible meaning. “Jeri, I am going to bring you some medicine now. And let me fix the pillow under your head.”
Her Good Shepherd, a large oil originial painted many years ago.
If all you can do is touch, touch gently till it reaches the heart.
In the long night fatigue, sleep came in oblivious pieces and often I would only realize I had slept when the nurses were working quietly with Mother. Time did not seem to matter, almost not exist in the dimmed hall lights of Hospice. I would stroke Mother’s gnarled fingers, so gently massage her arms. Always, I ended up caressing her forehead with its snowy hair: “I love you Mother, I’m here.” “You are safe right here.” This was a statement suggested by hospice staff that seemed to reassure and calm the patient whose perception seemed inadequate. However, the assumption was to be that we did not have the ability to say one was not functionally aware, and all conversation was directed as though the patient was fully cognizant.
My brother Jay had brought favorite hymn CDs to play for Mom, as hospice information had said this was often supportive for those preparing to leave life. Jay and Don had shared staying day and night hours with Mother and after my arrival, I would have no declaration but that it was my time to be with her. Then oldest sibling Ed, shared in our vigil of love. With few words spoken, each knew the gift of love that had been lived through the years of childhood to the present time, and now it was slowly being removed from our presence.
We had gathered in the quiet hall outside her room as nurses gently changed, cleansed, checked vitals, adjusted her position. Mary came out inviting us back to the bedside and softly spoke, “She just said she saw her husband”. We acknowledged that progressive implication…
Time passes, things change, and we re-arrange the pieces left.
Lying in Mom's pink and mauve floral sheets, I heard the garage door open. It would be Jay, who quietly came in and prepared for sleep. As he turned off the bathroom light, I met him asking, “How is she?” He paused. “It might be that Mom could catch the night train to Heaven tonight.” “Don could not sleep and came in early. Did you see the moon tonight? It is distinctly half-full: Right side totally not there.” I murmured, denying, unaccepting, but something indistinct surrounded us in the night-light glow, indecipherable, unnamed. Fear? Hope? Relief? A full moon had risen a few nights ago, and hospice nurses had verified the fact that many more births, accidents, deaths, happen at the time of a full moon. But tonight’s moon was different: It was bright in a star-sparkled sky, but it was not full.
Less than thirty minutes later the telephone jangled loudly. I heard short muffled words and his quiet steps on carpet. I threw back my covers and met Jay at the door. “That was Don." Jay paused. " Mom passed about fifteen minutes ago.” It was 4:06 AM and Mom had flown to Heaven in the arms of Death Angel, who laid her gently in the mighty loving arms of Jesus.
Sunset, on the day Mother went to Heaven.
This weekend is Easter Sunday and it will be Mom’s first holiday in Heaven. Earthly relatives, friends, Abraham, Moses, yes, all perfected souls are now showing her around her new home. I can not imagine the majestic celebration that she has joined! I do plan to meet her there someday.
“Earth hath no sorrow that Heaven cannot heal.” * *Words by Thomas Moore, Irish songwriter of “Come Ye Disconsolate”.
I wish to express particular appreciation for the capable and compassionate staff at Family Care Hospice, Prescott, AZ . May they all find ever-increasing reward for their caring service, and strength for every difficult hour. Hospice nurses are very gifted people; trained, yes. And gifted too.
If you would, please take a few seconds to give your answer here.
Eventually death will meet us all. How much do you fear 'the dying'?
This poem was written by Mother at the death of her younger sister, who died suddenly leaving four young children.
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