My youngest sister, Billie, flew back home to L.A. last night from Miami. It seems the final close to mom's parting, all of us going home to get on with our lives. Billie was the remaining sister still in Miami after my mom’s passing. I haven’t written down yet what it was like, that experience of being with mom while she breathed her last breaths. I will do that now so I will have it somewhere… just in case I forget. [Did you notice that? Did you notice that I called her “mom” and not “mama” as in my earlier posts? I am growing myself back up. Slowly. Gently.]
Mom had struggled with Leukemia (AML) for about 3 years. The doctors were amazed at how she fought the disease and even came back from it for a short while in the beginning. But in the end, with a fractured vertebra in her back, aching joints and pain all around, she was too tired and hurting to fight any longer. A woman who once was a voracious reader, and got great joy from devouring book after book from her regular trips to the public library, she lost the desire, will and strength to even read. She was one who valued the quality of life. She had my father both had living wills and did not want to linger unnecessarily in their transition from this world.
I remember when my dad was coming to the end, he had suffered greatly from the effects of Parkinson’s. It’s a horrific disease. They lose the ability to swallow and eventually starve to death. But I remember when the doctor spoke to mom about a feeding tube for dad my said with great intensity, “I won’t do that to him!” For her to delay his death with a feeding tube was more cruel than the disease itself. When mom’s pain became too much for her to bear, she finally said, “I think it’s time for Hospice.” There is more to the story, but for now this is what I will tell:
The last night in her condo was an extremely difficult one. Early in the morning hours, mom was transported to the hospital where she could get the relief from her pain that she so desperately needed. Her oncologist, and a kind and understanding doctor Clark in the emergency room, made it possible. We told Dr. Clark we wanted no diagnostics, nothing. Only stop the pain and make her comfortable. Our faces pleading… desperate. Dr. Clark said, “Our society is in denial about death… I’m in denial about death. If she were my patient and she came in with this sound in her lungs, I would intubate her right now. I understand what you want. We will make this happen. We will make her comfortable.” He called mom’s Oncologist and after the phone call, turned to me and gave a thumbs up. My whole body relaxed. Finally, finally mom would be relieved from her suffering.
They gave us a room and we all stood round her taking to each other, to mom, stroking her face, holding her hands. Her facial muscles had relaxed since the pain medication. Her eyes had remained closed since she had left her condo. She seemed to rest peacefully except for the sound of her lungs. We all waited…
At one point as I thought of her letting go and crossing over, I remembered the lyrics of a folk song I had heard James Taylor sing, The Water is Wide. “The water is wide. I can’t cross over. And neither have I wings to fly. Build me a boat that can carry two, and both shall row, my love and I.” I began to sing there, standing by her bed with my sisters and brother all around. My brother came and stood beside me. He joined in. I sang another, a Carly Simon song. It was a song mom and I played years before in 1991 when I drove her to treatment. We drove her little Miata convertible. The refrain is: “Life is eternal and love is immortal and death is only a horizon. And a horizon is nothing save the limit of our site, save the limit of our sight.”
My siblings and I started talking about other songs and songs Pinky liked. She loved to sing, and when she did not know the words to a song, that never stopped her, she delightfully made up her own words. I believe it was my sister Billie who said mom loved Amazing Grace. So we all stood round singing Amazing Grace to her. On the last verse, at the end, she opened her eyes one last time. To me she looked as though she was seeing something far off that we could not see. Something on the other side perhaps. Whatever that might look like. Billie said, “Hey mama!” We all began to say out loud, “Goodbye, Mama. We’ll see you on the other side!” And smiling with tears streaming down our faces, she then closed her eyes and breathed a few more breaths. They became more shallow and farther apart until finally they stopped, and she was gone. It was an extraordinary experience. It was an honor… an honor to be there in her life and in her death. It was an honor to know her.