This Spring, on April, 13th, 2016, after years of chemo (with pockets of respite), my mom learned that the cancer had metastasized in her liver. It was growing so fast it would require surgery, (not just radiation/chemo). Unbeknownst to any of us, one month later, on Friday the 13th of May, my sisters and I would be speaking at her visitation. She telephoned each of us after that April appointment to let us know she had a surgery scheduled in six days, and that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. After we hung up, I sat with my phone open to the calendar pages, trying to plan the un-plannable…as if I could somehow squeeze the cancer into the tiny dated squares and manage it and contain it. While I didn’t recognize it in the moment, cancer was once again teaching me to be open…to hold my life and “my plans” here in CA loosely, and be willing to head to MI (where my mom lived) when necessary. In the next few weeks I would fly to MI urgently on two different occasions--booking tickets around 7am and flying out of LAX by noon both times…coming back to expired to do lists and plans I had made for days that never came.
I was scared to make that first visit after her April surgery. It was not her first major cancer related surgery, but things didn't go "as planned" and she had just been put on a ventilator, with tubes hung off of her in every direction (catheter, chest tubes, epidural and numerous IV lines). The surgery had been much more extensive than initially planned (in addition to losing half of her liver, which was expected, they also removed part of her diaphragm and a kidney). Her body went into shock and her blood pressure had trouble stabilizing. While I was in the air somewhere over Colorado, she called me herself and left a message in a very low scratchy voice, to tell me in person that she was off the ventilator. That message is still on my phone. When I walked into the ICU, she strained to turn towards me, her abdomen held together by steri-strips and 35 metal staples, the grimace on her face betraying the casual nature of what she wanted to portray: that “everything is fine here”(…still trying to take care of her daughters--even though we were all in our 30’s.)
As my eyes adjusted to the hospital lights and sounds and rhythms, we talked about the teachers’ lounge I had helped to remodel the previous weekend, and caught up on the meaningless things that take up our days when our perspective is not as pointed and our lives feel as though they will go on forever. In that moment I let go of my agenda to talk about deeper things, as I recognized her desire and need to cling to the ordinary…and I was able to just be with her in the moment. In being present with her, I noticed her hands were restless. At one point she said aloud, “Well I guess there’s probably no knitting in the ICU” and we smiled and then laughed out loud, picturing all those tubes and chords entangled in her brightly colored yarn. Her personality shone through in this new weakened body, and my fear subsided as I learned to recognize her. It required letting go of the old image of my mother and embracing this new one…from independent stubborn single mom, to a person needing help with mundane tasks like washing her hair, rolling over, and sitting in a chair. But there was a tenderness to these moments as our lives reversed roles, and I began to help with the physical tasks that she once did for me. We were learning together, holding on and letting go, opening and closing, like birdwings.
Sometimes before people lose their bodies and physical abilities, they lose their minds, feelings, thoughts and ideas. Others lose certain friendships and relationships along the way; but mercifully those were all part of the final letting go for my mom. In her case, this didn’t happen in a clear or linear fashion. There was the initial letting go associated with her health and independence, and then some physical tasks (like gardening and lawn care, which she loved). Eventually her job and activities of daily living needed to be surrendered too: shopping, preparing meals, crafting…followed by leaving behind her home and possessions, her clothes and shoes, and eventually grooming, bathing and feeding herself. This level of letting go is a universal reality which most of us do our best not to think about or plan for. In the end, we take nothing with us. As we let go, the size of our hips and the tasks we accomplish cease to hold any meaning. The only thing that matters is the moment. For us, in the midst of the letting go, the relationships and plans that were once taken for granted morphed into bas relief, they became three dimensional and real, and in the face of inability to influence or change circumstances we all began to realize the gift in each day, each hour, each minute, each breath. My mom fought this disease heroically, surprising all of us with her strength, pain tolerance, and will to live. Letting go did not come naturally or easily to her (and I suspect to most of us in her situation). In fact, she had a little pair of red boxing gloves hanging on her IV pole in the hospital, but there came a time when she realized it was time to hang up the gloves.
Several years before this experience I had read a book called “Honoring the Body” in which the author talked about teaching her young children to sleep, as a way of teaching them to die. Each night as we drift off and “let go” for the evening, we are training for that final frontier of letting go—and it doesn’t come easily to young children, they must learn the art of falling asleep. I imagine as my mom rocked me to sleep as a baby she was, without realizing it, preparing me for this moment too.
In May as my mom’s body began to decline, I flew a second time to her bedside. On my way to the airport, in the midst of a rare LA rainstorm, my youngest sister Kate put her on speakerphone to say goodbye, in case I didn’t make it in time. Before we hung up my mom said, “Don’t miss your flight Sarie”. I smiled. (I was trying my best not to miss that flight!) My sister Liz was flying from Hawaii to Michigan, about 13 hours behind me, and it was a stressful and anxious journey. But we all made it to her bedside by Saturday afternoon. We spent the day Saturday together and the room was full of family and friends, laughter and tears, even her dog Wynston received approval to come for a final visit. I remember standing outside her room that afternoon, hearing all the life and energy happening inside, thinking how much my mom would have enjoyed knowing that this is how she would go, and feeling grateful that we were sending her off in this way, surrounding her with love in order to help her release her grip on this world. Sunday was Mother’s Day. We thought she might go that day; but instead she held on, and soaked up every minute of that final Mothers Day with her daughters by her side.
During her regular life, as far back as I can remember, my mom’s feet were always cold…no matter the season—whether it was hot and humid July or the bitter January winters of Michigan. But in an interesting mercy, as her body became septic and started to shut down, her limbs were always warm. It was a surprising paradox. A hospice nurse told us that her limbs might start to turn blue and get cold, but thankfully they never did.
A friend who is a midwife mentioned that people birth and die the way that they live…that our truest nature is revealed at those transition points of life— the letting go shows who we are at our core. Even in the midst of her failing body, my mother held on to her good nature. She made an effort to thank her nurses and doctors, and let people know she appreciated their help, up until the very end.
Frederick Buechener says, “We find by losing, we hold fast by letting go. We become something new by ceasing to be something old.” Watching this diagnosis, morph into acceptance, and then even into death was a transformative experience for everyone involved. It was “brutiful” (both brutal and beautiful). I felt in some ways, I got to know my mom better as she died, I saw parts of her that I never saw while she was independent and alive. This experience revealed to all of us how very little we have control over, even up to the very end of our days…and yet, (this was a huge revelation for me) we can trust the way things are unfolding without knowing the details and without having to be in charge of them.
As Monday morning dawned, and she was still breathing, we decided to take her home. She’d lived for 39 years about an hour south of the hospital, in a two story Victorian home, the only home she’d ever owned, and it had been her wish to die there. So we transported her from Grand Rapids to Vicksburg, MI. My sisters were by her side in the ambulance, narrating the drive, and as soon as they arrived in Vicksburg, about 3 blocks from her house, my mom gave up her final breath.
The irony that she died while being transported by a company called “Life EMS” is not lost on me. These apparent opposites are actually two sides of the same coin--pulling at each other from the far side of the world. Death and birth. Endings and beginnings. Letting go and holding on. I now know more than I ever wanted to about death as the last letting go of all. And in beginning this season of grief, my sisters and I feel like we are learning a language that has never been written (there is no lonely planet guide book for the far side of grief).
Perhaps this is because without a mother one ceases to have the luxury of being a child. There were many “grown up” tasks to tend to in the days and weeks after she died, which in some ways helped to stall the finality and reality of her death. We all spoke and her funeral, which happened the day before Pentecost--the day before spirit shows up and breathes its fire over the disciples. And out of an ending, God created a beginning. Out of the cold chill of death, tongues of fire burn at our foreheads, and we cannot fathom what tomorrow holds…
I'm writing with a fabulous group of writers on this topic. Click on Susan's link here: http://www.growingplaces.us/letting-go-and-holding-on/ and then follow along in the circle.