Friday, January 16, 2009

Her Mother's Death

The following pulls together bits of letters, emails and journal entries that record my grandmother's death in March of 1999 from stomach cancer and my mother's reactions to it. Fortunately, my mother was able to spend the last few weeks of my grandmother's life helping care for her. Although long and involved, I thought this was worth sharing because death is a part of life, and we each must deal with losing a loved one at some point in time. My mother rarely pulls punches in her writing, and so these snippets reflect some of the exhausting physical and emotional tensions of that experience. It also says a lot about my grandmother, who was an extraordinary woman in her own right.

Notes to Aunt Riek, Tim and others from my letters & journal entries:

February 27

I had made an airline reservation for March 3 to go to Mama, just trying to guess when she would need me most. As soon as I made that reservation, I was uneasy. Each day, I would wonder if I had made a mistake waiting that long. I wondered how Mom was but didn’t want to worry her with telephone calls. How would I ask, “Just how close to dying are you?” Mama was having the same difficulty. As soon as she knew my flight date, she was saying, “I don’t know whether I can live until MJ gets here.” Dad phoned this morning to tell me to get on the very next plane.

February 28

I am so glad I am here. Mom is jaundiced. Cancer must be destroying her liver. She said, “Mary Jane, I am so glad you are here. You came at the right time.” We shed a few tears. I feel angels had a hand in it. Southwest Airlines did not charge me extra to move my flight to an earlier time.

March 1, 1999

Dear Glenn,

It is 5 A.M., and I can't sleep. Poor Mama tried to get to the bathroom at 4 without disturbing anyone. She made it to the toilet but couldn't lower herself onto the seat. She fell to her knees, and the sound of bone on tile and her soft "oh" woke Dad and me. She has bruised both knees badly. It's a wonder they aren't broken. I am afraid the next get up will be very painful for her. Her response: "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have tried to do it on my own."

Her eyes hurt from weeping at the end of yesterday. She had 38 visitors, all of whom were bidding her goodbye. Many tears were shed. Mark’s little children just sobbed. Little Jesse had made her a card with two figures on it--one on the ground, and one in the sky. It said, “Goodbye. I’ll miss you. I’ll always remember you.” On the next page, the little person on the ground was saying: “I hope you will always remember me.”

Mama hates to leave us all, but she is too tired to stay. Paul's young Paul wants her to stay for his mission farewell, but even the thought of waiting until July is unbearable to her--as well as impossible. Only 28 visitors today. I have tried to sleep lightly, so that I will hear Mom asking for help to the bathroom. Daddy has been rousing, putting on his peg leg and then gently guiding her and holding her as she shuffles along. I get up, too, now. We are a strange trio in the night. I wonder how Dad could ever hold her up if she should need it. I wonder if I would be equal to it.

March 2 - Aunt Riek's Birthday. I was dreading this day. Aunt Riek was given $20 for her birthday by Truce van Eck. She decided to spend it on salmon and bring it to Bountiful for her birthday dinner with Mama. I didn't want Aunt Riek to see how far gone she was. They have been so close. And I didn't want Mama to go through the sorrow of saying goodbye again. I didn't listen to their conversation, but I heard Mama assuring her that they would soon be together again as their two old heads came together on the bed.

Janet came to fix a perfect dinner of asparagas, mashed potatoes, lemon gravy, and salmon. Amazingly, Mama asked to be helped to her rocking chair. She hadn’t been out of bed for two days, except to shuffle to the bathroom with help. she sat for the last time for four hours observing and smiling. Mom had asked Tony Uffens (her Dutch friend from the ward) to come--I think to provide some distraction and company for Aunt Riek. The fun began when Aunt Riek blew out her candles. She blew her false teeth out as we were taking her picture. That started her on her stories. We kept asking for more. Trudy's little Joseph was there, hearing the stories for the first time. He could scarsely sit on his stool he was laughing so hard. Tony laughed so hard she left with a headache, and I helped Mom back to bed. It was a wonderful day. This night, however, was more difficult. Mama leaned against me to rest three times on the way back to bed from the bathroom. I thought she was going to collapse before we got back to bed. “We might as well use those Depends I have in the basement,” she said. “It is so much easier not to have to get up at all.” This night, we gave her her first pain medicine--the smallest dose of Codone (or something like that), a mild narcotic. Ibuprofen wasn’t helping anymore. She woke with a start in the night and called me, thinking she had made a horrible mess. She had forgotten the Depends and was very relieved to know that there wasn’t any problem at all.

March 4 - Grandpa's birthday was lovely, thanks to Janet. I made his favorite apple squares, and Janet made a beautiful roast beef dinner. Grandpa was hungry for brown gravy, for Nibletts corn, and for carrots and onions. That's what we had. We didn't give him a gift yet. He is longing for a chipper shredder. We would all like to go in on one for him but don't know what kind to get. We had to say the gift was still coming. Trudy gave him a new tiny swiss army knife, and that pleased him. Boon and Cheryl brought him Baskin and Robbins ice cream and a Marie Calendar's pecan pie. John said, "What are they trying to do--kill him!!!" It couldn't have been more wrong for a diabetic, but they meant well.

Your e-mail messages arrived yesterday morning. After a nice bed bath from a professional nurse, Mom was peaceful. I sat and read your letters to her. She loves you all so much--still always thinking of each of you and wanting to know how you are doing. And, Ben, she hangs on every word you say. Her grandchildren are more important to her than any of the others--never too many words from you.

I'll try to stay in touch--between the phone, Mama's needs, and the streams of people who want to come by (we are trying to limit those a little now), I stay busy. I love you all. See you soon.

March 5, 1999

Thanks for all your help covering for me so that I can be here. I couldn't be anywhere else right now. It is extremely comforting to me to be able to care for my mother. I am grateful for any experience I have had caring for bedridden people. I need more training. Everyone should have a little. She has a little bedsore where her tailbone has broken through the skin. Rachel phoned the hospital and got a little gel patch that sticks right to it and gives her some relief.

I was thankful to Marilyn Edmunds again this morning for showing me how to make a bed with someone in it. Mom smiled a bit, but we got the job done. She had a difficult night throwing up I don't know what. Dad insists it was the tiny bit of potatoes and gravey from his birthday dinner, but she didn't come close to eating that much, and it was fluid and it was the wrong color.

Grandma is fresh and clean now and in a clean bed, thanks to Marilyn. I don't have to wait for a hospice nurse to come in and do it, and she is resting comfortably. Thanks to I don't know who, she likes my back rubs. They ease her. She is so appreciative of every little thing anyone does. Always a thank you. Always the reminder that she is glad I am here and that she doesn't know what she would have done without me. Such a sweetheart. Being with her helps me to realize I have a long job of character building to do in divine company. Mom is much closer. Her patience is inspiring.

March 6, 1999

Dear Ones,

I don't know how she can last another night, but I guess all suffering is possible. It seems so long to me--and to her. The one question she asked me today is. Is it still the same day? She sometimes opens her eyes and doesn't see us now unless we put a hand on her shoulder to rouse her. She still tries to help me a little when I change her position or clean her up. Once when I was fussing with her, she said something. I thought she needed to change positions or something, but when I got close enough to hear her, she was saying, “Didn’t Joseph laugh. Didn’t Joseph laugh.” Then I realized she was reliving Aunt Riek’s birthday party.

Aunt Marie phoned and wanted to come to visit. When I told her Mom was past visiting, she insisted that they wouldn’t stay and would just be in and out. I still said she was past visiting. They didn’t come. Dad told me after she was gone that I had made a mistake, that Mom had wanted to see her. I didn’t know. Mama is far away most of the time. I hate to disturb her for anything. Dad seems to want to rouse her and does for every phone call. I am not taking any more phone calls to her, and she has finally asked Dad not to. I told her Dad was probably waking her to help the time go faster, but she shook her head and said, “No, Mary Jane, the time goes much faster in oblivion.”

Matt came this morning. She was waiting for his visit. The two of them did a little weeping together with his head next to hers. She gave him her last words and told him to love Marci--that it would be the source of his happiness. He was sorry I hadn't let him bring the baby, but she isn't even able to see her watch anymore. She asked me to take it off.

Mama roused late this evening to talk to Julie Halstom. Julie phoned to say she was coming, and when I put on hand on Mom’s shoulder to ask, she opened her eyes and said, “Let her come.” Julie had been asked to play the organ at her funeral and wanted to know Mom's wishes. She brought flowers. When she saw how sick Mom was, she began talking nervously about everything. Mom put her at ease, told her how much she had loved her Relief Society lessons, and how beautiful she thought her children were. She asked Julie to play all the songs in the Primary song book. " I love them all," she said. That was the last she really talked.

Sunday Morning, March 7, 1999

Dear Ones,

She is farther and farther away. I don't know how she can last into another night, but I guess all suffering is possible. It seems so long. She sometimes opens her eyes but doesn't see us now. She can give a barely audible response to questions. I'm going to give Mom her medicine now. I love you.

March 13, 1999

Mama died at 12:15 p.m., March 7. I had thought she would go when the sun came up that day, but she was still breathing. I could hear her breathing from my bed on the floor and had been counting at various times through the night: "one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, four one thousand...." That's as far as I got for most of her breathing, but occasionally it went to "eleven one thousand," or even "fourteen one thousand."

Daddy had prayers by her side of the bed, as he habitually does, and turned on the Tabernacle Choir. When he asked her if she enjoyed the music, she seemed to nod her head. Daddy is convinced she heard and enjoyed. He dressed for Church, running from the bathroom to her side, from the closet to her side. “She would want me to go to Church,” he said. Then when he actually went to tell her goodbye and leave, he looked at her, took off his tie and said, “I’m staying.”

Dad asked me not to give her medication when I came in the morning to do it. "I want her clear!" he said. It was difficult. Her brow was puckered, and her hands were moving to the covers, to her gown, to her chest. She wanted her covers turned down. It looked like claustrophobia to me. I wanted to relieve her.

I went to another room and phoned hospice. The nurse on call told me that was always the conflict: the mate wants clear communication, and the family members prefer oblivion. Medication would probably shorten her life a little at this point. He told me my father's wishes were likely most important in the long run than hers. I should respect them. That helped me. I let Mama continue to struggle. By 10:15, I couldn't stand it any longer. Trudy phoned. I told her the situation and my dilemma. She advised me to give the medicine when Dad wasn't looking. I told her to come. I told Dan and Janet to come. Mom was retracting, and her breathing was rapid.

Shortly after talking with Trudy, I put the medicine drops under Mom's tongue when Dad went to the telephone. I felt terrible giving it but worse not giving it. Her forehead never did relax as it had done formerly. She seemed distressed but far away. Trudy arrived and then Maria and Liz. So Trudy, Maria, Liz, Dad, John and I were there when she passed away. Three long, long, long noisy exhales with long pauses between them, and she was gone. A visible pulse in her neck continued after she was obviously gone. There is such a difference between life and death.

We were not in a hurry to move her. She stayed right there in her bed for several more hours. Trudy and I cleaned her up just one more time and put her underwear in place. (She hadn't wanted a gown) We had been warned that it would be difficult when the mortician came to take her away--that they would take her away in a black bag. Instead, he came in with his young son, placed a folded sheet over her before pulling back her blankets. He asked if the family would like to help or if any of us would be more comfortable leaving. They carefully tucked the other half of the sheet around her and slipped it underneath. Everything was modestly and carefully done. Then, the mortician took Mama in his arms while his son took her legs, and the two of them laid her gently on a gurney on top of a burgundy bag. Before zipping the bag closed over her, he asked Dad if it was all right for him to do that, explaining that the weather was bad outside, and he needed to close it. Then they took her away, and the house was desolate.

So, that is almost the whole story. There was more--more sweet interchanges than I can remember. It was a mostly sweet experience to be with Mama. Everything was in order--her drawers, her cupboards, her knitting, her refrigerator, everything!--ironing and washing done up nearly to the very end, little marked containers of food stacked in the freezer for Daddy. She thought of everything and everyone.

Mama told me to take the beautiful quilt she embroidered and quilted for herself. She never did put it on her own bed. Dad said she was afraid he would sit on it. He told me that after she was gone. How will we ever qualify for that quilt? We not only have our own Dad to sit on it but kids, two dogs and a cat who might sit on the bed. Maybe I will hang it on the wall someday.

After the funeral when the family was gathered after lunch, I took Mark in my arms and reminded him how much his mother had loved him. “I know,” he sobbed. “I know.” “And she loves Claudia, too,” I said, “I know. I know.” He answered. Then he said more:

“You know, MJ, a couple of weeks ago, Claudia had one of her ‘waking dreams.’ She has those from time to time. In her waking dream, she said she saw me coming to get Mom. She didn’t understand why I would come to get Mom. She saw the dream again, later. Finally, she told me about it. Then I said, ‘Claudia, that wasn’t me coming to get Mom. It must have been her father. He looked a lot like me when he died. It had to be her father.’ I went over to ask Claudia about it, and she said, “Oh, Mark told you that? I don’t tell people about those things. I have those. I wouldn’t dare call them visions, because people would think I was crazy. (I said, smiling, “You are crazy, Claudia,” and she retorted, “I haven’t been crazy for twelve years!”) Then she repeated her experience as Mark had told it to me.

Mama’s actual death was not a spiritual experience for me. It was a physical experience. I was so concerned about her discomfort, I wanted it to be over. I wanted her to finally be at rest. This little interchange with Claudia and Mark comforted me. I think Claudia actually did see Mama’s father coming to get her. When I came to Bountiful on February 27, Mom said to me, “I think I will live for Aunt Riek’s birthday, and I will probably live for Dad’s, but I would like to spend my Dad’s birthday with him.” I asked, “When is your Dad’s birthday, Mama?” And she answered, “March 7.”

March 27

There is more. I had a little bed on the floor in the room next to Mom and Dad’s. We both left our bedroom doors open, so that I could hear if they needed my help during the night. Mom’s comment after the first night: “Boy, MJ, you surely snore up a storm!” I tried to sleep lighter after that. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I was awake often in the night peeking in to see if both parents were peaceful and breathing naturally.

Oh, it was hard to see Mama’s wasted body becoming less and less a part of her. Her feet and legs were swelling. Her hands were thin but swollen, and she became more golden each time I looked at her. The membranes in her eyes were particularly yellow, and her eyes seemed to receed, though they continued to shine with gentleness and love.

I gave Mama’s little skeleton a backrub just before bed one night, and when I knelt for my prayer, the contours of her wasted body seemed to be still under my hands. I was heart broken and searching for comfort. I thanked the Lord for the atonement. I’ve studied it so many times, thought about it occasionally, but don’t remember ever wanting it to be a reality more than I did as I thought about Mama’s precious body wasting away a few feet from me. As I prayed those words of gratitude, I was enveloped in that feeling best described as flames of fire. Delicious warmth filled every part of my being. I felt enveloped and engulfed in flames. They lingered but not long enough for me. I would have liked to have kept feeling with me. They are what I have come to regard as the Comforter.

Later, after the ordeal of Mama’s physical death, the cold questions crept into my mind: What if it’s all a story? What if this death is really all there is? What if all that was my mother has come to a final end? What a leaden, miserable feeling it was. Thankfully, it was brief.

In retrospect, those two strong memories make an easy choice for me. I know which of them to believe. One of them is death, and the other is life. One is cold, and the other is warm. One is false, and the other is true! I believe in the atonement. I believe in resurrection. I believe in eternal life! I thank the Lord! I have been sweetly and personally comforted. May the Lord help me to keep that truth and comfort in my life.

1 comment:

Jenn said...

That was sweet to read. It was hard, but sweet. Your mom writes so vividly. It makes you feel like you are with her, feeling the emotions with her. She is fantastic!!!!