Friday, December 01, 2006

A Trip Into My iPod (and My Memory)

I've been immersed in loading my new iPod with tunes, and I've found it to be an unexpectedly and profoundly emotional experience.

In the same way that the smell of white paste reminds me of my first grade teacher's sweet perfume and kind, gentle voice, I've found that hearing certain pieces of music (especially through the clarity of a good set of headphones) reaches deep into my heart and elicits intensely strong feelings. Joy, sadness, regret, love, even silliness -- they're all lurking right under the surface and hearing even a few bars of the right tune will quickly fill me with emotion.

Inspired by Dixie Peach's Friday Shuffle, I thought it'd be interesting if I post a Friday iMemory -- an event or an emotion elicitied or inspired by a tune on my iPod. Today's tune is Isreal Kamakawiwo's Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

Although I'd heard this song many years ago on the eToys (remember them?) commercials and liked it then, it was in April, 2004 that the song took on real meaning for me. Mom's ovarian cancer, which had haunted her for four years, had spread to her liver, and chemo was no longer effective. Hospice nurses had begun visiting with increasing frequency, yet Mom remained defiant and determined, never willing to talk openly about dying, as if avoiding the conversation would also ward off the reality.

The extended family -- all four kids and all ten grandchildren -- had just spent Christmas in Oregon with Omi and Opa and I had decided to stay for a few extra days to spend some precious time alone with Mom. On the first day of my extended visit, the Pacific Northwest was struck by a severe snow and ice storm that lasted almost two weeks and "forced" me to stay put. That visit continues to bring back warm, loving memories. I stayed in the very cozy cottage that Mom and Dad had recently built for family visitors and we played endless games of Rummy and Upwords and sipped tea together. I had more blissful, solitary time alone during those two weeks than I'd had in a long time.

Knowing that Mom was in the last weeks or months of her life, I went back to Oregon a few times between that trip and the end of March, working on the production of FUEL remotely with the full support of my fabulous manager. On Friday, April 2nd, after a short visit, I drove 8 hours back to Seattle, knowing that Dad would call me back within a week or two. The next day, I went shopping and to lunch with my daughters and upon returning home, the phone rang. It was Mom in tears. I could barely understand her. "I couldn't think of a single word," she sobbed, referring to a game of Upwords she and my dad had just attempted to play. What I heard, and what I believe she was finally saying for the first time, was, "Carol, I'm dying."

On Monday morning, just as I was walking out the door to drive to work, Dad called. "It's time. Can you fly back today? Your brothers are on their way too." For the first time in well over 20 years, our nuclear family -- my parents, my three brothers and me -- would be alone together, without spouses or grandchildren. We were gathering for the "life event" of helping Mom die.

When I arrived, my brother Chris was with Mom. His lay silently next to her, his head on the pillow, her hand in his. A single tear rolled down his cheek. He looked up at me and smiled through his silent tears, beckoning me with his eyes to join him and Mom. As I sat on the edge of the bed on the other side of Mom, Chris reached down and brought his laptop onto the bed, placing it between him and Mom, where we all could see it. He clicked an icon on the desktop and his three beautiful young daughters came to life on the screen, accompanied by Isreal Kamakawiwo's touching version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Mom, who could no longer speak without great effort, watched intensely, tears streaming down her face. And the lump in my throat spilled out in tears. I'll never know what Mom was thinking as she watched her lively, beautiful, joyous granddaughters dance and sing and blow kisses to their Omi. Was she grateful for the opportunity to be with them again in a small way, or was the pain too much to bear?

The next days were the most profound of my life as my father, my brothers and I gently and lovingly big farewell to mom and enveloped her in love as she took leave and slipped from this life. It has been the only event in my life that can adequately be described by the word "holy."

Being an avid journaler all my life (pre-blogging, anyway), I recorded everything. Here are my notes of those last few days:

4/6/04: After almost exactly four years, it’s time. The Hospice nurses now predict “a few days.” You aren’t you: not controlling, not in charge, not loud. Not walking alone, not eating, not talking. In diapers – which you hate. This is so hard to watch, but it must be harder to experience. You are aware of everything, but can’t express yourself. If you try to talk you risk a coughing fit – and that is excruciating for you and so scary for us. Your words – what few there are – are jumbled and confused, but I don’t think your thoughts are. You know perfectly well what’s happening. Last week you said you were scared, but this seems different. I don’t think you’re scared anymore – but I am.

April 7, 2004 4 AM
Soon. You always fight everything. You fight this too. Let go, Mom. Be at peace. It’s OK. It’s OK to go now. The words – when they find their way out – are barely comprehensible. In the past hour: “Oh God!” twice. “Where’s Michael?” “Where am I?” “S’Geht nicht gut.”

Why do you keep getting up to pee? There’s no pee left. Relax, Mom. Let go. You don’t want to be here like this.

I will miss you every single day. But I’ll miss who you’ve been in your life, not who I see at your death. It’s so hard to see you like this – like a baby… so compliant, so na├»ve, so NOT Edith. The last thing you said before I left you with Dad tonight was, “Thank you, Carol.” You’re so very welcome, Mom.

4/7/04 10 AM
It’s hard to get used to: the slightest noise will rouse you and you can show with a grunt that you’re mentally here (at least to some extent), but if someone didn’t know that you’re aware, they’d think you checked out already. Your mouth and eyes are at partially open positions. You seem unresponsive… but you are quite alert under it all. You asked Michael last night, “Am I dying?” He said, “I don’t know.” But you are. This is the process of dying.

4/7/04 6 PM
Just words, barely comprehensible, but important: “Phi Beta Kappa,” “Downhill” (skiing?)

4/8/04 8 AM
You are fighting death with the same fervor and defiance with which you fought the disease. Your oh-no-you-don’t attitude is still strong – even without the ability to speak more than a garbled word or two… or eat… or stand. Oh-no-you-don’t keep that catheter in me. Oh-no-you-don’t give me meds that I don’t want (is it because you’re not in pain? Or because you want a “pure” experience?). Oh-no-you-don’t. You’re STILL in control.

What is a “dignified death,” anyway? Is it one that one orchestrates him/herself? Is it what the Hopsice workers call “a conscious death”? I know for sure what it’s NOT. It’s NOT a death that takes place in a hospital, surrounded by tubes and strangers. I’m sure of that. And as hard as it is to watch you helpless in so many ways, you are surrounded by the people who love you the most, and you are not “hooked up” and we DO listen to you and often know what you feel and need (which I’m sure doesn’t happen in the hospital). And our primary concern is your comfort (what comfort there can be…) and letting you know how much we love you. Maybe death, in itself, simply isn’t dignified. But maybe a death when Nature brings it, surrounded by love and compassion, is the most dignified it can be. I believe that there’s important work going on as you transition, and for the first time in my life I’m pretty sure that there even IS a “transition” and that there even IS another side. That work that you’re doing – whatever it is – is what makes this death, one that occurs in its own time, dignified. That’s what I’m choosing to believe, maybe selfishly, maybe not. But it’s the best I can do… and as “correct” a belief as anything else.

4/8/04 12:30 PM
Incredible. You absolutely insisted on having everything OFF – catheter, diaper, nightgown, even blankets. Everything! For a while, we couldn’t figure it out, but it became apparent that you were determined to lie flat on the bed, in the light shining from the skylight, stark naked.

Then you shared where you are with us:

“It’s peaceful.”
Almost singing: “Where I’m gooooing!”
Helicopter (Hawaii? Alaska? Dad knew and he and Mom agreed…)
“Elisabeth ferien” (about their trip to Germany when Elisabeth was 13! This one made me sob, and I told Omi that Elisabeth is sooo much like her, it means I get to KEEP Omi through Elisabeth. She grimaced and “sobbed,” without a sound, a tear running down her cheek…)
“A lake”
“Floating in there.”
“She’ll be there.”
“Will (we’ll?) be ready.”
“_____ (name?) will be there.”
“I want to geh.” (Trying to get up and go with entire body… legs in cycling or hiking motion.)

And then, she did something she hadn’t done in two days: she opened her eyes and focused – on Dad – and said to him, clear as a bell, “Can you carry me over?”

4/9/04 4 AM
She’s no longer responsive to our questioning. Her eyes are almost always closed. And yet, she continues to insist on getting up (but she’s like a rag doll; it takes three or four of us to make it happen) to pee every few hours.

9:30 AM
Difficult effort to communicate. Voice no longer reliable; must look at tongue, lips, throat. Very difficult to discern. MUCH guessing. The place was likely a lake (“Wahlsee?”) and the memory was obviously NOT a happy one. Now looks asleep, except one eye very slightly open – still… always.

3:00 PM:
Deep sleep since noon. Very regular breathing. Strong.

8:30 PM:
Mom is almost totally unresponsive. No muscle tone whatsoever. Eyes shut, except a slit in the left eye. Opaque sheath over her eyeball (can she see?). And yet, she STILL insists on getting up (it takes three of us!) to sit on the commode and pee – and she does pee!

She said to me, “My mother.” I said, “Your mother? Let me tell you about MY mother!” And I did.

4/10/04 5:45 PM:
And that was the last thing she ever said to me. After that, she went into a semi-comatose state. She still flailed and wanted to sit up, but only one last time, early this morning. Since the she’s been completely limp and non-responsive.

At noon, the Hospice nurse came. Mom was in distress: pulse 105, respiration 25. Working too hard. Until she could calm down and stop fighting physically, she wouldn’t let go, the nurse said. At 3:30 we tried to give her a full cc of Morphine and ½ cc of Adavin. But she couldn’t swallow anymore and she choked – the loudest, scariest, most god-awful terrified (and terrifying) sound I’ve heard in a long time. I didn’t know it was choking; I thought it was the sound of death! I called, “Mommy!” and ran out of the room, covering my ears. I couldn’t handle it. But it wasn’t death. It was her body working – still working – to live. After that, we turned her on her side, and that’s where she is now, breathing slow, shallow, regular breaths @ 12 per minute. God, she is so incredibly tenacious – in life, and, it seems, in death… or at least in the process of it.

8:30 PM:
She’s not my mother. My mother left after she shared her “transition” with us on Wednesday. She doesn’t look anything like my mother. She looks like a skeleton. No character, no spirit, no personality. Now we’re just caring for her body until it gives out – likely within hours.

I had a thought/dream (not sure which; I’m hardly sleeping at all!) in the middle of the night: Miss Saum, my kindergarten teacher, used to pin “notes to go home” on our clothes. I dreamed that I pinned a picture of Mom at her most beautiful to her body so the mortician could see how beautiful she was before he cremated her. I wanted those who would care for her body to know that she was SO not just another skeletal cancer patient.

Just before dawn on Easter Sunday, as the half-moon rose over the horizon, Mom drifted peacefully and quietly from this life. (Dad held my hand as we walked down the hall and as we approached Mom he said, “If you’re very quiet, you can hear how peaceful death is.”)

Her breaths were like a tiny, delicate little bird’s: very shallow, very regular, and very soft, with a faint rhythmic “click” to each breath. She looked totally relaxed. But she didn’t look like my mother. Mom had taken leave two days before. That was so obvious to me as we helped “usher” Mom’s body across as she’d asked. Over the period of an hour, she drifted so sweetly and peacefully away, surrounded by her family, and within the glimmer of a Bavarian candle.

After she died, Dad went outside and picked a dogwood flower and placed it on Mom. He commented to me that dogwood flowers only stay totally white for a short time. He was right: in a matter of minutes, dark spots appeared on the tip of each flower. Then we all sat with her. No one cried. It was simply too serene and beautiful, too “holy” even, to cry. Mom looked beautiful in her white lace gown, under the white lace sheet, with the white dogwood flower on Easter morning as the sun rose.


I am so honored, so blessed, to have shared Mom’s life, and death, in the past three weeks… and four years… and forty-seven years. So incredibly blessed. And I have Mom to thanks for showing me how peaceful death can be. I love you, Mom. Thanks for being such a wonderful mom. And sister. And even daughter. You will always be with me – as all three.

Isn’t it fitting? Almost exactly four years ago, I wrote to you as we flew amid turbulence in the tiny LifeFlight plane to OHSU, promising you we’d fight your battle together. And today I’m in a plane again, making my way back to my family after spending three weeks with you. I know that, although we lost the fight, we did fight it together. I did keep my promise to you.
Be peaceful where you are, Mom.

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EuroTrippen said...

Very moving... how much you love your mother really shines through.

c said...

I just shut the door to my room here because I'm crying...... Your writing about your mom's last days is beautiful.

I lost my dear mom to cancer also and my dad and I were her main caregivers for the last months as she died at home. It was an honor for me also to have known my mom and loved her and also to have been there at the end, helping her to go.

And I lost my dad in September of this year. I sat nights with him at the nursing home where he died and spent many hours watching him and your comment "She doesn't look anything like my mother..." was how I felt with him.

And I love that your dad said "If you're very quiet, you can hear how peaceful death is."

...and that you thought of pinning a "note to go home" on your mom. After my mom died I was surprised that she didn't get in touch with me to let me know that she'd arrived safely wherever she'd gone. When she was living she always made us call when we arrived someplace just to let her know we were okay.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your beautiful writing. ....

blackcrag said...

This made me cry. And I don't cry easily.

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