Monday, November 19, 2007

Art Imitates Death

A few months ago, a film called 2 Weeks, starring Sally Field and Ben Chaplin, lasted for about a nano-second in theaters. (Oddly enough, I can't even find an Amazon or IMDb link!). It was, very coincidentally, about the last two weeks of a woman's life as she succumbed to ovarian cancer (like Mom). The focus of the movie, though, was really on the relationships between Anita's four children, three boys and a girl (like my siblings and me), who came together from out of town (as we did) to be with their mother at the end of her life.

I never had a chance to see the movie in theaters last spring, but I rented it from Netflix recently. I watched it twice, once alone and once with my daughters. I am still just amazed at the similarities between what Anita's family experienced in her last days and what we experienced during Mom's last days.

The movie depicts quite a few similarities to what my brothers and I experienced (along with our dad) when we all met at my parents' house to "help Mom die." (This photo was taken during that time, a week or so before Mom died. She was completely enveloped in her children's and husband's unwavering love and, in addition to deep sorrow we all felt, there was an unexpected and inexplicable joy between us as well. I love this photo because it depicts all the emotions we shared that week.) It was the first time the six of us had been together alone, without spouses and grandchildren, for over 20 years and, similar to 2 Weeks, that time was as much a time for us siblings to get to know each other again as it was a time to say goodbye to our mother. The sister in the movie is in many ways the teacher and organizational soul of the group; she's the one who reads Death and Dying and who, in turn, suggests that her brothers "read up" too. In our family my dad and I shared that role, but the similarities were still striking as the sister organizes 2-hour, round-the-clock "watches" so her mom is never alone during her last days.

In the movie, Anita goes through some of the things that we witnessed with Mom. At one point Anita stared ahead and tears began to run down her face. "Hi Dad," she whispered and mumbled through a (seemingly one-sided) conversation with her dead father. Similarly, my mother asked my father at one point, "Who's she?" and a few minutes later she whispered to me, "My mother..." trying to continue but unable to form words after that.

In 2 Weeks, one of the brothers comments that his mother's soul seems to have taken leave of her body after she slipped into a coma and as she neared death. I remember thinking the exact same thing when Mom passed through that stage. In fact, I wrote about it: "She’s not my mother. 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."

After Anita died, her daughter did something that I did after Mom died, sure that I was the only one who ever did this and that I was being morbid and weird: we both took photos of our dead mothers. I can't tell you why I did it, except that it was the only way I could think of to hold on to her for a bit longer. (Similar, perhaps, to the dream I had during that week when I was severely sleep-deprived: "I had a thought/dream 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.")

In the movie, Anita's body is put into an unmarked car in the early hours of the morning, as the morning paper is being delivered around the neighborhood. Two of the brothers comment that it's hard to believe that regular life goes on, even after their lives have changed so dramatically. I remember thinking the same thing as Mom's body was wheeled down the path and into the very unspectacular white Ford Windstar.

I knew that moment marked not only the moment when I had to say my final goodbye to Mom's physical presence, but it also marked the moment when I began a new stage of my own life -- the stage in which I had to learn to be motherless. It's now almost four years later and I'm not sure I've learned yet how to be motherless.

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Anonymous said...


Rositta said...

Carol, that is a beautiful photo of all of you. If you haven't learned to be motherless after four years, is there any hope for me? I don't have any siblings, it's just me. Thinking of you...ciao:)

Anonymous said...

I don't see mine as often as I would wish but at least she's there. Thank you for reminding me to be thankful for my luck.
Best wishes

Anonymous said...

My brothers and I, too, were there when Mutti died. It was so very peaceful and for that I'm thankful. As far as getting used to being motherless, that will never happen. Mine has been gone for almost 19 years now and I still miss her and wish I could just once talk to her again.

Betsy said...

This was a beautiful post, Carol! And I really liked the personal touch that the photo gave!


Anonymous said...

My three siblings and my dad gathered around my dying mom very much like you all did. I know that our all being there for hours on end, doing nothing more than talking and joking, made her very happy while she was able to still enjoy it.

If there's any lesson in this for those who still have their moms... maybe get your siblings together and spend a quiet day just together with your mom as the center of attention. She'll enjoy it! and better to do it while she's well.

Jen said...

I'm not sure we can ever learn to be motherless. Again, I'm so sorry that you and your family had to take that journey together. I'm glad, though, that there were some good times along the way.

Goofball said...

I've read this post already yesterday and honestly I don't know how to react. It is so deep, it is so beautiful, it is so sad, it is so real.

I am glad you've been able to spend those last weeks with your mom.

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