Any of us whose parents live to be elderly are likely to experience their long, sad decline at the end of life. I’ve had both extremes–Daddy died suddenly at a relatively young age, of a heart attack, while Mother spent a couple of decades with heart failure and then strokes. Even when you’ve had lots of time to prepare it always comes as a shock. How can they be gone? How will my life go on?
Scott Simon, an NPR host and former Today show weekend host, went through this with his mother in Chicago. He tweeted throughout her time in the ICU, until she died, and after, an online journal of his thoughts and feelings in 180 characters per message. If you haven’t read them, here is a link: https://twitter.com/nprscottsimon
I’m a bit disturbed by the concept of typing on a smartphone while your mother is dying, but his writing and emotions disarm that. He held her in his arms, sang to her, listened to her while she could still talk.
When I worked for a hospice agency I was told the most important things to say when you’re saying goodbye are: I love you, please forgive me, I forgive you, thank you. Sometimes a parent needs to hear you say, “It’s okay for you to go, I will be all right.” Mothers are still mothers, even on their deathbeds. One nurse told me that sometimes the mother will wait to die until the children are out of her room. “I think some of them want to spare the children, right to the end, ” she said.
It’s important to know when to let go, and to get the help you and your parent need. Facing the end is terrible, but anyone who has mourned a dying person knows the truth: we’re not mourning for them, we’re mourning for us and our loss.
February is a tough month for me. Daddy died in February, when I was only 22. My late companion died in February some years ago, drowned during vacation in Florida. So I’m always glad to see the back of this month, and spend some time remembering.
The first time I saw death close up was my grandfather’s death when I was a teenager. My father drove us up the hill from our farm to Pap’s white clapboard house to wait for the ambulance. Aunt Nina had heard Pap fall in the bathroom, and found him dead on the floor. He was almost 90 years old.
I saw the ambulance men bring Pap out on a stretcher. He was neatly dressed, as always, in grey pants, a crisply ironed shirt, and black laced-up boots. He had combed his thin, fine white hair, but he hadn’t shaved yet, so his chin had white bristles. His cold blue eyes were open wide, his nose jutting, his jaw slack. He looked surprised, nothing more. Daddy stood frozen as his father went by.
I have seen death again since then, my father in a coffin, my mother, Ron breathing out his life in a frantic knot of paramedics. I have seen old people fighting death like commandos, wrestling it down, falling to it. I see it advancing down the hall, lurking behind a hospital bed, swerving on a highway.
I used to think that, whenever you lost someone, eventually the gaping hole would be filled by another comfort of some kind. Now I think that we’re all like the moons of Jupiter. We’re pelted by meteorites. Sometimes you get a glancing blow. Sometimes you get a crater. Sometimes you crack into pieces, and you’re not a moon anymore. You keep orbiting around. The holes may not hurt as much, but they are still there. And we look for comfort.