There comes a time when there is nothing more to fix in the human body.
There are no more supplements to take.
There is nothing left to do.
I met that time over the holidays…
On Wednesday, December 16th at 9:15PM my mom died here in our home, and I want to tell you about it.
She turned 80 years of age at the end of October. Shortly after the presidential election, she couldn’t walk up the stairs any more. This meant that she couldn’t join us for meals or movies or do her laundry. We didn’t know if this was temporary or permanent, so we watched and waited. But we already started to miss her.
She would slowly move downstairs in her living area from her bed to her reclining chair to her kitchen to her bathroom using her walker. Then, it was her bed to her chair. Bowel incontinence set it, and she decided it was too hard to get to her bed.
She slept all the time: 10-12 hours at night with a 2-3 hour morning nap and afternoon nap.
My son Drake wouldn’t come to breakfast one morning. We were frustrated until we saw him crying in his room and he said, “Baba, can’t tell me stories anymore. Who’s going to tell me stories?”
I said, “You’re right. She can’t. I’m sorry.” He was sad.
I knew what was happening. My mom was dying.
I had learned that if we didn’t call hospice and mom died, the authorities could take her away for an autopsy. That wasn’t going to work for us so I called hospice, and one angel after another came through our doors walking us through this mysterious process of death.
In talking with some people in my life, a few of them couldn’t figure out why I called hospice, as if I was inviting death or something. But I knew what I was doing and wanted to be prepared and supported. Hospice said that on average people call them 17 days before their loved ones died. In other words, not soon enough. They thanked me for calling when I did.
The medical doctor, one of the gentlest souls I have ever met, diagnosed her with cerebral atherosclerosis. When I asked him why he decided to be in hospice care, he said that it was “the best part of medicine.” Over and over again, they kept telling her that she was in the driver’s seat. She got to call the shots. This felt good, and we continued to take care of her.
We changed her briefs. Hung out with her. Brought her water. Fluffed her pillows. I learned how to change sheets with her in the bed – what a feat! She wouldn’t eat very much. She rotated a daily root beer float or milkshake or yogurt or bowl of ice cream. At first, I said, “Wow. Proof of your dairy allergy!” But then after thinking about it, I wonder if we leave the world the way we came into it: with lots of milk.
I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter. While her treats brought her some joy, she was miserable confined to a hospital bed. I was miserable. My family was stressed. One morning, she looked at me with tears in her eyes, and asked, “Why won’t I die?”
A few minutes later, the phone rang. It was a member of the hospice team, and we chatted about end-of-life options here in Colorado. She described the medically assisted death to me. It was convoluted. I replied, “So what you’re saying is that we are kinder to pets than people?” She chuckled, agreed and then she shared the voluntary withdrawal of food and water option.
Mom had been lamenting her lack of appetite and enjoyment of food, so she was already there. She made her decision. It was time to go. She wanted to be gone before Christmas.
Hospice did their best to prepare her for the insatiable thirst. They kept saying over and over again it’s not the hunger that’s hard, it’s the thirst. So we used ice chips and wet sponges in her mouth to pull her through, along with Lorazepam, an anti-anxiety medication, and eventually low doses of morphine.
As each day went by, we watched my mom wither. Her urine darkened. Her bowels stopped moving. Her lips were dry. Her voice was soft. Her heartbeat become distant. Her pulse was weak. Her hair was falling out. She would look up to us and whisper the sweetest, “Hi.”
In these final days, we got to sit with what I can only describe as my mom’s essence. The thing that’s left when everything else is gone.
One day I had my hands full with stuff as I was heading upstairs, I noticed that she was awake, so I leaned over to hug her goodnight. She puckered her lips and said, “Kiss me.” I’ve never kissed my mom on the lips before. It made me cry.
Three women who call themselves The Threshold Choir came to sing to her from her window. They did a Native American chant to call in all the grandmothers, and sung a number of gentle songs about going to sleep and if we’re not here for love, what are we here for. I sobbed. It was beautiful.
That afternoon, my mom refused any further medication. I came to give her the sublingual dose of the drugs and she shook her head no and wouldn’t open her mouth. Okey dokey. I guess she doesn’t need these anymore. She did the same to Glenn and the nurse.
The nurse explained to me that sometimes the drugs are only needed to pull through the anxiety of going without food and water and discomfort of dehydration. Maybe the choral group gave her strength. My mom couldn’t explain it to me. She couldn’t talk, but she continued to be the driver.
The next day she sort of came back to us. Looking at us. Nodding. Sometimes a smile. She continued to sleep.
She’s never liked drugs. I knew why she didn’t want them. They had served their purpose and were now dulling her experience. Good for her. Present till the end. She was so brave.
I also want to mention that hospice recommended that we watch a 30-minute documentary titled My Dying Wish. It was about an 80 year old medical doctor who was diagnosed with cancer who happened to reside in Boulder, Colorado near where we live. He knew what the treatment would entail and to what end? He was going to die, so he elected to stay in his home and go without food and water. He documented his experience in a beautiful movie which I highly recommend.
I still take peace in knowing that almost every hospice team member we interacted with made it a point to say that if they have the choice, they would choose the voluntary withdrawal of food and drink. Unprovoked by any of us, they said it is hands down the most peaceful way to go. Nothing but the body’s wisdom. I had no idea such an option even existed.
One evening I had a rising feeling of anxiety in my body thinking about mom. When would she let go? How would she let go? It’s, like, you know where you’re headed but you don’t want to get there and you can’t wait for it to be over at the same time. To me, it felt like the peak of a fever – how much more can I take?
It was time to put Drake to bed. Glenn was doing the dishes and I said, “Let’s go sit with mom before I read to Drake.” She liked it when people were around but not focused on her.
When we got downstairs, her eyes were wide and the brain stem breathing that our nurse had described had started. It was shallow and quick. Glenn held her hand. He had words for her. I held her arm and shoulders and words failed me. I cried a cry I’d never experienced before – deep, visceral grief and relief.
I touched her forehead. It was so cold. We were with her for her last 8 minutes or so of breath. Drake came down for the last few minutes.
She lasted 9.5 days without food or water. Hospice said that some people pass within 3-5 days and that the longest they’d seen was 21 days. I guess you could say that she was somewhere in the middle.
My mom had talked for years about who she thought she was in her last life. She said she was a pioneer woman with a Native American lover (for those of you who watched the show, think of Dr Quinn Medicine Woman and Sully – it looked something like that). I honestly think she might have been right.
In our home, she was the elder who metaphorically sat up against a tree and no longer joined her tribe. No food. No drink. Just a wisp of a breath and a gentle departure.
So we called hospice, the nurse said she would be here in an hour to declare her death.
In the meantime, I told Drake that I had talked to a friend the other day who told me that in the Tibetan tradition, they believe that the dead can hear for three days, so if there’s anything you didn’t get to say, you have a window of opportunity to say it.
He looked at us, shrugged, and said, “Well, that’s just a belief but it works.” Smart boy. Then after a pause, he said, “I have a book I need to read to Baba.”
Apparently, grandma had asked him repeatedly to read a book to her, but he never did so he sat there and read the story while we waited for the nurse.
If that doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, I don’t know what will. I’m crying writing about it.
The nurse finally arrived, listened for her heartbeat for one minute (nothing), declared her dead, and then, I had to ask the inevitable question, “Tell me that there’s no chance that you’re going to put Covid-19 on her death certificate?”
She laughed, “Have you had enough of all this, too?”
I nodded vigorously.
She said, “One of the reasons I love my job is that there is none of that nonsense. You don’t have to worry about that with me.”
But when she called the coroner, he asked. She looked at me, smiled, and said, “No. No, Covid wasn’t involved.” But the fact that he asked. Wow, just wow.
The next morning people from The Natural Funeral showed up at our home. Serendipitously, one of them was the producer of the aforementioned film. I thanked her for making the movie, and we proceeded with a reverent bath for mom with lavender water and anointment with other oils. We dressed her in her favorite outfit. They used dry ice under her upper body to prevent any degradation of tissue and smell, and she spent one final night in our home.
Now, I also want to share that when we were setting up for the reverent body care, somebody noticed the candle that I had burning in the kitchen. I left it to burn all night long. It was a very sturdy candle in a glass container with three wicks. The wicks coalesced to make one large flame. We decided to let it continue to burn.
At some point, I was lamenting that my mom and I shared just about everything together, but that she wouldn’t get to tell me about this trip. Then, I paused and said, “Well, who knows, maybe she will visit me in a dream or something.” Right then, the candle exploded. We had to stop to clean up the glass and one of the funeral people said, “I think you just got your answer. Your mom heard you.”
Coincidence? Make of it what you will.
I want you to understand that I am 44 years old and have never seen a dead body. I thought it would be gross. Dirty. Weird. Uncomfortable. Creepy. But it wasn’t. All the stress was gone from my mom’s face. All I felt was love for her and love for this life.
The following morning, the Natural Funeral person arrived. We loaded mom into the back of his SUV on a gurney and caravanned to the crematorium, where we slid mom into the fire place, hit the buttons, and then fulfilled her wish of us eating cake and ice cream. For the record, I watched Glenn, Drake and The Natural Funeral man enjoy a Chantilly cake from Whole Foods which read, “Bye Bye Baba.” The funeral people said that this was a first, and they enjoyed it.
I wanted to share my experience with you because our culture has done everything it can to not only prevent death, but to deny it. Over and over, we hear the phrase, “every death is a tragedy.” This is at great financial and emotional cost. We put death over there in the corner and don’t talk about it. The reality is that death teaches us how to live. In fact, a few years ago, I was talking to another mom with a son Drake’s age. She said that his aunt died, and she couldn’t bring herself to tell him she was dead, so she told him that she was on a long vacation. I didn’t know what to say in that moment, but here with you, I want to say that being a part of my mom’s death was one of the most healing experiences of my life, and we made our son a part of it every single step of the way.
We slowed down to care for her.
We sat in the unknown with her.
We accepted and embraced my mom’s death in a way I never knew was possible.
I watched all of her personality and coping strategies and our power struggles simply fall away, and so mine did too.
For all of my nutritional and herbal knowledge and me thinking that I could teach my mom something about how to care for her body, she left the world teaching me. She did the thing that needed to be done.
In her decision to do nothing, she did the biggest, bravest thing of all.
She transformed what we’ve been taught to fear into deep healing for our family.
Rest in peace, mom.
PS – Please don’t forget to watch this movie My Dying Wish. It is such an important story to be told. Most money in the medical system is spent at the end of life but it doesn’t have to be that way. Not to mention, the emotional and physical trauma that can occur. Now you can explore another way!
I also want to thank all of the end of life doulas doing good work in the world. Mom had three sessions with one from Willow Farm Contemplative Center. We learned that people can hire these doulas YEARS in advance to set the stage for a healing departure. Not a bad idea.
Thanks for reading and don’t forget to subscribe to my weekly newsletter at my website.