So I’m minding my own business on a rainy Saturday morning. On a morning in which the thunderstorm woke up my favorite girl, and her hungry little piggy, at 5 a.m. While that’s not my ideal start to a Saturday, we made the best of it: a huge mug of coffee for me, some hot tea for her, a blanket for each and a snuggle by the blue-green glow of the TV. I didn’t really want to be up that early, and I certainly didn’t want to be watching “Hillbilly Handfishing,” but I’ll take the quality time with my girl.
The last thing I expected on this rainy day was to be blindsided by grief. It happened innocently enough, as it tends to after several years of loss. After the sun rose and the handfishing concluded, I was searching through the cupboards in the game room for a small paintbrush to touch up some paint. No paintbrush to be found, but my search did turn up something I didn’t expect to find: a hospice booklet left over from my mom’s cancer “journey.”
For those of you fortunate enough to be uninitiated in grief and loss, you may not understand. For those of you who have been initiated in this dreadful state, you know. You know exactly how grief comes out of nowhere to blindside you.
I remember reading this booklet, in the fall of 2005 when my mom’s cancer “journey” was coming to a really yucky end. The hospice people were wonderful, providing much more than just care for my dying mama. They had care packages for my two young kids and for my niece and nephew. The oldest of YaYa’s 4 grandbabies was 8 when she died, the youngest (who happens to be my favorite girl) was 3. The teddy bears and coloring books given to them by the hospice workers probably didn’t register in the same way the “Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience” booklet did with me.
Because the whole experience of my mom dying was rather surreal, I don’t recall feeling strange about being handed a booklet with such a title. I don’t recall wondering what The Dying Experience was all about, because we were living it. How ironic to be living The Dying Experience.
I do recall being grateful for the booklet’s upfront, go-at-your-pace approach to grief. This is the one thing I know for sure: no one can dictate another person’s grief, and no can anyone dictate another person’s death experience. As the booklet so aptly describes, “Each person approaches death in their own way, bringing to this last experience their own uniqueness. This is simply a guideline, a road map. Like any map, there are many roads arriving at the same destination, many ways to enter the same city.”
Hmmm, I certainly never likened death to a city, but it sure makes sense. Of course, I never thought I’d be facing thoughts like these, much less the death of my sweet, beloved mama. My own life as a mother had barely started, with a 3-year-old wild animal disguised as a very creative and outside-of-the-box little girl, and a headstrong 6-year-old boy who would astound me in the years to come with the memories he retained of his YaYa. How could my sweet mama be leaving me just as I was starting to learn to navigate this not-always-tranquil motherhood?
How could she be leaving me? “In her own time, in her own way,” as the booklet told me. Reading on, I learned another truth: “Death is as unique as the individual who is experiencing it.”
The booklet goes on to say that there is a shift that occurs within the dying person, which takes them from “a mental processing of death to a true comprehension and belief in their own mortality.”
Another thing I learned the hard way.
I’m certain that my sweet mama knew she was dying. Being told by the gurus at MD Anderson that the clinical-trial drug didn’t work to arrest the cancer that was eating her alive is rather concrete. Being told that the only thing left to do is call hospice is rather concrete as well. She knew. But in her quiet way, she didn’t talk about it. No bitching or moaning, no complaining, no ranting or shaking her fists at the heavens for being dealt such a rotten hand.
Instead, she hugged each doctor (she was really good at that, and I wish I’d inherited that trait; I’m not much of a hugger). She gathered herself and without shedding one tear or divulging her true feelings, she thanked the docs for trying so hard to save her. And she went home to plan her funeral.
For real. She wanted to plan it all–from the psalms read to the hymns sung to the outfit she would wear–so that those of us left behind wouldn’t be stuck trying to figure it all out. At a time when she could have stuck her head in the sand and said to hell with it all, she buckled down and spent her remaining strength on making things easier for her family. That’s the kind of person she was, and it’s a damn shame that she is with us no more. A bright and precious light went out when she died.
I thought I was prepared. I’d had months to wrap my head around it, after all. Watching her go from a vivacious, outgoing Nosey Rosey who never met a stranger to a wisp of herself should have prepared me. Seeing the life slowly fade from her immensely bright soul should have eased the transition from her being the center of our lives to her being gone. Being witness to the slow yet certain creep of cancer’s all-encompassing grasp of all things Barb should have steeled me to the reality I was facing.
And yet, none of those things happened. As Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience so succinctly explains, “Focus changes from this world to the next, as the dying person loses his/her grounding to Earth.” She lost her ground to Earth, and we lost the glue, the sweetness, the center of our family. There is no preparing for that. There is no transition, no steeling. Although I knew it was happening and had accepted the fact that my beloved mother was dying, I was not prepared.
Just as I was not prepared for the onslaught of grief that hit me today as I came across the hospice booklet. In the middle of a perfectly normal day, while searching through a cupboard for a paintbrush, I was instantly transported back to the awful, wrenching reality of her death. I had no idea the booklet was in that cupboard. More importantly, I had no idea that the magnitude of grief, the bottomless pit of despair, could come back so quickly. In an instant, the swirling eddy of loss surrounded me, as heavy today as it was 6 years ago. As Kate Winslet said as she dedicated her Emmy win for the HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce” last fall, “It doesn’t matter how old you are or what you do in your life. You never stop needing your mum.”
The last page of Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience contains a Henry Van Dyke poem unfamiliar to me. I don’t remember reading it when I received the booklet; my guess is that I didn’t make it that far. But now I have, and I’m glad I did.
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says: “There, she is gone!”
Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear the load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says: “There, she is gone!” There are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout: “Here she comes!”
And that is dying.