Monday, September 3, 2012

Experiencing my mother's death

I've been reluctant to write about my experience of my mother's death. But I had a conversation about the topic in shul with a recent mourner. The last time he saw his mother was a few months before she died. The next time he saw her her body was in a coffin.  Not that he wanted to see her body, but the transition between his last vision of her and the box was unsettling and unreal.

My experience was different. My mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early March of 2010.  She lived in California and I in New York. I flew out seven times to see her before she died and, in testament to her amazing strength and willpower, she traveled to New York for Thanksgiving in 2010 despite the effects of the cancer and chemotherapy treatments.

In October 2011, her condition had deteriorated to the point that she decided to discontinue medical treatment and went into home hospice care. I flew out to California shortly thereafter, figuring it would be the last time I'd ever see her. She was still able to converse and I brought out my tape recorder and recorded an hour long conversation. She was weak and frail, mostly in bed, but still sharp of mind. I dreaded the moment of parting. I knew I would cry and I did, but she comforted me and said she thought we would see each other once more. I wasn't so sure, and I thought maybe she was just trying to ease the pain of separation.

A month later I flew out again on a Thursday night. The night before, my father called me. She had told him to call me to tell me to "pack for a week." I knew what this meant. I brought out the suit I would wear to her funeral and clothing for the shiva. (Sure enough, I returned to New York to complete shiva exactly a week after I left.)

I figured she would be asleep and would see her Friday morning, but she instructed my father to call me to find out what time I'd arrive from the cab from the airport. She waited up and we hugged. I could see she was barely eating. The next morning the hospice nurse told us she had about 48 hours of life left. We had some communication on Friday morning. I read to her and spoke words from my heart. She was taking massive doses of morphine to ease the pain. Her body had become skin and bones. It was a frightening sight to see this vivacious woman reduced to this state. Saturday morning she said her last words to me. As I drew near to her, she said "I am ready to say goodbye."

By that evening she had lost consciousness. My father, brother and I recited the vidui (confession of sins) from a prayer book. No trace of her beauty was left. Her appearance had become so grotesque that I could no longer look at her. I felt guilty and ashamed, but I just could not be with my own mother in her last hours. She was already gone, just not dead. A friend volunteered to keep her company and hold her hand. We were in the adjacent room when my mother took her last breath, mixed with a vomit of disgusting black bile that poured out of her mouth. I freaked out and cried for her but she didn't respond. She was dead. I began making the phone calls to notify family and sent out the death notice email I'd prepared a few weeks in advance.

Why am I writing this? Because often when I think of her and say kaddish, I think of these last moments. And they are not pleasant moments. Yet they are indelibly stamped on my soul. My mother's body wasting away. Her lifeless body. It's not the way I want to remember her. But I can't help it.

She died at home. Her family was with her. That's the way she wanted it to be. She did not want her death to be sanitized in some hospital with tubes running in and monitors blinking and beeping. In this way, she gave me a last "gift," allowing me to share in her death.

No comments:

Post a Comment