#DEATH tweet: 140 Perspectives on Being a Supportive Witness to the End of Life (Book 02)

A THINKaha Book - Happy About Books, Publisher
Timothy A. Tosta

Preface: "Mom's Passing"

Two days before my mother died, I sat beside her hospital bed, which recently had been moved into the ground-floor guest bedroom of her Santa Cruz home. I had cut short a ski vacation in Colorado on receiving a call from my sister, Kathy, who advised that Mom had stopped drinking liquids and was declining rapidly.

Mom had been diagnosed two years previously with Lewy Body Dementia, which manifests as a wicked blend between Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. The disease brings not only Alzheimer’s cognitive degeneration over time but adds to it the physically degenerative attributes of Parkinson’s.

During her last two years, we had all witnessed her decline as first, she struggled for memories, then words. Soon after, she lost her fine, and, ultimately, her gross motor skills. Like most with LBD, she experienced hallucinations and emotional ups and downs, but remained, by and large, the beautiful, loving wife and mother that we had always known. Even as she became nonambulatory and lost much of her desire and ability to speak, she still had a way of communicating that made you feel that you remained the center of her universe.

That particular afternoon, I knew we were in the course of saying our final good-byes. At that point, I had been a hos¬pice volunteer at San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital for three years. It was not unusual for me to be at the bedside of someone near death. I had long ago come to understand that as death approaches, the dying turn inward, knowing their final job in life is to disentangle the spirit from the body that no longer serves them.

At hospice, I often sit quietly in meditation, play music, or read stories or poetry at the bedside, recognizing that despite the closed eyes and the inward focus, there remains some out¬ward attentiveness. So, as I carried on a one-way conversa¬tion with Mom, her eyes opened and she spoke with a clarity of days long past, advising, “I want a party.”

I responded, “Well, of course. When would you like it?” Mom replied, “Tonight.”

“Then you will have it,” I said.

James, my then twenty-two-year-old son, had just stuck his head in the door and heard his grandmother’s wish. I looked at him and asked, “So, now what?”

We left Mom’s room and I advised Nancy, my wife, and Kathy of Mom’s wish. We decided to gather our family and a few close friends that evening at 5:00 at Mom’s bedside for “party time.” James and I talked about what we could do to make the event a bit more festive. We decided to head Downtown to see what ideas blossomed. We walked into the pharmacy and saw from the red hearts and pink décor that it was almost Valentine’s Day, a fact lost to me under the current circumstances.

James and I headed to the card aisle and proceeded to find cards to give Mother that would be appropriate for the var¬ious people expected to attend the party. We also found Mom a gift, a cute little brown bear with his arms clasped behind his back holding a red rose. We then went to a nearby Safeway to create a bouquet of red, white, and pink helium balloons for the event. I bought some champagne for our guests, then headed home.

At the appointed hour, about ten of us surrounded her bed, including my dad, Kathy and her husband, Jack, and their son, Ryan. They were joined by Nancy, James, Mom’s good friends, Norma and Roger, two of Mom’s caregivers, and me. The caregivers previously had awakened Mom and fresh¬ened her up a bit.

As we entered the room, she was alert with a smile on her face and a gleam in her royal blue eyes. We brought in the balloons and presented her with the stuffed bear. Mom was thrilled with the attention. She smiled widely and mouthed her thanks and appreciation. Then each of us read our Valentine to her while sitting next to her at the head of the bed. Then, as a group, we sang “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and toasted to her with champagne. We even put a mouth sponge in some champagne so that she could taste it. It wasn’t to her liking, but even her distaste brought another smile to her face and laughter to us all.

After fifteen minutes, Mom’s eyes began to close, so we eased out of her room to give her time for rest.

My youngest, Jillian, arrived from Tucson the following morning. I didn’t know whether or not Mom again would awaken, but she roused herself on Jillian’s arrival. Once again, her face lit up. She mimed her love and affection for Jill and, a few moments later, went back to her internal work.

By the time of Mother’s passing, I had sat with many people at the end of their lives. Each life comes to an end in its own unique way. However, I have never seen an end come so gently or peacefully as it did with Mom.

On Valentine’s Day morning, Mother entered into “active dying.” In active dying, Mom left the outside world alto¬gether. Her body sought to protect her vital organs for as long as possible. Her hands and feet first grew cool to the touch as blood was sequestered in the body’s core, protecting her heart, lungs, and brain. Over the course of the day, the coolness spread up her arms and legs; her breathing became erratic and labored.

Then, toward evening, a dozen or so of us at the house, who only two evenings before had attended her “going away” party, gathered again to witness her final breaths. We held one another as Mom’s breathing slowed and became shal¬lower. Finally, her heart stopped. Her brain allowed her three final breaths, then blessed silence.

At the time, I had been seated at the head of her bed with my arm draped lightly behind her. I felt the last of her life’s energy depart from her body.

Mom died as she had lived: first attending to the well-being of everyone else, making sure that everything was okay with others, then attending to herself. She had left us in the same way that she was with us: generous, caring, compassionate, and filled with love. She showed all of us a good life and a good death.

After her passing, Norma, Kathy, and Jill stayed with her body and gave Mom a final sponge bath. Jill was then nineteen. I don’t know how or why she stayed for the ritual, but I am pleased that she did. She has kept the Valentine’s bear that had been given to Mom only hours before.

I had expected more emotions from my family and me surrounding Mom’s departure. Then again, we had been grieving for the years subsequent to her diagnosis. The way she departed was so gentle and serene that a grievous out-pouring seemed inappropriate and unwarranted. She had departed giving love and surrounded by love. What possibly could have been better?

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