I wake up in the morning and, after a cup of coffee shared with my darling, I walk the dogs around the pond for their morning treat. Later, after starting a load of laundry or some picking up, I begin to prepare to head to my parents house for the daily visit. I try to take something each day. Either a new dish or some freshly baked cookies, or some other thing to brighten their day. Today I am taking my vacuum to clean out my dad’s new car. I never know what I will find when I get there. Will mom be down and depressed, worn out and unable to get herself going or will she be soldiering through her many infirmities with a minimum of self-pity or self-absorption? My dad will always be in a positive frame of mind when I get there and unless he has had an attack of colitis, which he has been having regularly lately; he is usually bright and happy for the company. We are careful not to tread on the topic of politics though. My father is a 93 year old dyed in the wool Fox News junkie and a Republican. I see things differently and Dad likes to bate me. He will start a conversation by informing me of what that “Muslim in the white house has done now”! I can usually deflect these comments but every now and then I get “hooked” and have to defend my position. These chats always end by me spending the rest of my day rassafrassing about what I would like to have said but didn’t because I’m crazy about the man and recognize that at his age the only thing he needs from me is love and compassion.
I go down every day now. It seems to help my mother get out of herself and engage in something other than her problems to have me come in. Mom always has a small task that she would like for me to do and I make sure the bathrooms are cleaned, dusting and vacuuming done and laundry washed each week. I also help with the yard work and my wonderful husband, Tom, comes down to do the heavy lifting of grass cutting, leaf blowing and snow plowing. But I see the changes happening to my parents. My dad is getting weaker day by day and he seems to be wasting. He knows his heart is weak and that it has one or more blockages. He knows the clock is ticking for him and he just wants to live until he dies. He has made his peace with death. Mom is also getting weaker but she appears to finally be coming to terms with her own death. She is beginning to find some peace in this natural process and she is smiling more and seems more at ease. Her blood pressure is still too high but she is 92 after all. It occurred to me today that I am watching my parents die one day at a time. They are slowly melting back into the earth with grace and courage. What a privilege it is to be a witness to the end days of these two people whom I love with all my heart and who have loved me unconditionally all my life. I cherish each hour I have to spend with them, to serve them, to care for them and to be present to and support their process as they reach the end of their well lived lives. I am conscious each time I leave them that it may be the last moment I may have them with me. I am conscious of the loss their passing will mean for me and my siblings and it scares me sometimes to think of life without their sweet faces smiling back at me. But the day is coming.
She smiled mischievously from behind the door when I got there this morning. She told me that she and dad were throwing zings at each other. “Do you mean barbs”, I said? She nodded. My dad said that my mother was blaming all of the weaknesses and shortcomings in their five children on his spermatozoa. She said they were to blame for everything. Mom laughed like she had been found out for doing something naughty and it was all a big joke. After dad left though, mom said that she has been wondering why my older brother Doug had had such a hard time in school. Mom then proceeded to reminisce about how she would spend every waking hour trying to prove to her in-laws, my grandparents, that she was the right woman for their son even though she came from a poor family and was a Catholic. Mom revealed that this mission she had been on, seeking my grandparent’s approval, kept her so busy and stressed she never had time to teach that little boy his ABC’s before he started school. I asked her if she blamed herself for his struggles then and she said she did and that it was just her pride that kept her seeking her in-laws approval. She also told me with vehemence that she had made sure the rest of the kids got a good education at a parochial school. Mom said she wrote every check to the church to insure her kids were getting the best. Mom became pensive when I asked her if she could forgive herself for having failed my brother, (in her perception). She couldn’t answer that question and simply deflected by stating that she thinks too much. I can see she needs a bit more love to get to self-forgiveness.
Mom seems to be seeing the past from a new perspective though. Rather than being the victim of so many things from her past she is starting to look at her part in creating her life. She is beginning to reconcile who she is with who she thought she was supposed to be and who she thought she was. She is beginning to allow love in. She is beginning to trust that, if I get angry, I won’t go away; and if she gets angry with me, I won’t go away either. She is facing her truth in this safety net of love. What courage it takes to face mortality! To know it’s too late to go back and change anything! What she needs now is all the love and compassion we all can give her to move through this difficult work. To die consciously is the pinnacle of a successful life, a life well lived and she and my dad are on their way to that end.
We often miss opportunities to be with those we love during these final chapters of life. We call or write, visit when we can out of obligation but we don’t really allow ourselves to be present to people who are going through this process. I suppose it is just too frightening to confront for most people. Then, when death is at the door, when our loved one has already started to separate from this physical plane, we show up at the hospital to “say goodbye”. That must be to make us feel good about ourselves because it’s already too late for that dying human being to be able to receive any love that might be coming their way. It’s just too late.
Look at how much unconditional love and compassion and attention we give a new born. That child is showered with love from parents, grandparents, great grandparents, siblings, aunties and uncles, neighbors and strangers. Love is poured into this small human being for several years. It is what allows him or her to feel safe, loved and secure enough to face life and the world. This is what we must do for our dying parents and grandparents. They deserve all of the compassion, understanding, patience and love we can muster during their last years. They are exiting a world they hardly recognize. Everything that was solid and true has been turned upside down and is being argued over by everyone. There is no external security any more. Their nation which they have loved is at war with itself. Externally, change is happening at such a rate that they are completely overwhelmed by it all and totally incapable of assimilating any of it. They feel betrayed by their bodies and helpless to do anything about it. They fear the unknown and are angered by their powerlessness. Yet they need to feel safe to die in peace. It is only when they feel safe and loved that they can they fully reconcile their lives because if there is no love or little love, (and I’m talking about love in action here), they will never feel secure enough in God’s love to face their shortcomings and know they are forgiven. It is only in this peaceful acceptance can they release the insanity of the physical plane and face death knowing they are loved. It is such a gift to witness the process of preparing for death. The more love an individual receives, the greater the reward to him or her and to the givers of that love. Conscious dying – it takes faith and courage and a lot of love and compassion from others but it is a priceless gift to those so blessed. My parents have earned that privilege.