The sun beat down on the Pacific Ocean, hugging Catalina and Santa Barbara islands. I sat with palm trees behind me, having coffees with my brother and his wife on his 36th birthday. This was our tiny reprieve, our guilty pleasure in what would otherwise appear to be paradise. Just a few miles away my sweet mom lay dying in bed at home. Somewhat of a portly lady, though always chic, her body had withered to a mere 80 pounds. She wasn’t talking anymore, just gasping for air. She sounded terrible, and she would often moan in pain. It pierced my heart to think she was suffering.
My mom’s dose of Dilaudid could have probably taken out a horse, but she needed it. She needed so much of it that my dad, an MD, finally turned over the reigns and called hospice for help. I was relieved that he let someone else be in charge. He needed someone to take care of him.
The hospice doctor told me she was comfortable, that the sounds didn’t necessarily indicate the discomfort that I imagined. He also told me that hearing is the last thing to go. “She knows you’re there.” So, I sat by her. I lay by her. I rubbed her head, held her hand, and I talked to her. “I love you, mom. I’m proud of you, and I’m sorry for being mean sometimes.” Daughters can be unreasonable with the unconditional love of a good mother.
I kept saying, “You’re doing great. You’ll be with me forever, but it’s ok to go. I’m going to be fine.” I know she worried about me. She wanted me to be married and have kids. She wanted to see it. I told her she would be right there. I feared that she would pass on my brother’s special day. He said it would be a gift if God took his mother to the best place on earth. But she waited. I think she waited for me to come back from New York. I think she waited to have one more, full day with her family, and I personally think she wanted Steve to have a birthday without the memory of her loss.
On Friday morning, the day after his birthday, we woke up and knew that she would pass soon. Her heart could no longer pump blood to her legs. They were cold. The nurse said she could live another 24 hours. The thought of watching her slowly chill was torture. I walked out of her room, and I wailed. My dad was downstairs, and later told me he thought she had gone. That was one of the hardest moments for me. I cried hysterically, and then calmed myself down so that I could be strong for her – and present.
I went back to her bedside and took her hand. My brother Steve moved onto the bed, and rested his head by hers, holding her other hand. My dad came up and sat at the foot of her bed with his hands on her legs. We were all there, talking about her resilience, how she battled pancreatic cancer, a formidable beast, for 16 months – far longer than most. We were praising her character, all of us holding her. I looked over my shoulder, and when I brought my eyes back to her, she was gone.
“I think she stopped breathing.” My brother chirped, “Did you just go to heaven?” And my dad walked around to his bedside table for the stethoscope. He placed it on her chest twice, “No heartbeat.” My sister-in-law was getting the coffees. I sat with her body until the mortuary came – probably two hours later. I watched and felt as she cooled. We all cried, told stories and laughed a bit. My dad had to go outside on the balcony at one point, and my brother wanted to follow him out to provide comfort. “Let him be.” His wife said,” He needs these moments. His grief is different.” It’s true. I don’t remember when, but I know he asked for one more kiss. He said she was the best kisser, and he apologized for the way he was hard. “You were better than me.”
My brother was quick to say his final goodbye to her body. I didn’t want to leave, but I was second. I placed my chest across hers to give her one more full, long hug. As a yoga teacher, I counted my breath. 8 inhales. 8 exhales. I savored each one while my heart split into a million pieces. It was my dad’s turn when I finished. I wanted to do it again, but I felt that his hands should be the last ones to touch her. I gave him a few moments alone.
When I walked downstairs, I saw these two, overweight men in suits. They stood solemnly with their hands behind their backs. “I’m sorry for your loss.” FUCK YOU. I was mad at them. I couldn’t look at them. I certainly couldn’t talk to them. It was one of few angry moments. They were just doing their job.
I look back on that actual moment of death. As soon as she passed, her body was just a shell. She was gone, and my undefined spirituality felt somehow clearer. We leave these bodies like hermit crabs that abandon the shells that no longer fit. They’re just cases. The animating force, the spirit no longer inhabits the familiar shape that we know and love, the shapes that we recognize. Knowing that in my heart made burying her easier, but again I didn’t want to leave the casket.
I don’t have a real clear idea about what’s next, and I’m not overly concerned with it either. I just know that something continues, and I know that how we live matters. The moments of connection with people – they matter. They have a life of their own, and a reverberation that we can’t know. I live for those moments. I’ve developed a career around cultivating those moments.
I was lucky to have so many with my mom. In the months that preceded her death, we maximized our time and our conversations. I remember the last time we went shopping. She loved to shop – mostly because she loved to give. We went to Saks in Beverly Hills, and had a ladies lunch. Salads. Ice teas. Pretty things. Her kind of day! At the end, my strong and fit legs were tired. I can’t imagine how she felt, but she didn’t want to leave. She loitered in the store, wanting to look and smell just a little longer. She was in pain, but I think she knew it would be her last time, and she wanted it to last forever.
On our way home, I asked her what she thought of death. In the sweetest voice I’ve ever heard, just as we passed LAX, she said, “Well, it’s kind of like going to the airport. You don’t know where you’re going to go, but you know it’s going to be wonderful. The only thing is – it’s a one-way ticket, and there won’t be any phones.” I marveled at her courage. My mom loved to travel. We were lucky enough to go on a family cruise along the Danube last Fall. We pushed her around in her wheelchair, and she took in as much as she could. She adored the time we all shared as a family. We all did.
My dad told me she was talking about a Mississippi River Boat Cruise until the day that she died. I love that she looked at death as a trip. The last time I asked her if she was afraid, she said, “I’m about as scared as I would be going on a big vacation.”
She knew death was coming. “I’m going home soon, Lauren. Do two things. Marry a good man. It will make everything easier for you. And, give. Give as much as you can, and give anonymously.” My mom liked to give because it was the right thing to do. She didn’t give for recognition. In fact, she didn’t want any. My mom was shy. She didn’t like her picture taken. She was a far better listener than a talker, and she loved with a full heart.
Sharing about my mom helps me to make sense of it all, and it comforts me. Inevitably, when I do share, people open up. They relate. They tell me about their losses – breakups, deaths, divorces, you name it. I believe in talking about the hard stuff because I can’t enjoy the good stuff if I don’t.
It’s been 37 days since she died. When I look up at the clouds, or watch the sun set, I feel her. I feel her inside of me, urging me to live, to love, to share, to give and to travel. As the dust settles, I feel too that I can move my arms and legs again. I’m excited to see where I’ll go.