The Gift of: A Happy Death

O Blessed Joseph, who died in the arms of Jesus and Mary, obtain for me, I beseech you, the grace of a happy death. In that hour of dread and anguish, assist me by your presence, and protect me by your power against the enemies of my salvation. Into your hands, living and dying, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, I commend my soul. Amen

March 10th 2016 will mark three years since my Mom passed away.

I’ve written about Mom in the past – this one is the fan favorite.

I wanted to write about so many things today in an effort to celebrate this most blessed anniversary of hers.

But after several drafts and re-writes, it seems I’m supposed to write about those 3 days. A Friday, Saturday and a Sunday 3 years ago.

Clearly, this will be a brief version with just the highlights.

There were many of us in the family that were there those 3 days but in an effort to protect their privacy, I’d like to just share my own views of those final days of my Mom’s life.


 

She requested hospice on a Friday and was gone by Sunday. 3 days…just like someone else we know.

“I hope I’m making the right decision.” She just kept repeating that…over and over. How do you even respond to that?

She was incredibly lucid in those first hours, especially that first day, to the point where we were in disbelief that the hospice nurse said she wouldn’t last more than 2 more days.

“But it’s Friday! What do you mean she won’t make it the weekend? This IS the weekend!”

It’s incredibly surreal – The hospice nurses instruct you when and how to administer the morphine and it’s like watching a movie, almost like it’s happening to someone else’s family.

“Will she tell us when she needs the morphine? How do we know if it’s too much? Or not enough?”

But then it becomes too real and you just want it to be over. But you can’t wish for that because this isn’t your battle. This is hers and you just have to be there.

We were told that she is going to go through a “life review” which at first you don’t quite believe but then you actually witness it. And it’s heartbreaking and mesmerizing and awesome and awful all at once.

By Saturday we had to laugh at certain points because if we didn’t we’d go nuts.

“She’s going to be so mad when she sees what she’s wearing and that we let the hospice nurses see her like this.”

The worst moment for me – I sat at her feet when she was in the recliner (before she had to move to the hospital bed) and just looked up at her and realized this was it. I cried at her feet and I can still hear her saying and repeating, “It’s okay, it’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”

She eventually she had to be moved to the hospital bed. She just kept looking at it. She knew her own mother died shortly after being moved from the recliner to the hospital bed. I’m sure that’s what she was thinking. I know she was trying to prolong her stay here as long as she could. Not for herself, but for us. To spare us the pain of seeing her die.

She said goodbye to my nephews who recorded a beautiful voicemail for her that we played on speaker so everyone could hear. The look on her face as she listened was pure joy. I had never seen her smile like that in weeks. It was probably the most heartbreaking moment of all as we realized this was the last time she’d hear their young voices. Her grandsons were her source of joy. Hands down, they were her world. Especially Sean since he was so young and so oblivious to what was happening to “G.”

Time for a sidenote/side story:

Just two weeks prior to her death, she had ended up in the hospital again to drain fluid from her lungs. I was having a particularly bad time dealing with this and went over to my sisters to see the boys. Sean (the younger of the two) was hanging out with my brother-in-law. Out of the blue he pointed out that “Daddy has a cut on his head from shaving.” I glanced and saw, yes indeed he had a tiny cut on his head. Sean was asking me to look at it. I said I saw it but was clearly preoccupied with my Mom’s illness to not particularly care all that much.  Sean looked me in the eye and said in his sweet little 4 year old voice: “I’m going to pray that my Dad is healed from that cut. Because you know what auntie? God hears my prayers. Did you know that? He hears my prayers.”

Twice. My nephew said this twice and looked at me in the eye as if he was channeling someone.  I just looked at him and almost started crying. I wanted to tell him, “God DOES hear your prayers. And right now can you please pray that G is healed? Please?! I don’t want to lose my Mom!”

But I didn’t. I just remember that moment as being so surreal. How innocent a child prays. It wasn’t even a question – “Do you think God hears my prayers??” It was a STATEMENT. “God hears my prayers Auntie.” I will never forget that.

Sunday – I remember that morning as the one that my Mom saw her Dad. She spoke to him and said things like “Daddy, I’m afraid.”

“Afraid?  This wasn’t in the brochure! She’s not supposed to be scared!”

She also said things that were incomprehensible as she flowed in and out of lucidity. Sometimes her eyes were opened and she spoke but you could tell she wasn’t talking to us. I don’t recall responding too often so as not to confuse her. But I also felt like if I spoke or responded to her, that would be…rude. 🙂  She was clearly having a private conversation with someone and I was not about to interfere with that.

It was a sunny day and I thought “What a beautiful day to leave and go home!”  However, things didn’t progress that well. In fact, we called the hospice nurse on call to tell us what to do. We were concerned she was in pain! After all, she kept saying she was afraid. So that must mean she’s in pain, right?

“She’s in spiritual pain. Have you prayed with her?” – the hospice nurse asked.

The look on my face was complete embarrassment.

Had I prayed with my mother on her deathbed?  NO! Duh!!! What the heck was wrong with me?

I prayed with her as best I knew. I think many of us said the Our Father because that seemed to be the only prayer we all knew.

“How do you pray with someone who can’t hear you and can’t speak?”

I was clueless.

Sunday evening – We called her priest to come and give her last rites. He also managed to ask a question I was all too embarrassed to NOT know the answer to –

“What’s your mother’s favorite prayer?”

I went from feeling like a decent daughter to being the worlds worst. I had never even bothered to ask my Mother’s favorite prayer.

We ended up praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet at her bedside which I think she would have approved.

Shortly before she passed, I ran out of “prayers” and instead took all the cards anyone had ever sent her and read them all out loud to her. I took her hand, told her it was okay for her to go and said I would see her in the morning.

My dad took over the “shift” change.

I went up to bed and prayed and cried to God to please ease my Mom’s sickness.

An hour later she passed away with my Dad at her side.

I don’t even recall crying. I immediately thought God heard my prayer just an hour before.  (Thanks to Sean for restoring my faith in prayer).


 

My Mom was always happy and forever smiling during her life and in countless pictures.

As her body lay there, I stared at her. She looked so….GOOD! As if she would just sit up and say, “What are you looking at? Be happy for me! I’m home!”

I couldn’t help but think …

…that’s how you die a happy death.

 

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For those who have lost a loved one…

From The Holy Longing by Ronald Rolheiser

“Just as Mary Magdala did not find Jesus in his tomb, we too will not find our loved ones there. Where will we find them? We will meet the ones we can no longer touch when we put ourselves in situations where their souls once flourished. Our loved ones live where they have always lived and it is there that we will find them.

Simply put, we find our deceased loved ones by entering into life, in terms of love and faith, in the way that was most distinctive to them. We contact them and connect ourselves to them when, in our own lives, we shape the infinite richness of God’s life and compassion in the way that they did, when we pour ourselves into life as they did.

Every good person shapes the infinite life and compassion of God in a unique way. When that person dies, we must seek him or her among the living.

Thus, if we want a loved one’s presence we must seek him or her out in what was most distinctively him or her, in terms of love, faith, and virtue. If your mother had a gift for hospitality, you will meet her when you are hospitable; if your friend had a passion for justice, you will meet him when you give yourself over to the quest for justice; if your aunt had a great zest for life, for meals with her family, and for laughter in the house, you will meet her when you have a zest for life, eat with your family, and have laughter in your house.

That is how a Christian searches for his or her loved ones after they have died. Theists visit graves (and Christians too visit graves because we are also theists) but, given the incarnation, given that we are all part of the word becoming flesh, as Christians, we search for our deceased loved ones outside of cemeteries, among the living— at our tables, in our places of work, and in the decisions, great and small, that we must daily make.”

Fit in Your Faith Today: How do you “revisit” your lost loved ones? When was the last time you engaged in something that made you think of him/her? Besides visiting the grave, what else can you do, after reading this passage, that keeps the memory of your loved one alive?

Mom Comes Home

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My mom passed away one year ago today and ever since, I have been adding a little bit here and there to this blog post, knowing I’d want to publish something on the anniversary of her death.

At first I was going to write about her life.  And maybe someday I will.  But now right now.  Today I want tell you the journey she took to her final resting place.

She was diagnosed in August of 2009 with a rare type of T-cell lymphoma.  She had already been displaying strange symptoms since March of that year but it took months of tests to finally diagnose her.  After 6 rounds of chemotherapy, she was declared to be in remission by her oncologist.  We celebrated that Thanksgiving.  It seemed it was a miracle, although we were warned this type of cancer could come back in a few years and chemo might not work.

That news did not deter my Mom from living her life as “wild” as a 62year old could.  She spent as much time doing things she enjoyed and said YES a lot more than she said NO.  She would babysit my nephews more often.  She would attend my nephews baseball games and come with us to Cedar Point and went to every wedding and graduation party she was invited to.  Lots of lunches and dinners with friends and family as often as possible.

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In June of 2012, she started having symptoms again.  This time, all the tests came back negative for lymphoma.  But it was obvious to all of us, and her, that something wasn’t right.  This time instead of a cough and a rash, it was stomach pain.  And back pain.  And loss of her voice.  Although her voice never completely went away, it was probably one of the worst things to happen to her.  See, she was quite the gabber.  She talked to my sister every morning over the phone for years!  She’d chat with friends over lunch, she’d chat with her customers at the bridal store she worked at.  That was all gone once she lost her voice.  Not to mention the pain she was in was heartbreaking to witness.

Now, I’d come downstairs to see her in the recliner, sleeping, or trying to sleep, and in pain.  The worst was the feeling of hopelessness as you watch someone in pain and there’s nothing you can say or do to help.  Too sick to go to work.  Too tired to go anywhere.  Too weak to even move off the recliner.  This went on for most of the summer until August when removal of her lymph node confirmed that her cancer was back.  It had been a frustrating time since every other test did not show the cancer.  But her oncologist said it was the type that hides.  Well, it stayed hidden for months.

The chemo this time around was changed slightly to treat the cancer.  And after a few treatments it seemed to be working.  As anyone who knows someone or is on chemo will tell you, it’s like a rollercoaster.  She had her good weeks when she was able to have enough energy to shop and visit with friends and she had bad weeks when it took many days to recover from the chemo.

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By the time Christmas came around, it seems as though she took a turn for the worse.  It became harder for her to breathe and she seemed weak.  She didn’t want to sleep for fear of not waking up.  She slept downstairs in the recliner and there was always someone with her at all times.  A few days before Christmas she went into the hospital and it didn’t look good.  We weren’t sure she would be home for Christmas at all.  But she was determined.  She knew the situation wasn’t good but she also knew she didn’t want to die in a hospital.  She insisted to her doctor that she was going to go home.  I believe his initial reaction was, “We’ll see.”  But my Mom was quite stubborn.  There was no way she was going to miss Christmas.

The situation was so grim, that she actually sat with me in the hospital and told me her final wishes.  It wasn’t really a conversation.  It was definitely one-sided as she spoke and I cried.  She told me the dreams she had for me, she told me how she knew everyone would be okay but that we should look after each other.  She did say something quite funny actually:  “Michelle, oh you don’t need any man in your life so you’ll be okay.”  🙂  Thanks Mom, ha!

But she also said some sad things like “I don’t think Sean will remember me.”

“I don’t have any regrets in my life…but I do feel like I’m being cheated a little bit.   I really wanted to watch Matthew play baseball one more time.”

“I’ve never been afraid of dying and I’ve always been a faithful person…but I’m wondering where is my faith right now?”

“I know this last round of chemo won’t save me.  But if I could just have a few more months…”

Well, God heard her prayers, all of our prayers.  Because the next day she got the all clear to come home.

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The first thing she insisted on doing when we got her home was to finish wrapping the Christmas gifts.  She could barely lift the scissors and the tape but she insisted.  She was adamant about celebrating Christmas.  It was always her favorite holiday, especially to see the look on my nephews faces as they opened up their gifts.  And us too.

As we celebrated Christmas that year, it was clear this was going to be her last.  You didn’t want to think about it, you didn’t want to believe it.  But you knew.  And you knew that she knew.

January and February of 2013 were pretty good.  We actually had hope for a little bit.  The best was when her voice came back.  I came down the stairs to the sound of my Mom on the phone with my Aunt.  I said, “Your voice Mom!!! It’s back!”  She was glowing, she was so excited.  It was the first REAL evidence that there was some hope here.

But, most of the time, you could tell she didn’t want to get her hopes up too high.  None of us did.  I always prayed for her to be healed.  To be cured.  I couldn’t help but think, “Are my prayers just being ignored?  What gives?”

Mom had one more GREAT day.  She got to spend it with my aunt at the casino downtown and eating Paczki on Fat Tuesday.  She said to my Aunt,  “This was the best time I’ve had.”  She took this picture of her in the car, with her paczki of course.

Fat Tuesday with a Paczki!
Fat Tuesday with a Paczki!

It was literally a week or two later that she was fine one day and bad the next.  You always hear about how that happens and you always think, “Oh I’m sure they’re exaggerating.”  No really, she was really okay one day and the next day she couldn’t breathe.  She went in to get the fluid drained from around her lungs and her heart and while she was there she sent all of us a text that said: “Hospice worker coming at one. Can you come?”

Well that pretty much knocked the wind out of me.  It was one thing for one of US to think about hospice.  But when SHE is initiating it…that changes the ball game.

Ironically, when we all walked in around the same time, my Mom looked better than ever.  She looked like she never had cancer.  It was the strangest sight.  The hospice worker even looked at her like, “Ummm…are you sure you need hospice?”

But that was our Mom’s gift to us.  She knew none of us would ever recommend or even say the word hospice unless she said it first.  It had to be her decision.

It was clear from talking to hospice that Mom wasn’t quite there yet and she had options.

She came home the next day though and we thought, “Okay maybe she has more time than we thought.  Maybe this isn’t so bad.”

About a week later, she was back in the hospital again.  This time she couldn’t breathe again, and needed to be drained, again.  But as soon as they drained her, shortly thereafter, the fluid was back.  It was getting to be too much and they couldn’t keep up with the drainage.

She needed to be put into a wheelchair to get back into the car.  And when she came home we needed to help her into the house.  That’s when she changed right in front of my eyes.

Her voice became tiny and high pitched, and she said her legs felt “weird” and she said she was ashamed and embarrassed that she needed a wheelchair to get into her own house.  We told her not to worry about it but you could tell the life that was inside her was diminishing.  I looked at her for the first time and she looked like she aged 20 years in that minute.

Two days later she asked for hospice.  She sat there with me and told me “This is no way to live.  Call hospice, it’s time.”  I didn’t argue with her.  I don’t think I even cried.  I was more just in shock  that this was happening.

I stopped praying for healing or a cure.  I knew it wasn’t because God wasn’t answering my prayer, He was trying to tell me I was praying for the wrong thing.  This time, I prayed for her to go home.

3 days later, she took her last breath with my Dad at her side.  Those three days were quite possibly the most beautiful moments as well as the most awful three days of my life.  No one should have to see a loved one dying in front of them.  But there were moments from that weekend I will never forget and some day I will write a nice long post about it.

Until then, I take comfort in the memories I have of my beautiful mother.  The notes she left us that we found at Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas.  The pictures of her around this huge empty house.  The sound of her voice and her laugh that I still have on saved voicemails and videos.  And of course, the look on people’s faces when they speak about her.  I have given up trying to tell people how amazing she was.  They simply will never know her and as much as it hurts and pains me to know that YOU will never know who she was, it’s okay now.  She lives on in me and my sister and my brother and my nephews.  So if you ever want to get to know her, just ask me.

I could talk about her forever.

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