“You need to come see your Mom.” While at the TCEA 2017 Convention, having just finished lunch and walking back across the Exhibit floor, my phone rang. Amidst the hustle and bustle of convention goers and exhibitors, the words that came into my ear were, “You need to come see your Mom. She is ‘actively dying.'” The words sent a chill down my spine. They made everything I had done that day inconsequential. I had known this moment would come, I just didn’t know it would arrive at this moment, Thursday, February 9, 2017.
|What a person look like before he finds out his mother is dying
I had just finished participating in a panel, and would give a presentation
after this panel. At the same time, my mother was due to begin her final journey.
“Are you sure?” Somehow, I doubted her, this person I had never met but who was now coordinating efforts to make my Mom comfortable in her final hours. As I sought out the nearest exit,
a quiet space where I could interrogate the registered nurse (RN) on hospice duty at Brookdale Assisted Living Center my Mom had spent the last 4 years at since her fall, I felt myself slip into the surreal, that moment when everything you know is changing and there’s not a darn thing you can do about it. I had experienced it before in my life, and I suppose, nothing prepares you for it. At first, I couldn’t believe the nurse on the other end of my phone. I dragged my rolly backpack behind me, my tie grasping with futility, like a frantic hope, at my neck. Inside, I knew it was over. Doubt plagued me each step, and I clamped down on my emotions. Now was not the time for doubt, for tears, for sorrow. Yet, a part of me wept. It was the same part of me that has wept every day since Mom entered the Assisted Living Center, though they loved her and cared for her. She had lost her independence and knew it…and hated it.
“How soon can you get here?” The question ended all hope that this was a mistake, a temporary setback that my Mom could rise up from. “Her rapid breathing, her unresponsiveness suggest she has suffered a stroke, or blood clot.” Why didn’t they know? Then, I remembered. Mom had wanted it this way. Hospice, not hospital. Nurses at bedside, her bed, not a sterile room staffed by doctors with MRIs and CAT scans waiting.
“She was fine this morning.” By all accounts, it had been a great day. My Mom had eaten breakfast, just as I had. All reports indicated she had been fine that morning. And, I had finished my two workshops for the day, the first a panel presentation, the second an exploration of ways to blend technology into teaching and learning. I was looking forward to connecting with others at the TCEA 2017 Conference. It was not to be.
“I’m in Austin right now. It will take me about 2 hours to get there from here.” With that, I hung up and moved quickly to pack my belongings, evacuating the hotel room, and leaving the Hilton, TCEA, and Austin in my rearview mirror. In moments, I had called my supervisor to let her know I was leaving. Then, I called my wife, asking if she could hold my Mom’s hand until I could get there. On the drive back to see my Mom, I used WhatsApp to notify my cousins in Panama. By the time I arrived in San Antonio, WhatsApp had become the hub for communications for family and friends.
“She gave a cry earlier today and then deteriorated quickly. She is actively dying.” A short time later, I arrived. It was worse than I feared. Mom could barely hear me, and a lone tear slipped from the corner of her right eye. I could tell she knew. This was it, the moment she had long-awaited with dread but also anticipation. When Dad died on October 7, 2006, she had given a primal shriek that caused something. Although doctors declared her fine, we both came to believe that this is when her brain tumor began to grow. It was an inoperable tumor that would affect her ability to control motor functions on her left side of the body, shrivel her left arm, bind her to a wheelchair, and affect her memory.
“Descansa, Mami.” As I patted her arm and hand, encouraging her to rest, my wife arranged for my son and daughter to say goodbye over the phone. Recognition was fleeting, perhaps a mirage we longed to see in the distance of her stare. I looked at my wife, then at the Chaplain who hung around in the room, shuffling papers. She knew. As Mom breathed in rapid shallow breaths, her mouth hanging open, the Brookdale Assisted Living Center support staff came in, kissing her and wishing her well. It was their way of saying goodbye. A resident came in, telling her how much she loved her. As she walked out, she hugged me. “I am waiting to die, too.” And, giving her a hug, I whispered, “I understand.” We stared into each other’s eyes, the truth one neither of us was afraid to admit. We would meet later, and she would hug me again, saying, “I loved your Mom. She is in a better place.”
“O Lord, into Your hands and into the hands of Your holy angels, this day I entrust my soul, my relatives…my mother.” The hands of Holy angels are the hands of the staff at Sterling House and those who provided hospice care.
In the few short hours since I arrived, my Mom was unconscious, not responding to stimulus, eyes blank.
In the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the priest anoints the seriously ill, injured, or the elderly with the oil of the sick. The oil of the sick is a special oil used for the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. It is blessed by the bishop at the Chrism Mass during Holy Week. Source: The Anointing of the Sick
“Do you know a priest who can administer Last Rites?” She asked the Chaplain. “Yes, I know several.” She also thought to call Fr. S., the priest and friend who had baptized and married our daughter. In a short time, we lamented but grateful, two priests were on their way. The first to arrive was Father K., an Irish priest whose administration of the sacrament so comforted me, I could only clutch my wife’s shoulder. I prayed for her absolution of sins, and to be honest, for mine. Surely, I could have done something else, something that would not have resulted in her being in this situation. But then, I would have to have been God myself to have dealt with her medical conditions. And, I was not.
A short time later, Fr. S. arrived. We had tried to cancel Fr. K. on finding out about Fr. S. coming, but to be honest, I was grateful. The same Sacrament, administered twice. Selfishly, I felt the power of the Last Rites again, praying my mother would feel it, experience it, say the prayers in her mind even thought she could not speak. “My God, might I receive the Sacrament of the Sick, too?”
Fr. S. hugged us, this older priest suddenly stronger and more animated than I had seen him before. I felt the tears rise up then retreat. Now was not the time to cry, not yet. We went home after a few more hours. It had been a long Thursday, this 9th of February.
“Your mother died at 9:30pm.” My wife and I had gone to pick up our son from an outing. We had just returned from spending time with Mom, noting only a small change for the worst. As we rushed back to the Assisted Living Center, it struck me that Mom had finally moved on to be with Dad. No longer would she ask, “How long will I be alive?” My response had always been to remind her that the women on her side of the family were long-lived…how long had Esmeralda, her mother and my grandmother, lived? The response always drew a smile to her lips. “You have ten more years to go, Mom!”
As I stepped into the room, I couldn’t help but see the nurse on duty and the RN on call already making phone calls, putting into action the plan we had all agreed to so long ago when death seemed an improbability. I didn’t want to walk to the bedroom where Mom lay. I had seen Dad die, his mouth gaping, gasping for breath. I had seen Mom do the same only two hours before.
She lay there, her mouth hanging open. Dark dots appeared around her nose, a face waxen and drained of life. I hope that in writing these words, they may wipe the memory from my mind so I remember her only as I saw her last (photo below) on February 4th, the Saturday before I drove up to Austin for my work.
|Mom earlier this week. She was to die a few days later.
“Let it out,” she said. My wife stood next to me, her hand on my shoulder. I began to feel the sobs start deep down, sobs I had not cried since my father died, when I walked the empty house where only the previous week we had met, ate, and enjoyed my children’s foolishness. As I clung to my wife, sobs working to crack the grip I kept on the dam behind my eyelids, I held onto the shard of a memory. When they stopped at last, I felt purged. No more the suffering, the brave face, only now the tears to wash away the sadness, to make open the way again. No more the silent weeping of the soul.
“My mother was Panamanian. She married a Jamaican, my father, and he took her back there from Panama.” When the nurses returned, my tears had been loosed, the sobs having shaken them free. Now, I could become what they made me, the executor, the person responsible for ensuring their final will would be done. As we chatted, the horror of death set aside for a short time, a person resembling my mother in the other room, the emptiness held in respectful silence, I discovered the RN was a Panamanian (Esther). That is, she was the daughter of a Panamanian and Jamaican. I marveled that at the last, it was a countrywoman–never having been to Panama–that made the call, who took care of my mother at the end. A profound sense of relief and gratefulness moved through me. Surely, God had arranged her life, from her parents’ meeting, to the immigration of their children, to Esther’s arrival in my Mother’s room at the final moment.
“God may not always give us what we want, but he does provide us everything we need. You can’t just ask for what you want all the time, because it might not be what God wants. So you must ask for what God wants.” The Book of Esther
“It is finished.” That is the Scripture quote that comes to mind. It is what the Gospel of John reports Jesus as saying at the end, before he gave up his spirit. Now that Mom is dead, but not yet buried, I am in limbo. I do not know whether I should read my Twitter and Facebook, do any work, or simply meditate on Scripture. In the end, I decided to do all of it. Life stops for no one, but Death, well, he dropped by at 9:30pm on February 10, 2017 for Adalgisa Guhlin de Gonzalez…mother, aunt, sister, grandmother, wife. No, it’s not quite finished for me and may never be.
“What did you learn?” Once, I thought dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease to be evil, robbing the aged, our parents of their precious memories. Now, I wonder. In the months before Mom’s death, she found moments of happiness with the staff. I saw her less depressed to be without my father, beginning to reach out to others. The paradox baffles me no more. Mom had found some measure of peace, whatever the cause, and now she was ready. All the suffering, the anger, the sadness, it led to this–that she might find, after difficulties and the loss of her love, her “happy thought” again.
I often tell my wife that we may only die when we have learned something, the one lesson that transforms us. The more stubborn you are, the longer it may take. And, trust me, stubborn is a family trait. Yet, we resist that lesson. Life can make us pliable, working to find the experience(s) that will teach us what we need to know before moving on. I’m reminded of Kahlil Gibran’s treatise on children, where he writes, “Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness.” It’s as if Jesus will not allow admittance to heaven, asking each, “What is the ONE lesson you learned that changed you for the better?” And, God, He gives us every chance to learn it, and then some. Better to be glad for the bending in His hand.
For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered? Source: Kahlil Gibran “On Death”
Mom became pliable. She was made of tough material and stronger for it. Another way to see it, I suppose, is the story of the starfish and the clam…pressure is applied in ways to make you open up and yield your treasure.
“The Gonzalez came out.” That was, one of my cousins said with a smile, a particular trait of the women in my mother’s family. When I look at my Mom, I see a woman of powerful passions, a woman whose small town perspective broadened in time combined with her learning, who worked hard to become more than her beginnings in Santiago, a small town in the county of Sonora in Panama. I remember the stories of her love for my father, her love for her only son. I remember her imperfections, the way she worked hard to get me angry to prove her points. I remember her fear when she realized her inoperable brain tumor was stealing her memory, the look of vulnerability in her eyes.
|May I always remember the love this little boy had for his mother,
and the love she had for him. Thank you, Mom. You gave all.
“I remember.” While Mom has moved on, a part of me remembers still, the sweet mother who listened to my stories, who bore me as long as she could. Who gave birth to me, a 4 pounds, 4 ounces premature child born at seven months, who reminded me of that birth every October 22nd at 6:30pm, who interceded when my father was angry. A mother, my mother, who did her best to raise me, who lost her temper, who taught me to deal with angry women, and later, who helped me learn that humor is the best way to defuse a situation. A mother who opposed my marriage, then loved her grandchildren. No longer will I hear the story from her lips, or see the pride she took in her students, students that often greeted her in the streets of Panama City, Republic of Panama, who thanked her for her work with them teaching mathematics in Panama’s public schools. Life has fled, but I remember her as she was, fierce and brave and can only stop to sigh.
One of my favorite quotes is Helen Keller’s. “Life is a daring adventure or nothing.” For Mom, full of courage, vim and vigor, I can only say, it was the former.
I remember the empanadas she made, the chile con carne, the arroz con pollo she made me. I remember the love my mother had for me. Imperfect, flawed, angry, suspicious, loving, beloved, forgiven.
I remember. And, I pray that my own children will forgive me when my time comes to say goodbye. I hope they will remember, we are only human, flawed, here to learn from the Teacher so that we may advance to the divine.
Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure