Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Whispering our stories

This Friday, it will be four years since my mom died.

This week I am reliving her last days. 

I had traveled from Ontario to PEI to spend a week with Mom and Dad in their apartment. Mom had been diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer several weeks earlier, and her prognosis (made tentatively, as all prognoses must be in cases like this) was 3-6 months.

The days started early: Dad is an early riser, and Mom would often be stirring before 7 a.m. Dad and I would help Mom to the bathroom, help her dress if she wanted to, help her to the breakfast table. Early in that week she would spend hours in the recliner chair in the living room, drifting in and out of sleep, sometimes making clear-yet-confused remarks.

"I wonder when this whole process is going to be over. I wish they'd just decide what day it's going to be."

"What, Mom?"

"The funeral, and all that."

"God will tell you when it's time," Dad said.

If the days started early, they ended early too -- at least for Mom and Dad. Often we would get Mom ready for bed right after supper; then Dad might decide to turn in as well, and soon I'd hear the two of them snoring away. I spent long hours in the evenings, reading, writing emails to my brothers, answering the phone, giving updates to relatives and friends.

It was mid-week when the shift to the next phase took place. Dad and I got up on the Wednesday morning, but Mom was deep in sleep. "Let's just let her be," I said, and Dad agreed -- as did the home care nurse when she arrived for her morning visit. "I think we are looking at days, not weeks, at this point," she said. "We may want to have the palliative team come."

That afternoon, while my mom slept, my dad and I, my brother, my aunts and uncle and cousin sat around the living room as the palliative care doctor and nurse explained what we could expect over the next few days and what options we had. Dad wanted to keep Mom home instead of having her admitted to the palliative unit. The doctor, who was warm and gentle, said that was fine and that we could change our minds at any time. The nurse, who was straightforward and a bit crusty, handed us her card and said, "If she's doing very poorly or you can't cope, don't call 911. Call me." There was a feeling of both apprehension and peacefulness in the room: we all realized the end was coming quickly, but we knew we were surrounded with people who would support Mom and us through the final stage.

The doctor told us about the medications they would prescribe to keep Mom comfortable over the last days; then she went into Mom's room and examined her. This was the first and last time they would see one another. "How are you feeling, Meredith?" the doctor asked kindly, taking Mom's hands.

"I think I just want to go," Mom said.

Four days after that, she died. I wasn't there for her last moments: I flew home the morning of the 28th, and she died that night. It had been a difficult decision, because I was needed in two places, but it was the right decision, and I knew she would agree. I had to let go of the desire to be there at the last. And when I said goodbye to her, she could no longer talk to me. Her eyes were wide and she moved her mouth, trying to speak, but she couldn't say any words. I had to let go of the wish for one last meaningful, mutual conversation. Perhaps she did, too: perhaps on some level she knew the moment was slipping away and couldn't be recaptured.

Over the past few days as I've been reliving and writing about these details, these moments, I found myself wondering why I am holding on to them so tightly -- why I have saved the emails and the Facebook messages and have read them over and over.

Before bed I sometimes like to read poetry to relax my mind. Last night I picked up John Blase's beautiful book of poems, The Jubilee, and opened it at random -- to this poem.

I Don't Believe I've Ever Told You

Are you ever afraid of dying?
I'm not talking about
the dying that will deposit you
directly into the Lord's presence (as some hold).
But the dying that will tear
you from the fabric of here,
here where you've seen wonders.
I don't believe I've ever told you I fear
that second kind of dying. But I do.
I'm telling you now because I've recently
seen how life changes in an ordinary instant,
reminds us we live in a game of gossip,
whispering our stories to the next in line.
We die. Then we're passed along in
another's tongue, and I'm afraid they'll
edit a crucial detail.

And instantly I understood. Yes. I want those details kept and known, exactly as they are. These are the words she used. This is what the room felt like. This is how she looked as I said goodbye.

But those are just my "crucial details." Maybe Mom had her own details that she hoped, at the end, wouldn't be edited out. I remember a couple of times in her last years she said to me, "Do you remember me yelling at you kids?" I was a mom myself by then, and each time I just laughed and said, "Oh, not at all -- I must have blocked it out." I realize now she was asking me, "Was I a good mother?" and I evaded the question with a joke. Now I wish I had answered a little more pointedly: "I do remember that -- but I also remember what a wonderful, caring, involved, sacrificial mom you've been. A little yelling can't change that." When I sat at her bedside for the last time, I told her she had been the best mom. I'm honestly not certain she understood me, but I choose to believe she did. And I have to let go, too, of my regret over not giving her more heartfelt reassurance back in those times when she was so obviously seeking it.

And maybe that's kind of the point. At the end of his poem, John Blase leaves his fears unresolved -- and I'm glad. I'm glad he doesn't tie the poem up neatly with platitudes like "But we can't worry about that because it's in God's hands" or "But what seems significant to us is nothing in the larger scheme of things." The details do matter. It's natural to want to be known and seen, to have our story "passed along" in a truthful way -- a way that acknowledges both our simplicity and our complexity. Yet because we're all human, we don't always do that perfectly for one another.

But we can do our best to honour the details, the memories, the words. After we've given them the attention they deserve, then maybe we can decide what needs keeping ... and what needs letting go.

Top photo by Richard Prinsen, 2012.
Bottom photo by unknown - Mom in the meadow, 1935.
Poem "I Don't Believe I've Ever Told You" by John Blase, from The Jubilee (published 2017).


I'm adding this post to Addie Zierman's "Let Go" linkup. Addie is one of my favourite bloggers -- and as I wrote my own post, the theme of her linkup became a source of inspiration.


  1. This is really beautiful Jeannie. I was particularly moved by the last part, where you talk about that tension in which we understand how crucial the details are...but also how transient. So much gets lost and forgotten over time. This line was stunning: "we can do our best to honour the details, the memories, the words. After we've given them the attention they deserve, then maybe we can decide what needs keeping ... and what needs letting go." Yes. Thank you so much for linking up and for sharing. So grateful.

    1. Thank you, Addie. I wanted to write about my mom this week, but I really didn't know where to start. Your linkup provided the direction and John's poem gave voice to some of my thoughts and feelings. So it was really a collaboration. I look forward to reading the other contributions to your linkup and to your thoughts afterward.

  2. I was moved by this - the poem especially. tangible memories of the details of my deceased Dad's face and hands. His favorite shirt that he wore most Saturdays . . .

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Jim. Isn't it amazing, what stays with us? The details matter so much.

  3. Visiting from Addie Zierman's blog :) This is gorgeous. That poem--wow. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Beth. Yes, the poem - WOW is right. And I couldn't believe I opened the book randomly and instantly found something that spoke so perfectly to the situation. It was amazing.

  4. "I had to let go of the desire to be there at the last."

    I have a hard time letting go of desires like that. A really hard time. The fact that you did it and were able to be home with your family while knowing your mother was cared for by more family is encouraging to me. I think I might be able to let go of desires too, and not resent those lost desires but to accept the limitations common to us all. We can't be two places at once, we can't give everyone all the time they might want from us, we can't be strong enough to handle everything that comes our way.

    But we can encourage each other. That's what you did for your mom and dad, and that's what you've done for me here today.

    1. I'm glad to hear that, Tim. The decision was made through lots of talking and processing, mainly with Richard. Early that week when my mom started declining so quickly we discussed the options, realized we weren't ready to decide, waited, discussed them again, waited, discussed them again. I knew it wasn't all up to me to give support to my dad; 2 of my brothers were there as were other relatives. Richard also told me that if I stayed on and my mom died, he would not feel safe/comfortable driving the 1800km alone with the kids to attend the funeral - which I totally understood. So we decided, if Mom had not died by my flight time, I'd go home; if she had died, I would stay, and Richard and the kids simply would not be able to come down for the funeral. So whichever way things ended up, I would know we had made the right decision, together. That freed me to be ok with whatever happened. I realize people don't always have that luxury because there is pressure from time or from others. But in this case I was able to have peace with it.

  5. Beautiful. I love your edited response to your mom. And I love your realization that the details matter.

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment, Ruth. It's great to have you here!

  6. What hard, precious words! I am so blessed to still have my mom but living far away is stressful at this stage in her life. Thank you for reminding me to say the words I want to say while I have the chance, not only to her but to my own children. I know this must have been difficult and also freeing to write. I so admire you for being able to express your thoughts so beautifully!

    1. Thank you, Cindy. Yes, I know what you mean about living far away. I now live 1500km from where I was born and grew up, so when Mom was sick/dying it was hard to be so far away. We still make a point of visiting my dad every summer, oftener if possible. You just never know how long you or your loved ones have.


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