On May 6, 1997, my mom passed away from breast cancer, with me by her side. Let me tell you the story of this transition. You can listen to an audio version (yes, that’s me singing), or read the transcript here on the blog. My takeaway remains: we are called to be present every single moment.
Prognosis: three months
We were shocked. It had been almost five years since my Mom’s original diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer, and now it had spread. “Three months!” she cried, “That’s not enough,” and then she stubbornly lived for three more years.
She lived deeply. She enrolled in an experimental treatment protocol, and considered the weekly six-hour round trip between the farm and the hospital as a “fun day trip” with my Dad. My parents traveled, adding a few more miles to their motorhome. She celebrated high school graduations for a few more grandchildren, and welcomed lucky grandchild #13, named William, after her, Wilma.
Eventually, her condition worsened. She ended treatment and we worked with Hospice to help at home. Her mobility became more and more limited, and so I went home often to help my dad with her care. One day, in a fairly medicated haze, she grabbed my hand and told me, “You are my favorite nurse.”
Although she had begun to fade in and out of consciousness, she liked having people around and so we planned a large combined birthday party for all of the April and May birthdays. To help her get ready, I climbed into the hospital bed with her to fix her hair, there in the living room, where she lay dying. It’s the last photo I have of me and my mom together.
A few nights later, three of us decided to stay in the house with my parents: me, my brother Roger, and my sister Denise. The plan was that we were each going to take turns sleeping and then sitting with Mom. Earlier in the day, there had been a huge spring storm with thunder and lightning, which had flooded the basement. Dad set a pump to drain the water, and then he took the first turn sitting with Mom. I was in bed asleep when a loud rasping noise woke me. Disoriented, I ran into the living room and saw that my dad had fallen asleep in the chair next to my mom, holding her hand. While he was snoring really loudly, that wasn’t what had woken me. It was that the pump had done its job and was now taking in air. “Dad, turn off the pump and go to bed. I’ll sit with Mom.” He stood, kissed my mom, and said “Good bye, honey, good bye” and then walked off to his room.
I took my seat in what felt like already a very holy space. In the dim light I could see her breathing lightly. In my heart, I could sense that she was getting ready to take her leave. I was now there as her witness, after having been her nurse and daughter and friend. I took her hand and as I sat there, I felt moved to sing to her.
Let go into the mystery.
Let yourself go.
You’ve got to open up your heart.
That’s all I know.
Let go into the mystery
Let yourself go
And when you open up your heart
You get everything you need
At 3 AM, her breathing gradually slowed and then stopped. I waited. Another 30 seconds passed. I felt completely open. At peace. It felt so natural. I whispered, “Did you really just do that – with me?” Smiling. Not yet crying. I was honored to be the witness to her passing. I waited a few more minutes in that space, and then began to shift back into action. I woke my siblings, and then my dad. We gathered by her bedside one last time, then called the funeral home and slipped from that holy space back into routine and action. Coffee. Breakfast. Calls. Receiving family.
There really is no guidebook or preparation for what to do when someone dies in your presence. I simply had to BE there in that moment, to let go into the mystery with my own heart open wide. To honor the holy moments of silence. And then to honor the next steps, the tactical actions that followed.
I believe that when our hearts are open, we are MOVED.
I believe that when our hearts are open, healing becomes possible.
I believe that when our hearts are open, that’s where the magic happens.
In that moment with my mom, as she took her last breath, I was stretched open by both love and loss, in the same moment, in the same breath.
None of us know whether we have 3 years or 3 months or 3 days, 3 minutes or even 3 breaths.
And yet we are called to be present EVERY SINGLE MOMENT. With each breath, expand our heart just a little bit. Even when it’s hard. Even when society tells us to harden our heart, shut it down, close it off.
We can breathe every breath as if it’s our last. We can practice being fully present in every moment. We can pause to honor those great transitions like birth and death, and we can celebrate the everyday moments filled with laughter and love and life.
Wherever life takes you, whatever you witness, as Van Morrison reminds us, when you open up your heart, you get everything you need.
You’ve got to dance and sing
And be alive in the mystery
And be joyous and give thanks
And let yourself go