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"I got to thinking one day about all those women on the Titanic who passed up dessert at dinner that fateful night in an effort to 'cut back.' From then on, I've tried to be a little more flexible."
(Erma Bombeck)

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Main | My mom is dying and it's torture to witness »
Saturday
Aug052017

Losing Mom

Virginia and Don Benedict, 1946

I've put off writing this blog post because it seemed like it would be bottomless. Where to even begin?

Mom died on Thursday, July 6, 2017, at Skagit Valley Hospital, after nearly four days of fighting for her life with a severely fractured skull. The ER doctor said the fracture was several inches down the back of her skull.

She was on morphine and oxygen for most of the time she was hospitalized. She fell on a Sunday night and died early Thursday morning.

On Wednesday, our family met with the hospice team and a palliative care doctor and made preparations to take Mom to a nursing home to finish out her days. They anticipated she might live for another week or two.

On Thursday morning, I packed my bag with a camera and a prayer book. I planned to get to the hospital early, before anyone else, read Psalms and pray by her bedside. I also planned to take photos. I know this may seem weird to others. However, I had been tempted to take photos earlier, but didn't want to weird out other people in my family. A friend (a fellow creative), messaged me and suggested that it might be healing for me. I knew she was right.

Just as I was ready to leave , the phone rang at about 7:15 a.m.. It was the hospital calling. I hesitated before answering. Finally, I picked up the phone and heard the words, “Your mom just passed.”

The first thing I said was, “Oh no...I wanted to be there with her.” But that feeling was immediately followed by relief. So. Much. Relief.

I should mention that I am a guilty person. I mean, I feel guilty about just about everything—things I don't really need to feel guilty about. I think I'm hard-wired for it and the way I was raised certainly encouraged it (approval-seeking behavior, that sort of thing).

I've spent most of my adult life trying to overcome that part of myself, sometimes over-compensating and then going numb because I can't bear the feelings of guilt.

Of course, I immediately felt guilty for feeling relieved about Mom dying. But I've mostly talked myself out of that, although it's a continual struggle.

The week she died was miserable and I was angry and emotional and everything else. But once I accepted it, I felt okay, as long as I didn't go back and think about how she died or how sad it was that my dad was alone. When I thought of those two things, I couldn't handle it much.

A stranger on Facebook told me that she was sorry that my mom died as the result of an accident. She was the first person to use that terminology, but I appreciated what she said because it was so apropos. The accident leading to my mother's demise gnawed at me because it was random and violent.

I suppose part of my anger was having to let go of my planned trip to Ireland for a one-of-a-kind photography workshop (and also a bucket list trip with my husband). I had been planning the trip, really, starting the year before (mid-2016). I had applied and was accepted to the workshop in January (a miracle in itself, as so many others applied as well), and paid and prepared for it over many months. We planned to leave the same week all of this happened.

It was not to be. It was no one's fault—I get that. It's just that it was a crushing disappointment and I lost about $4,000 of very hard-earned money in the process. Adding that emotional and financial blow on top of my mom's death seemed the cruelest of ironies.

Ladies toasting to me and Mom's memory from IrelandThe interesting thing is that I felt I had no one to talk to about that. It seemed so insignificant in comparison to what happened with Mom, so of course, I felt guilty. But I needed someone to validate the disappointment. Unfortunately, there were very few people who allowed me to talk about it without trying to smooth it over with a tidy, “There will be time for trips later” or "You can write it off on your taxes."

I also had a few people tell me that it seemed God had orchestrated things to coincide with my vacation. For a number of reasons, if that were true (and I don't agree that it is), it would only serve to make me feel like God was the ultimate killjoy (and I don't believe that, either).

One friend remarked, “Well, you're on a different kind of journey now.” To tell the truth, that helped. It made me realize that God had another kind of journey for me that was more important. I know for people who aren't believers, that must sound kind of crazy. However, a Christian is challenged to trust that God permits circumstances in our lives (even if He does not necessarily will them to happen), and that He will always use circumstances in our favor (eternally speaking), if we trust Him. I'm not talking the 'prosperity gospel' here. I mean, things that actually benefit our souls. So, my challenge was to accept and trust that God had a better plan than my feeble mind could fathom.

Certain things stand out in my mind from the week of Mom's death:

The kindness of the doctor who was overseeing Mom's care—how he genuinely seemed compassionate toward our family (he also looked like he was about 12).

Having our priest, Father David, visit Mom two days before her death and praying for her.

Stroking Mom's hair and telling her I knew she couldn't talk, but it was okay, we were there with her and we loved her.

Sitting in the room with Mom for five hours after her death until we were ready for the hospital to take her to the morgue.

Watching Dad say good-bye to his wife of 71 years. He said to her in the kindest, gentlest voice, "God is going to take care of you now. You're my girl."

Standing outside the hospital morgue when the mortician came out, handing me Mom's wedding ring before he took her away.

Mom didn't want a big, fancy funeral. And the truth is that most of her friends and loved ones preceded her in death, so we didn't expect many to attend, anyway. We planned a short grave side service with family and anyone else who wanted to attend.

I was amazed and touched when several people from Mom's past showed up to her grave side service. It was truly moving. Dr. Brooks, her long-time employer, showed up with his wife. A woman from Mom's Soroptomist days showed up, having heard the news of her death just the day before (she later shared some memories, calling Mom a “gem”). Several of my brother's friends who considered her a “second mother” and a few of my friends showed up as well.

My husband and my son-in-law sang a short Orthodox hymn at the service and an old friend and pastor from our days at our previous church officiated.

We had a time of sharing during the service. I told the pastor that I would start it off if no one else wanted to. I had no idea of what to say. My brain was in a fog; there were too many things to say. However, the morning of the service, it came into focus.

Here is a bit of what I shared:

Darrell and I always knew that we were lucky—what I would call blessed—to have Mom and Dad as our parents.

They were always supportive and were the kind of parents we could count on to help us out if we were ever in a pinch, whether it be financially or in any other way. I took it for granted that everyone had parents like that, but as I grew older, I learned that was not true. We truly were blessed with great parents.

Mom was not the sort of person to keep her opinion to herself, so both Darrell and I recall many times when we would get angry and argue with her. But from this vantage point in life, that all fades away to a kind of trivial thing now.

Underlying it all was a deep love that Mom had for her children and grandchildren. She was raised to take care of her own and made that very obvious. Her family was everything to her.

Whenever something good happened to me, Mom was the first person I wanted to tell. And whenever something bad happened to me, I wanted to turn to Mom for comfort.

A couple years after cancer treatment, I had to have a test to find out if my cancer had returned. After the test, I showed up on Mom's doorstep. She had macular degeneration and was legally blind. But when she opened the door, she recognized me, pulled me into an embrace, and said, “Oh, I've been so worried about you.” I felt then that if all others failed me, my mother never would. She would always be there for me.

She started to go downhill these last few years, due to dementia. And it was very difficult for us because we missed our mom so much. She always had a good sense of humor, she was witty, she was smart, she was practical.

She could be “sassy,” but she was a total softie inside.

I'll never forget her admonishing me not to feed the stray cat who was hanging around our house when I was growing up. She would always make a big deal about how we didn't need any animals to take care of.

So, to my surprise, who should I see one morning when I opened the garage door, but my mother, bent over with a saucer of milk for the hungry kitty.

That scene is indelibly etched in my memory because it summarizes Mom so well: she wanted you to think that she led with her head, but she really led with her heart, almost always.


As I wrapped up, I shared this:

Mom and Dad's love story has traveled far and wide and that brings me a certain amount of comfort because it deserves to be told. I want the world to know who they are. Yesterday, I shared a very emotional photo that I took while Mom was dying--on a photography forum. I was hesitant to do so, but I felt that I needed to share...and the image just seemed too raw to put on my regular news feed.

I had no idea the chord this photo would strike with so many people. Over 1,300 people reacted to it, with over 230 comments from complete strangers who were touched and in tears.  Some of them were prompted to share their own stories of loss. All of them offered condolences and words of comfort:

"How beautiful that you were able to witness this rare type of love throughout your life, and how great it was you were there for her until the end."

"You will look back and be so thankful for these moments and they pay such a tribute to the beautiful life and love they shared together."

"This made me weep. True love. I'm sorry for your loss but what a legacy of love and faith."

Words from perfect strangers were a reminder of how blessed I have been to have my parents and be a witness to their 71-year love story.

The day after Mom's grave side service, I impulsively drove to the cemetery, 40 miles away. It was a beautiful day and no one was around when I visited. It was quiet, with a gentle breeze. I could hear birds sweetly singing and somewhere in the distance, there were beautiful wind chimes. Everything about that day was soothing and beautiful.

I sat for quite some time in the shade and took it all in. As I was preparing to leave, I turned and saw this "Cathedral of Nature" (shown left), as one friend put it, with the cross at the end of the road. The image I captured that day brings comfort and will always be a reminder of the peace I felt that day.

I was expecting to feel much more overwhelmed, depressed, and sad with Mom's passing. Then again, I wonder if the reason I'm doing so well is because God is merciful and prepared me over this long three-year journey with Mom so that, by the time she died, I was prepared and ready to let her go. Dementia truly is the “long good-bye.”

People have told me that grief comes in waves, often when you least expect it. I am finding that to be very true. I thought I was handling everything really well until this last week.

I was forced into menopause nine years ago when I underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer. Up until that very first treatment, I had periods. After the nuke blast from the chemo, of course, it all stopped and I went into what is known as “chemopause.”

This last week, after nine years of menopause and hot flashes, the bleeding returned—briefly. Obviously, I was shocked and freaked out—this is not normal for a menopausal woman.

I knew something was wrong. Googling didn't help much. I learned that the cause could be all kinds of things, including cancer. So, I called my health provider and set up an appointment.

All of the cancer head-trip stuff returned like an old friend. I tried to rein in my anxiety and just wanted to get to that appointment to find out what was up. Yesterday, I had the appointment. No abnormalities were found, thank the Lord.

Here's what I learned from my healthcare provider and more research on the internet: one cause for the aberration may be attributed to emotional distress such as grief or anxiety.

Seems too much of a coincidence that it happened at this particular time when I've been dealing with the death of my mom and strong emotions. Once again, as so many times before in the last nine years, I felt I had been granted another reprieve when my healthcare provider gave me the all-clear.

To put it mildly, I'm a bit freaked out with the physical evidence of how my body is so affected by my emotions. I was not even aware of being under that much stress. I thought I was handling it well.

After witnessing my mom's death this last month and then experiencing this most recent health issue, I have the sense that I am standing at some kind of precipice. I feel both unmoored and—strangely--a renewed sense of myself and making the most of whatever time I have left.

Awhile back, a friend advised me to look for the beauty in Mom's last months, so I did.

I was privileged to hold her hand and guide her, just as she did with me as a child. I was honored to sit next to her and kiss her soft cheek, just as she did with me when I was young. Her illness brought out fears and anxieties within me, but it also softened my heart and helped me to look beyond appearances to find the dignity of Mom's humanity—something we all possess, no matter our outward abilities. I was challenged to love her unconditionally, for she could no longer do anything for me but be who she was—my mother.

I'd like to leave you with a poem that my daughter wrote last year. Her words are beautifully written and bring me much comfort.

Death's Appointment in Time

Time is a woman weaving her art
Embroidering each stitch with
Grace, Purpose, Guiding
her thread through the Fabric of Space so that
every color shines,
some with splendor, many with meekness.
And we beneath her expansive tapestry,
Gazing above at the marvelous work,
see only the underbelly
of strings and knots and clumps and mess.
But if we had not first been chosen by her thread
to plunge into that chaotic
realm, then she could not reveal
as we rise through the tangles
the indescribable Order of the Angels of which we
play a part.

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