It’s been just over a week since mum passed away. I am strangely calm, strangely feeling so collected. From experience, when my dad passed away four years ago, I know the tears are there, and that the tears will come. But for now, I can only smile and feel warm inside when I see a large portrait of mum in the living room.
I feared and dreaded that final moment. Throughout the past few years, and more intensely over the past few weeks, I saw images of mum dying painfully in my dreams and in those twilight moments between sleep and being awake. Frightening images, of immense suffering, of me breaking down in tears, of deep, deep inconsolable pain…
But the end was anything but like that.
The end was beautiful. Simply beautiful. Mum had her eyes closed, had had her eyes closed for much of the day and for about two, three days before that. The morphine and sedative the nurse administered calmed her restlessness, and made her more able to sleep deeply. The day before mum passed away, the doctor gave us a memo which described the signs of dying. The last forty-eight to twenty-four hours are perhaps the most agonising, both for the patient and the relatives and friends watching on the sideline. I now realise this occurred when mum kept on twisting and turning in great discomfort but could not communicate to us why she was so agitated. I could see it in her eyes, in her frowns, in the way she moaned the night before she passed away. Doctors do not fully understand what happens at this stage in life. Perhaps the fear and agitation comes from a clear knowing that you are losing control of your and that the body is really dying. Perhaps the fear and agitation comes from being trapped in a body that is shutting down and from which you cannot escape. I sat by her side till she eventually succumbed to the soothing effects of the drugs and fell asleep.
Once the most agonising stage is over, usually the body just slows down bit by bit, bit by bit… Water and food are no longer necessary, metabolism grinds to a halt. And the breath, the clearest indicator of whether the patient is still with us, too gradually slows down, from intervals lasting around five seconds, to ten seconds, to twenty seconds… In, out, in, out. In. Out. In. Then out.
I was there when it all happened, as was my brother. Mum’s final “life wish” (as I like to call it!) came true, for she was surrounded by her children, and a little later joined by the grandson who has made her smile and laugh so much over the past six months, perhaps the most difficult six months of her life.
It was a beautiful end. Just beautiful. Soft classical music played in the background, the scent of mum’s favourite lavender oil filled the air. There was no beeping of the heart monitor or wheezing of machines, for at the end they were useless. At the end, the vitals are so faint that even machines cannot detect them. There were no bundles of tubes coming from her nose or mouth, and all the IVs had been removed earlier that day. The doctor and nurses knew, and we knew. We were prepared. But not prepared for something as beautiful.
I held mum’s hand, as I promised her I would. Held her hand till the very end, held her hand even as warmth gradually drained from her fingers. I kissed her, kissed her cheeks, kissed her forehead, kissed her in the way she used to kiss me when I was a little child. Those final few days before mum passed away, mum’s breathing became more of a gasp for air, and she breathed through her mouth, which was half open because morphine makes the muscles relax. I was so close I could feel her breath escape her mouth and stroke my cheeks. The gasping sound did not frighten me. The smell of those final breaths of life, a very distinct and to be honest foul smell, did not disturb me. All I wanted was to make sure mum felt my presence, make sure mum knew we were all with her.
At one point, I rested my head on mum’s shoulder, and placed my arms as best as I could around her thin, thin body. Images of my childhood flashed before my closed eyes… images of growing up, of travels with mum, of happy and sad moments, of smiles and laughter flowed through the space between my ears. “Be happy, be peaceful… Be happy, be free…” I silently wished her. All we ever want is happiness and peace. We crave it, we seek it low and far, but we can never find it, for true happiness and peace is a state of being, reached only when you look inward and are calm from within. And from what I saw as mum lay there, slowly slipping away, she was calm, she was peaceful.
“Let go, mama, let go of this body…” Buddhism teaches that this body is not ours. Nothing in this world is ever ours. So why cling onto it? Why attach to it? The more we attach to this body, attach to the pain and discomfort we feel, the more we suffer. This body, like everything else in this world, is born, ages, and will eventually die. So what is there to be afraid of if this is the nature of things? Things are just the way they are, not perfect or imperfect, not right or wrong. Things just are.
Then I heard it. The “rattle” I had heard and read about. The gargling sound at the back of the throat. The sound of the approach of death. It followed seconds after those final out breaths. But this too is just the way things are. This too is just a sound, a sound from a natural process.
“This body is not hours,” I whispered to her close to her ears, “Let go of this suffering, let nature take its course…” In the run up to that final moment, I have been reading to mum every night before bed. Reading short lectures (Dhamma talks, as they call them) by Buddhist monks on death and dying. I would only read a little every night, for sometimes mum would start snoring before I reached the end of a section. But I know mum was listening. And I know that she heard me, for sometimes she would suddenly open her tired eyes and say “Thank you…” before dozing off again.
I held onto her hand tightly, while brother sat on the other side of the bed and held onto her other hand. “Thank you for everything, for being my mother… I am so grateful for all you have given me…” I was so calm, deeply touched and moved deep inside, but my voice was gentle and not wavering. There were no tears, there was not an ounce of fear. I was just sitting by my dear, brave mother’s side, holding her hand, and telling her again how grateful I am for giving me life, for giving me everything. I squeezed her hand tighter as the interval between breaths grew longer and longer and longer. Mum did not squeeze back, as she still did until two, three days ago. Mum was slipping away, I knew, but I was holding her hand as she was slipping away. In her pocket, I slipped mum a little note written on a piece of paper in the shape of a heart: ”
“Don’t worry about me, mama,” I whispered to mum, the words emanating from my heart, emanating from this boundless source of love and care of the dearest person in my life. I want her to go in peace, and not to leave in fear or with worry. “I will be alright. I know I will be alright… Just let go, let go of everything…” These words, that moment, were reminiscent of dad’s final moments a little over four years ago. And like four years ago, I was blessed by this strange sense of calm, and this gentle smile stayed on my face throughout what I had long feared would be the most emotionally traumatic experience of my life.
But it was not so, and instead it was beautiful. Mum passed away in my hand. She left this world with both her children by her side at eight-oh-five at night on Friday 29 June 2012. Mum passed away surrounded by pictures of places and people who coloured her life and made her life rich and exciting. Mum passed away, and took the terrifying, maddening cancer with her.
Mum passed away, but a part of her continues to live on in me, and live on through these words.
PS: thank you all for offering your prayers and words of sympathy. Thank you for thinking of my mum, and of me, and for being (t)here throughout these few months.
i haven’t been on in awhile…I am so sorry
Thanks for sharing mum and her journey, your life with this battle with us….I love the hand in hand picture
I hope you are doing well….you are such a talented writer. Wishing you the best- Kerry