I wrote the following reflections a few days before my mother died. Her birthday was March 19th and she left this world on April 5, 2016. Last October at this time I was in Massachusetts visiting her. It was a magical and supremely difficult week, as I held her hand in the hospital, signed paperwork, helped her move to a new nursing home, shared smiles and laughter, and finally walked toward the elevator with tears in my eyes at the end of the week, suspecting it would be the last time I’d get to hug her, the last time I’d see her in person.
She’s been close in my heart this week. Some of her ashes rest at the roots of a flowering crab we planted in the back yard this spring. Reading through the following thoughts, I decided not to edit or polish. What I got down in words at the time was fresh, raw, and feels important enough that I’d like to share it just the way it flowed out of me as I worked through anticipating my mom’s death. We all know love. We all know grief. I hope you find a thread of shared humanity in my reflections.
Some times in life shake us by the scruff of the neck and say, “Stand up and take notice, this is important.” The process of losing a parent is one of those. I read an article by a Buddhist dharma teacher in which he said that a parent dying is a transformational process on the path to enlightenment. I get that. I grew wise in the two years I got to know my dad better while he treated his colon cancer and later his lung cancer. I grew more solid through my grief. I developed an internal relationship with him once he was no longer part of my physical world. I talk to him sometimes when I walk by his picture on the wall. I honor what was good in him. I planted red and orange tulips after he died, and just like I’d dreamed soon after his cancer metastasized to his lungs, they bloomed last spring and reminded me of him, and are about to bloom again this spring.
Life has continued to be beautiful. And hard. And transformative. Sometimes on center and sometimes off center, And I’ve woven all of it into my art as I continue to reach for joy every day, and sink into the color and texture of paints, and the happiness of sharing my enthusiasm for art with my wife. Life is sweet. I remind myself to live it, every moment.
Friday my mom’s hospice nurse and social worker helped her call me the day before her birthday. They brought her lobster for her birthday, her favorite food. I was filled with gratitude that Jess and Francis were there celebrating with her, and that my mom was alert, free of pain, and full of joy. I asked Mom if anyone had sung happy birthday to her, and she said not yet, so Heather and I sang possibly the worst, most out of tune rendition of that song ever sung, and it brimmed with happiness and gratitude and love. My mom was as delighted as a small child blowing out candles on a cake. Mindful moments. They live forever in our hearts.
The one I’ll never forget with my dad is the last time I spoke with him. I described the tiny, jeweled mermaid-like hummingbird swimming its little tail through the air as it hovered near the nectar feeder. Dad told me that he was going to call me “Heather sparkling eyes” because there was so much joy in my voice. It was Father’s Day. He told me he was going out to fix a window at an apartment he owned, and we both said I love you and goodbye. A week later he died of pneumonia that set in as a new chemo drug wracked his body. He hadn’t been there much for me growing up, but the wonder of forgiveness is that by the time I had to say goodbye for good, that didn’t matter so much anymore. What I had in my heart is that he loved me, that I was blessed to get to know him in the last few years of his life, and that I was Heather Sparkling Eyes.
The hospice nurse called Tuesday morning to let me know that over the weekend my mom became extremely fatigued and stopped eating much at all. When I’d asked Jess early on what the signs were, how I’d know or if I’d know things might be getting close to the end, she’d talked about this as part of the dying process. Things are winding down. Amazingly, despite the bladder cancer that had already spread to block her kidneys back in October, she has no pain. Her dementia remains a peaceful sort where she’s not troubled by the confusion, where she still knows her children, and where she’s content in a very present-tense, mindful moment sort of way. Enchanted by what someone’s saying on TV. Delighted beyond belief with a lobster lunch. Joyful when her children call her. Fully invested in each “I love you” we exchange. We say it often when we talk, and the last few times I’ve spoken with her she’s ended the call with “I love you, sweetheart” which is what she used to call me when I was little. So I’m Heather Sparkling Eyes. And I’m Sweetheart.
My childhood was complex, and to navigate its struggles I developed a deep connection to nature, for the ducks on the Ipswich River, the grasses waving in the salt marsh, the gulls on Crane’s Beach, the joy of painting the silhouettes of dark tree branches against a sunset in winter. I carry my love of nature, my deep enjoyment in reading a good book, my ability to sink mindfully into a cup of tea and breathe deeply, and my knowledge that life is precious and fragile and that we need to savor every moment—the wisdoms I gleaned through my wild and winding childhood and adolescence—as treasures. Things I carry with me always, things that always matter. Most of all, every hug I share with my wife and our four girls, every time I smile at them, I share the strength and power of love that I learned even in tough times.
My brother was having a difficult time processing my mom’s cancer, dementia, her dying process, and the fact that as the youngest he suffered most from her mental and emotional absence during her worst years. He pulled away. He couldn’t talk to her, hadn’t for a couple of years. This was tough for me, since my process is about leaning in to the moment, embracing connections for what they are and squeezing every bit of connection and love I can get out of them. Years of meditation practice fed into the deep breaths I took a few months ago when he said he couldn’t be part of what was happening with Mom, didn’t want to hear the details. I saw his own struggle, coped with my disappointment, and responded that I respected his decision.
When Jess told me my mom had taken a turn, that things seemed to be winding down, I took some more breaths, and then gently reached out to my brother to let him know Mom has become lethargic and wasn’t eating. He asked if she was able to receive calls, if she was alert enough to talk. He asked for the nursing home phone number. He called several times and she was either sleeping or the front desk transferred him to the wrong room. At this point I called the nursing home and spoke to one of the nurses, explained the situation, and with Mabel’s help, for which I remain deeply grateful, moments later, my brother was able to talk to my mom.
Small miracles. Acts of forgiveness. Simple transformative moments. He told her he loved her and wished her happy birthday, and she was aware and alert enough to understand and feel the joy that her baby boy, the youngest of her three children, had called to talk with her.
I don’t know when I’ll get the call from Jess that my mom has died. I know from my dad’s process that things can take downturns, and then swing up again, and that all you can expect is uncertainty. I’m practicing being comfortable with this. I’m not very good at it yet. What I do know is that her three children have all been in contact with her this week. Love has been shared. Forgiveness experienced. And contrary to our expectations in October when she went into acute kidney failure and we were told she might have as little as two days to two weeks to live, my mom was on this earth to celebrate another birthday, to enjoy the chocolate I sent her, and to savor a lobster lunch with kind-hearted people.
One of the girls came home from college for spring break yesterday, and there were lots of hugs, and extra compassion from her since she knows I’m losing my mom. It’s great to have her home, to see her cuddling the dogs and be able to catch up on what’s going on in her world. I had a wonderful talk with my oldest the other day, too. It’s amazing hearing about her life unfolding as she explores the Boston area, adjusts to life in the working world after college, and meets new people. I can remember holding them as tiny fuzzy-headed babies with butter-soft cheeks. I have no doubt my mom also carries that primal memory deep within her, the sacred wonder of a bond with a new baby.
I know when I get the call that my mom has died there will be the moment of disbelief, then the deep sadness. I know I’ll reach out to my sister who lives in town. We went to Ella’s Deli after my dad died, because we’d eaten there when he visited and it holds memories of my girls eating teddy-bear toast, and me chatting with my dad and stepmom. Sometime this spring or summer my wife and I will plant a flowering tree to remember my mom. She loves birds, and the berries will attract them. Every time I see a cardinal I think of her. She loves the deep red color.
I know there will be quieter times, and then grief storms, and then hollow longing, and in no particular order a repeat of all of these and more. I’ll be wrapped in the love of my family as I grieve, my wife and our four girls holding me close in hugs and in their hearts. As I did when I lost my dad, I’ll pass through it, take new wisdom from the process, and carry that into my life and my art. Grief is hard. We all go through it. I’m trying my best to listen, to let there be moments of stillness and pause, so that I don’t miss the gems of learning, and yes, even moments of wonder and joy, that are mixed in with this transition.
To everyone who has lost someone they love, or someday will—May you have peace. May you have comfort. May you heal gently from your loss.