I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Tag: End of Life

The Breath

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Good-Bye Mom

Dying is a harrowing experience for the ones not dying. I wonder what it feels like to be the one who is dying? What was she thinking? Anything? What was she feeling? Pain? Fear? Sadness? Relief? I hope and pray it was like slipping into Savasana. Please let it be so.

On Saturday, I called the hospital to see if I could get a more clear idea of what was happening with my mother. My father had been providing contradictory information to me for the last few days and seemed frighteningly unsure. The case worker got on the phone and said, quite clearly, “You need to get here today.” Well then. It must really be time. I arrived in the evening. She was having trouble breathing, so they were administering morphine, which reduces pain but also reduces the panicked sensation of not being able to breathe thus slowing down the pace of breathing in and breathing out. Morphine was all she was on at that point, having been transitioned to palliative care. It was the end. I spoke to her and held her hand but she was quite out of it. I debated spending the night at the hospital, but my father was so upset and confused that I decided to go back to the house to be with him.

In the middle of the night, not sleeping, I thought about what I wanted to say to her. The time was here. No time to hold back. But I didn’t have anything to say. The desire for questions and regrets and what if’s was gone. I didn’t have all my questions answered. I didn’t tell her everything. But it didn’t matter any more.

When I was very little, my mother read out loud to me. The first books I remember her reading to me were the Winnie the Pooh stories. It occurred to me that she might be able to hear me and to be more aware of what was going on than I realized so I combed through the house looking for these old books and found the books of poems by A. A. Milne, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. I left my sad and exhausted father at home and arrived early at the hospital Sunday morning.

I spoke to the doctor who was mercifully kind – so kind – and clear and blunt. She is dying. It will be soon. There is no hope. We will make her comfortable. (An infection due to complications following a hip fracture led to sepsis.) Doctors: we are overwhelmed and beg you for your clear guidance. Overcome with guilt and doubt, wondering if we should do more, it was a bitter relief to be told that there was no more to do.

Left alone with my mom. I gazed at her, my beautiful old frail mom who I have been mourning for so long. The vibrant and exceptionally accomplished woman who I knew as my mother had faded many years ago.

I began reading. The matter-of-fact tone and silly language of the poetry was so familiar and so enjoyable. I read a poem. Paused and sat quietly.   Held her hand. Read another poem. Took another break. And so the morning went.

I offered her Reiki. I don’t really feel like a “certified” Reiki practitioner. It always seems mysterious and slightly ridiculous for a card-carrying intellectual to find such comfort in Reiki, but if ever there was time for me to have faith, this was it. I felt the energy in my soul and I offered it to her, praying that it ease the transition between the physical world and the spiritual world.

This is what I said to her that day:

I love you Mom. You can go now. I am happy. You don’t need to worry about me. I will take care of Daddy. You are the best mom. It is because you are a good mom that I am a good mom. I have two amazing children. Thank you. I love you.

Later that afternoon, I brought my father to the hospital. He was overcome, broken-heartedly exclaiming “Oh Sweetheart!” It broke my heart to see my stoic father lose his beloved sweetheart of 54 years. She was more agitated, less comfortable but more alert. She opened her right eye half way and stared and stared and stared at each of us. We just gazed in each other’s eyes. She drifted out of consciousness and we took a dinner break. We returned that evening and she seemed quite out of it. The lovely nurse assured us she was aware we were there and was calmer when we were there. So we sat quietly holding her hand. After about an hour, she breathed out and did not breathe in again. Then her breath returned. Not for long. Gradually, her breath faded away.

I love you Mom.

 

A Simple Roast Turkey

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Prepared With Complicated Emotions

For those of us with eating issues, Thanksgiving is fraught. I’ve made the long journey from lonely eater, to competitive pie-baking guest, to overwhelmed hostess, to becoming a more loving and thankful person. I have gradually realized that no one wants the turkey with exotic spices; no one wants the healthy version of mashed potatoes; other people want the sweet potatoes with marshmallows even if I don’t. (Surprise, they are now a favorite of mine!) Like the Grinch, I have very slowly realized that it’s not about me, nor the food, nor my ability to control the holiday experience. It’s about everyone being together. And who wants a hostess that is tense and competitive and judgmental? A hostess should be happy and inviting and joyful, like a beloved yoga teacher, making you feel like the most important and most loved person. Yes, I know. Duh. A mundane epiphany. It only took 52 years.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided that I was going to enjoy the holidays. Making my resolve more concrete, I shared my decision out loud with my husband. He characteristically said in his no-nonsense way, “Good! Our kids love the holidays and you should be proud that we’ve created traditions that make them feel loved and happy. Besides, the more you enjoy the holidays, the more they will want to come home for the holidays.” Ah. There it is. The circle of life. As they grow older, I want them to want to come home. Unlike me, I want them to want to visit their parents.

I dug out the recipes, made my shopping list, even found the notes I had made a year ago of missing items and ways to improve the process. I was calm, organized, and ready. And So Excited for my daughter to come home from college for the week.

Then my father called. My 92-year old mother was back in the E.R. The “rehab” center where she was barely surviving the recovery from a broken hip had rushed her there. She was on Coumadin and her blood was too thin. This was it, according to my father. I better prepare to abandon my family and my Thanksgiving to rush to her side to say good-bye. I was, sadly, somewhat immune to his dire predictions. He’s been predicting her demise for the last ten years or so. I went through a laundry list of self-questioning:

  • Was my father’s dramatic pessimism warranted? Maybe. After all, she is 92 and one of these days his dire prediction is going to come true.
  • Did it make sense for me to abandon my family and my Thanksgiving to rush to her side and to help my father? Probably not. It was snowing and the worst travel day of the year.
  • How would I feel if my mother died before I could see her? Deeply sad.

The range of emotions over the next 48 hours was wide and intense.

  • Guilt that I am not near by and don’t want to be more of a caretaker.
  • Anger that my father can still make me feel like a scolded bad girl who must resort to explanations of duty and responsibility to explain why I don’t visit more. (I’m busy, busy, busy!) As opposed to the truth: I am angry at what you did. (Make peace with it, Sally. It’s part of your journey.)
  • Compassion for my father who is so devoted to caring for my mother that he feels shattered at this latest crisis leading to her further deterioration. Compassion for his loneliness and worry about his increasing confusion.
  • Despair that the care options for our aging parents are so medicalized and impersonal, based on aiding survival, not on facilitating love.

48 hours later, on Wednesday, after the hospital treated her for the Coumadin overdose and discovered that she had a UT infection which they were now treating with antibiotics, my mom perked up. About to hop on a train, because my father just that morning had insisted that I really probably should come say good-bye, I spoke to the nurse who said she was doing better. Feeling jerked around but relieved, my father held the phone up to my mother’s ear and she kind of squeaked in greeting. My heart jumped up to my throat and I was overcome with emotion.  Would that happy squeak be the last sound of maternal love I hear from my mother?

I decided that I was going to enjoy Thanksgiving. I do believe you can change your thoughts and make thoughtful decisions about how you are going to react and make conscious choices about what emotion will prevail. More and more, I am choosing joy and laughter. I am still angry, guilty, sad, confused, anxious. I am also loving, capable, funny, generous, thoughtful, and frequently happy. My daughter is home. My mother is alive. I am thankful. So thankful that, at midlife, I feel fully thankful along with all the emotions that come with a poignant sense of gratitude.

(P.S. It’s now Saturday and I am, sadly, on my way to say good-bye to her.)

Simple Thanksgiving Roast Turkey

  • Brine the (≅13 lb) turkey Thursday morning.
    • Dissolve 1½ cups kosher salt, ½ cup dark brown sugar, 1 container orange juice concentrate in a quart of boiling water.
    • Remove neck, giblets and metal truss from the turkey.  Throw away because the giblets make your husband gag.  Rinse and place turkey in a cooler or bucket.
    • Pour brine mixture, 1 gallon of cold water, 1 gallon of ice cubes to submerge turkey. Add chicken broth if turkey is not submerged. Place container out on back porch where it is 40°.
    • Let soak in brine for 5-6 hours.

Go take a yoga class. Marvel at how beautiful the class is and wonder what it is about the teacher that makes her so popular. Perhaps it is because she is the most welcoming hostess, making each person feel special. Let the revelation sink in. Maybe I too can be a joyful yoga teacher, a welcoming hostess.

Back home to make sides, side by side with my daughter. Imagine Thanksgiving someday at her house where I hope to be a gracious and loving and helpful and proud guest.

After a light lunch, it’s time to deal with the brined turkey.

  • Preheat the oven to 500°. Lug the turkey inside and haul it into the kitchen sink. Pat it dry. Do NOT stuff it. Slather it with canola oil. Think about how you feel about eating turkey and honor your hesitation. Give thanks to the poor turkey for giving its life so you can honor a family and cultural tradition. Place the turkey on a rack inside a roasting pan and place it in the very hot oven for 25 minutes. Do not peek. (Alton Brown taught me this.)

Go watch football with your husband and son for 25 minutes. Wonder why this violent sport is so popular. Acknowledge that you find the familiar sound of whistles blowing on the tv in the background to be nostalgic and comforting. Muse about what Janay Palmer is doing today and how her relationship with Ray Rice will evolve when it is announced that he is being reinstated into the NFL.

  • After 25 minutes, remove the turkey from the oven. Watch the smoke! (Gotta clean the oven!) Turn the temperature down to 350°. Cover the breast with a double layer of foil, cutting out a little hole for the button to pop so you can see it. Place the turkey back in the oven. For 2 hours. Do nothing. REALLY. No basting, no checking, no nothing. (Alton Brown taught me this.)
  • After an hour and 45 minutes, begin peeking at the button to see if it’s popped. It should pop at 2 hours. If it doesn’t pop at 2 hours, take it out anyway and use your own thermometer to check the temperature. I swear it’s done. Do not overcook.

While it is resting, finish your sides and consider making gravy. Have someone else carve it. Serve buffet style, because you are done! How simple was that?  Ask everyone to help with the clean-up.

 

Image Credit:  Wild Turkey Cock, Hen and Young by John James Audubon

 

Savasana

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Ready to Rest

If death is like Savasana, maybe we have nothing to fear.

Savasana, the deeply restorative “corpse” pose at the end of yoga class, at the end of practice, at the end of life, is when you put aside the ups and downs, the effort and the ease, the breathing in and the breathing out. You just be. Usually, it is simply a sweet break at the end of class. Sometimes, it’s an impatient pause, the anxious to-do list intrudes. Every now and then, it is bliss. Nirvana. Samadhi. It takes a long Savasana for me to reach this point. (Take note yoga teachers! A 2-minute Savasana is not enough!) I float into a state of consciousness that is not awake, not asleep. Sometimes I see colors, feel tingling, radiate intense warmth. But generally I hover, aware of my soul, but not really aware. At these moments, it is profoundly enough to just be.

If death is like Savasana, maybe we have nothing to fear.

But we fear death – for ourselves, for our loved ones – fighting our body’s evolution/devolution, attempting to stave off the inevitable with doctors, pills, and procedures, prolonging life until … until it is not life anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m in favor of life. I want to live to be old. VERY OLD! I am disciplined to the point of being obsessive with eating healthily, staying thin, keeping active. I plan to fight my evolution/devolution HARD!

But maybe, for the person at the end of life, they are ready to rest in Savasana. Maybe we should help them go peacefully to a place of bliss. Maybe we shouldn’t hang on to them so hard, with doctors, pills, and procedures.

My mother is nearing the end of her life. I visited her and my father last weekend, with my daughter. It was painful. Every aspect of their lives is focused on getting her to survive another day. He measures out her pills. He coaxes her to eat. He trains the aide on how he wants her bathed and dressed and exercised and which diapers are for the daytime and which for the nighttime. My mother has stopped speaking and spends most of the day sleeping, exhausted from being fed, medicated, bathed, dressed, exercised. It was the first visit where she was unable to exhibit much enthusiasm for my presence and none for my daughter’s.

As an only child, the aging and inevitable death of my parents is an unshared burden. No siblings to mull over what to do. No siblings to compare notes with. No siblings to mitigate the dysfunction. Just guilt that I am far away and not doing enough. Just anger that there are still so many unresolved issues and things unsaid. Just grief at my beautiful and vibrant mother’s deterioration and regret at the adult mother-daughter friendship we were never able to establish.

People tell me how lucky we are, how sweet it is that my father is so devoted to my mother. I smile and nod agreeably, not wanting to diminish his faithful attachment to her.  It is taboo for me to tell them what I am really thinking. He is terrified of being alone. It is an act of selfishness to keep her alive. Let her go. Let her go to her Savasana.

Every visit I am armed with good intentions to say more, to ask more, to do more. All with the goal of resolving the past, healing the present, trying to find more love and compassion for the future. I try. I never say, ask, or do as much as I intend. I tried waking my mother up in the mornings by offering her Reiki. If nothing else, perhaps it would be soothing to have someone she loves and who loves her offer her healing and loving touch.  I tried to not be judgmental and annoyed with my father.  He tried to not be judgmental and annoyed with me. Negativity begets negativity. In the midst of our awkward attempts to not succumb to judgment and annoyance, he tried to tell me I was a miracle. He tried to be interested and loving and not self-absorbed. I tried to appreciate his terror at being alone, his grief at losing his beautiful and vibrant wife. We tried.

We took pictures. Is this last time I will see her? Is this the last photo I will have of her? I smiled, because that is my habit. It was not all painful – there was some joy in the visit. I am no longer sucked into the dysfunctional triangle that is formed by my parents and me.   I can honor how who they are helped me become who I am.  I can love them for that.  My daughter was with me, thank God, and I am looking forward to being able to build, with her, an adult mother-daughter friendship. It begins now.

Image Credit:  Savasana sketch by Missy Briggs on her blog The Rascally Rabbit, used with permission.  Thank you Missy!

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