isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light
wrapping itself around us –
as soft as feathers –”
(quote from “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field” by Mary Oliver)
Catherine lay in her own bed, wearing her favorite nightgown made of mauve colored satin that complimented her silver hair and caressed her delicate skin. A thin tube wound from her nostrils to a canister of oxygen beside the bed. Earlier that day she’d insisted on turning off the oxygen and smoking one of her slim cigarettes, saying, “I’m dying anyway. Why should I deny myself now?”
A week earlier she’d telephoned her daughter Helena and urged her to come for a visit. “It’s time,” she announced, as if she were hosting a dinner party and about to ring the silver bell she kept on her cherry buffet to signal the serving of the meal.
Helena responded without hesitation, “I’ll be there, Mom. Just let me know what I can do.”
The following day, Catherine heard the hospice nurse, Betty, greeting Helena. “Your mother’s resting now, so let’s have a seat in the kitchen and I’ll fill you in on her condition. She’s been talking about you so much; I feel I already know you.”
Catherine glanced at the papers on her bed stand detailing the expensive policy she’d purchased for home health care several years earlier. She recalled feeling happy she had the financial resources to do something to remove the worry and burden of her care from her children. Now, she fumed, the company claimed she didn’t qualify for service because the nurse who’d assessed her a month ago reported her capable of independent living.
She hadn’t realized an affirmative answer to the patronizing questions about her ability to fix her own meals and attend to her own toiletry would disqualify her from receiving support. The nurse talked to her as if she was an imbecile instead of just being elderly. The condescending attitude irritated her, so she’d done her best to appear competent. Evidently she’d overdone it.
Of course”, she mused, I didn’t realize I was going to die so soon. It’s my first time. She giggled softly to herself and thought Helena’s a lawyer; she’ll get them straightened out.
Fortunately her doctor, Max, was an old family friend who supported the Hospice concept. He’d assisted her husband, a fellow physician, in achieving the dignity and comfort of dying at home, in this very bed. Now he was supporting her with the required pain medication and physician orders for Hospice care which included home health services.
When her husband was dying, Max had explained, “Death is very much like birth, a natural transition and doesn’t always call for a hospital.”
She’d discovered several of the Hospice nurses had worked on the maternity unit before changing to this less institutionalized position. Betty had told her this morning, “Maternity is about bringing a new life into the world, while Hospice helps people go through to the other side. It’s like a mirror image of the birth process.”
Now, Helena lay on the bed beside her and talked of the past in soothing tones. “Mom, remember when you used to make bread from scratch? It smelled so good. I loved sneaking pieces of dough while it was rising, just because you told me not to. I think you knew all along, because you always put the bowl on the floor vent where I could reach it.”
Catherine’s eyes filled with tears of joyful remembrance, she could feel the texture of the bread dough on her hands as if it was yesterday.
“How about some music mom?” Helena found an oldies station on the radio and the sound of the Glen Miller orchestra stirred more distant memories for Catherine. Closing her eyes, she pictured herself gliding across the dance floor of the Queen Mary on the arms of … Who was that young naval officer she’d flirted with? He’d looked so handsome in his uniform, she was sure she was in love.
On the wall near her bed, Helena had hung several paintings, ones Catherine created herself. She studied the intertwined gray and white doves that reminded her of the strange, trancelike sensation she’d experienced when she created it. She also remembered the fuss her husband made when she was invited to study in New York with a well-known artist. He’d given her a choice – either turn down the offer and stay married; or go to New York and get a divorce.
She’d opted to stay married, but how many times over the years had she felt anger boil inside her, anger from the frustration of wanting to explore her own talent and be a wife. The doves represented the struggle she’d felt.
Things had changed for the better in this new century. Helena had a stimulating career outside the home, and Helena’s two lively daughters didn’t even acknowledge the word NO. Catherine smiled again, remembering little Cathy’s words: “Grandma, I’m going to be the first woman president.”
Later that day, Catherine felt the pressure of Helena’s hand on hers, but her mind drifted in a timeless sea of memories. At last she heard her own voice cry out a single word, “Mamma!” and her breathing changed to tiny gasps and watery rattles.
As Catherine inhaled her last breath, she sensed movement. She looked down and saw the startled smile on her daughter’s parted lips – just like when Helena was fresh born, taking her first breath.
I wrote the above story several years ago and included it as the final chapter in my book – The Spiral of Life.
Since this month marks the anniversary of my first year’s blog about life after 60 and envisioning death is part of living life, I am reproducing it here.
I am grateful to the women in this story who have contributed to my vision.