Thursday, September 27, 2012
The Valley of the Shadow
I just returned from a trip to Boise (The Treasure Valley) where I had gone to visit my 87-year old mother. On the third day of my visit there, she died.
I am not using euphemisms like "passed on" or "met her maker" because I am writing in my blog and not engaged in polite conversation with well meaning individuals who tap dance around the subject because let's face it, no one wants to talk about death.
It should not have been a surprise to me that my mother died. She had confessed to me four years ago that she thought she had breast cancer. But being a Christian Scientist, she refused any kind of medical examination or treatment. So she received none.
She managed to maintain relatively well for the first few years. But it was obvious, the cancer was taking its toll. It wasn't like my father's stomach cancer, mind you. When he was diagnosed 19 years or so ago with it, it ravaged his body in a matter of months. And his pain was painfully obvious.
Not so with my mother. She stood by her faith and walked through the valley of the shadow of death. She just moved much slower than she had before admitting to having cancer.
In defense of my own guilty conscious, I tried to convince her to see a doctor. I flew to Boise and tried to organize an intervention. But she stubbornly refused and everyone in my family (including my mom) skirted any further discussion about her obvious disease. From then on, we simply averted our eyes to the growing tumor and the signs that my mother was sick.
It became more and more difficult to ignore in the past several months. The first thing to fade was her mobility. Up until that past few months she had still been walking to the store and working in her yard. But then she began having trouble finding her way back home or locking herself out of her house.
Next came the memory loss. I noticed it more and more on my weekly calls to her. She would repeat the same story several times during the course of a conversation. Then she began to not recognize who she was talking to. Many of the conversations began to focus on stories of her childhood because it was firmly rooted in her brain whereas the present skipped away off the surface.
Two weeks ago, my mother didn't answer the phone when I called. A call to my brother living in Boise brought me the information that she wasn't getting out of bed any longer. I booked a trip to Boise.
I wasn't really prepared for how bad off she had become. I'd seen her in June when I drove my family there for a visit. Although thin and complaining about not being able to get around easily, she was still taking care of herself and eating. Now, after renting a car I drove directly to her house from the airport. I walked in her house and found her in her bed looking more frail and emaciated than I could have imagined or bear.
She didn't really recognize me at first, but she smiled a gentle smile. My sister-in-law helped my mother sit up in hopes she would make it out of bed to go sit in her easy chair. It was obvious that the effort was taxing. She made it to her dining room where a row of dining room chairs served as islands for her to rest as she made the trek. She made it to the second chair before saying she just needed to rest. Then she just wanted to go back to her bed.
I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in a chair next to her bed reading as she lay there, occasionally opening her eyes and pulling up a blanket tighter around her. Finally, I got up to leave. I asked my mother if she was okay and that I needed to leave to check into a hotel. She said she was fine and that I should go take care of what I needed to. I told her I loved her. She said she loved me, too and that I was very special.
The next day was spent trying to make my mother comfortable and get her to eat or drink something. It ended again with me sitting next to her bed, occasionally adjusting a pillow for her or giving her a drink of water. Towards evening I said goodbye and told her I loved her and returned to my hotel for the evening. My brother was spending the night at my mother's house at that point.
The next day when I got to my house, my brother wasn't there. I found my mother in her spare room. I asked her what she was doing there and she said that she had gone to the bathroom and it was as far as she could get. I asked her if she wanted to go to her room and she said she just wanted to lay there for awhile and rest. At that point my brother returned. He had been at the store picking up a few things. He tried giving my mother some water, but she couldn't drink it.
I got a wet wash cloth and wiped down her forehead and she told me that that felt good. Then she gasped and her eyes fluttered. Then she left the valley.
I won't go into the details of the tears and phone calls as we dealt with the aftermath of my mother's death and the emotional waves that still beat away at me. My mother had prearranged her own cremation, but it was up to my brothers and I to put together a memorial service and deal with the bureaucracy of death and its rituals.
Afterwards, as I walked through the empty house that I had grown up in, I was struck by the fact that it would soon pass on to strangers who would never know the history of this place that had stood for more than sixty years and seen the death of both my father and mother. It would likely be razed and subdivided to make way for townhouses or apartments. And the graves of pets and memories of flashlight tag and touch football in the backyard would be buried by concrete foundations and driveways.
I need to go back to Boise in a month or so and help sort through what is left of our family's life in that house before it is opened up to strangers to paw through the remnants for bargains or hidden treasure at an estate sale. My only hope is that my mother's faith has taken her to a better place and her spirit is free of the place. She never did like strangers in the house.