On living and dying

Earlier this month I wrote about my long-time friend Sylvia Hart’s dad and the struggle of health and aging. She’s in Texas now with her family and her dad has been going through catastrophic ups and downs in his battle to live.

Last week we had a phone session in which I ended up recounting my own experiences with my mom – they still haunt me.  Of course the tears were rolling…especially from my end because the heat of emotion never cools on some experiences in life.  In fact, with aging, it seems the emotion becomes intensified because our life experiences open doorways to our own health issues and problems and we become acutely aware of what our loved one must have been going through.  And, hopefully, as we age, we acquire more compassion for our fellow man and grow to become a better person.

My mom was a true pioneer woman.  She knew how to survive and take care of eight of us kids and provided for us in ways that many women could never even imagine in this day and age.  She could shoot, gut, skin, butcher, cook on wood cook stoves, chop fire wood, mend socks, wash clothes in the old wringer washers and hang them on a line to dry — even in the dead of winter when your fingers froze and so did the clothes as soon as the air and wind hit them — iron with a flat iron, milk, churn butter, can vegetables and fruits and anything else she could fit into a jar to feed her brood, use a treadle sewing machine and hand sew clothing projects — along with another hundred or so homemaker talents.  If we lived in a place long enough, we had a garden and chickens, if we were on the move, she managed to scrape what she could from the land and feed us…the daily struggle of survival was always on her shoulders. We learned to help at an early age.  She never messed around with ‘time out’ or ‘restriction’ – we got our asses whipped if we didn’t do what we were supposed to do.

She put us, and whatever belongings she could fit into the old car we had at the time, and followed my dad through his idiotic, bullshit travels through most of the western half of the United States.  I puked and chummed the roadways of those travels; motion sickness still knocks at my door, and I really don’t care for the smell of gasoline to this day due to some of those old cars and ventilation issues.

Our mainstay in those days was pretty much venison, beans, and homemade bread – throw in some fruits and vegetables if we were in a place to grow or pick from a field offered by a neighbor. Life was not easy. I feel ultimately spoiled now to have a washer and dryer, refrigerator, dishwasher, air conditioning, a car that starts, and my own little slice of desert.  Yes, I’m very thankful for these things, and hope that I never miss the opportunity to be thankful for the gifts I’ve been given that my mamma never had.

She lived her life with integrity and honor and a very strong belief in God. How she kept from just knocking us in the head – like I watched her do with chickens and rabbits that were set to be butchered – I’ll never know. There were five boys in our family and three girls. We’re now down to two boys and three girls but, thankfully, she was gone before any of the brothers went because I’m not sure she would have ever been able to deal with the loss of a child.  It took her a number of years to resolve her own issues with the loss of a two-timing, conniving deadbeat husband that lived, long after she died, in the comfort of his new wife’s arms.

Mom died in 1975 at the age of 56.  She had cancer.  She worked in a little restaurant in Sandpoint, Idaho, and managed to buy a small two bedroom house from a husband-wife team that carried her mortgage. Her two bedroom house was so small, it would almost fit into my kitchen and living room area. She had a garden in the back and worked it every summer, along with her job, and her chance to go fishing on the weekend.  She loved to fish.  She had a fit when she’d pull up to her favorite lake spot and see a car parked there with a California license plate.  Swearing was not in her vocabulary though; a ‘damn’ or ‘hell’ was about as extreme as it got, but she could put on a real verbal tirade when she was angry or hurt by something. But the funny part is, I never remember her as talking much, she kept to the task at hand and did what had to be done.

She helped me with several life struggles, like giving me a place to go to when my first husband and I divorced and I had a two-year-old son. And again when my second husband died and I was six months pregnant with my second son.  I went back to Mom’s place.

The years passed and my life was always hectic. She helped me with other things too, sometimes small, sometimes big – mostly she couldn’t do much financially, even for herself, because there was never any money that didn’t already have a preplanned spot but she helped in other ways.  She survived, that was the size of it.

Then one day in 1974, I got a phone call from her.  She didn’t have a home phone and was at a pay phone.  She said she was going in to have a biopsy done on her lymph nodes.  I, lost in my own daily life struggles, was dumbfounded.  I asked her why. “Because I don’t feel good and I’m not getting better!” and abruptly hung up.  She was always abrupt, there was never any cuddle time or personal comfort zones with her because…who knows?  Even as a child, probably the only time we were ever snuggled up with her was when she breastfed us as an infant.

The result of the biopsy was cancer.  Inoperable, they said it was in her lungs and had spread to her lymph nodes and she started chemotherapy.  It was horrible.  She lost weight and looked like a skeleton.  I lived a few miles out of town and had a day job and three kids with two of them in grade school, and a husband that worked swing shift on the city police force.  I could barely find time to breathe, let alone figure out how to go and spend time with her.  So, I didn’t.  I did see her, I did check on her, but I wasn’t there as I should have been.  In those days I didn’t know how; that inner zone of getting in touch with me is almost another chapter in a book by itself.

When the final days of her life were coming down, she still believed she would be healed and well.  God, how many times I wished I had her conviction and strength of belief in some things I’ve faced.

Instead, she lost more weight and physically had problems that go with chemo and sickness.  I went to see her on the second of May, Friday, after work and getting my boys ready for the evening. I talked to my two younger brothers earlier that day, they were in high school and in the run and gun mode that goes along with all those overactive hormones. I told them they had to stay with her until I got there that night. And one of them was going to have to stay with her each evening and throughout the night so they should take turns and JUST DO IT!  When I got there, they weren’t there.

She was sitting in her easy chair with her head forward, almost on her chest, panting.  She couldn’t breathe.  It took me almost 10 minutes to get her into the car.  She leaned on me and every few steps we had to stop for her to catch her breath. We made the emergency room of the hospital and she was admitted.  I stayed with her.  She looked like a lost, forlorn child, when she grabbed my hand and said, “Don’t leave me here, Linny.”

I wasn’t prepared for any of it.

I stayed until her Dr. came in (God bless that man’s heart – Dr. Edward Draper – he took care of my brother that had kidney problems too) and he said they were going to drain her lungs.  She was drowning in her own fluid.

I went home and started calling family, trying to figure out how/who would take turns with me and stay with her.  Except for Rod, the brother with kidney problems (and the two younger brothers), the rest of the family all lived far away and were busy with their own lives.  I didn’t know how to deal with it but the decision to take time away from work didn’t have to be made, she died on the morning of the 5th of May.

She told her Dr. on Sunday night that she was going home in the morning; that morning I got an early call from him, saying that mom wasn’t going to make it much longer and I should go to the hospital.  I grabbed my brother and we went.  When we visited her room, she appeared to be sleeping; she had an oxygen clip in her nostrils, and didn’t move when we came in.  My brother sat down beside her and leaned over to kiss her forehead, taking her arm in his hand.  She moved then, but only slightly, and I knew she was ready to go.  I left the room.

That is the part I’ve struggled with for years.

Now I would stay with her and hold her while she passed.  Back then, I couldn’t stand to watch her take her last breath. If I was forced to relive that time period, (I say forced because my whole existence at that time was a black pit of stress and emotional hell and I pray I will never have to deal with anything like it again), from the beginning of her illness, I would have worked at comforting her and helping with her life’s chores.

A few minutes after I left her room and was wandering the hospital halls, I got a page from Dr. Draper.  I knew her struggle with living and dying was over — and she did go home.

It took me a number of years before I was able to reach back and feel that time period.  I just shut the whole thing off inside my head, and went through the motions.  Of course my two younger brothers came to live with me, and having a job, family, and noise and confusion, helped me bury it for a long time.

But life always catches up and slaps you in the face with a long forgotten memory at times. The hardest part of life sometimes is being able to forgive yourself.  I believe I’m finally there.  But that doesn’t mean I won’t have the sniffles or all-out cry-baby-blues again at some point over that part of my life and other little slices that I’ve tucked away since then.

If you have a loved one or friend that needs a little TLC in times of illness and hardships, take the lid off the shaker and just pour as much as you can on them.  You’ll be much happier in the long run.

4 thoughts on “On living and dying”

  1. That’s a pretty heavy tale, Kiddo. Walk lightly, as the military says: it all goes for thirty years.

    Most emerge stronger for it. You know, like you.

  2. It was a dark time TM. I know this is crazy, but watching and listening to players at the poker table actually opened doorways to me – to things I buried rather than experiencing them. It’s all a long, complicated tangle, but the best thing to do is keep grinding.

  3. Thank you for sharing that story Linda. My own mom has been in my mind a lot this week. She overcame polio in the 50’s, only to have her body betray her late in life, which led to her being over-medicated to the point of her brain melting right in front of our eyes until she passed on. Last week, I was in the running to be a conference leader at an interfaith devotional singing workshop with all these heavy hitters from all over the spiritual spectrum. They asked for a tape, and since I do my cantoring work on days when you aren’t allowed to record in a synagogue, I didn’t think I had anything. Then, while putting something on iTunes for my 12 year old, I came across a recording on a pocket recorder of the funeral service I led for my mom. Really simple, really raw. I figured “why the heck not, I’m probably not going to get the gig anyways”. I sent it, they loved it, I’m heading to the Bahamas in January to do a one-hour solo concert and two hour and a half workshops. Thanks, mom.

  4. Jan, I think one of the hardest things we face in life is dealing with our own emotion on opening our souls to the harsh reality of death – and dying. I’m so happy you were chosen for this, I’m sure you will do a wonderful job and help others on how to prepare and deal with it. Giant hugs!

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