A Grand, Chaotic, Loving Goodbye

She had endured the effects of Alzheimer’s for nine years, having been diagnosed at age 65.  When people ask me what caused her death, I just don’t know what to say.  I really don’t know; multiple infections, a blood clot, a series of falls?  Perhaps her spirit was just plain worn out.

So when it was clear that she had only days left, I had this fantasy that my mom would pass away peacefully with beautiful music playing in the candle lit bedroom, my brother, sister and me by her side.  Praying. Releasing her to God. It was a peaceful fantasy.

The reality of what transpired was in the end quite different from what I had imagined. Beautiful music was playing.  A candle was lit. My brother, sister and I were praying by her bedside for most of the time. We did this daily, hourly, never wanting to leave her alone.

By day four, we still had the stamina to continue our vigil, however, fatigue was beginning to set in.  At one point, during our prayers kneeling around her bed, I heard this strange noise.  I looked behind me to discover my brother’s dog. Somehow he had entered the bedroom and, much to my horror, began loudly licking his privates in the stillness of our prayers!

After four days of my mother’s unresponsiveness and laborious breathing and now this vulgar event, my fantasy was beginning to fade.  But, the dog doing what dogs do, did make me chuckle. Life continued on despite the death call knocking at the door.

The endless visitors from relatives and friends felt almost like a gathering for a party.  If the noise from the dog wasn’t enough, the noise from the great grandchildren running through the house screaming and laughing as innocent children do, continued to distract me from my peaceful state, sending my nerves into over-drive. I could only imagine that if my mom’s spirit was lingering, it must have been because she was wildly entertained by all the commotion.

My sister, stressed beyond belief and enveloped in her own fantasies of our mother’s last breath, stormed out of the candle lit, dog-licking room, only to shout, “You kids settle down, Grandma’s trying to rest!” My brother and I looked at each other, both thinking, REST?

At that point, all five great grandchildren, six grandchildren, in-laws and distant relatives decided it was time to say their goodbyes despite our concerns of “disturbing” our dying mother’s exit into the next world.

One by one, they marched in determined to love her up. Crowded in her small bedroom, squeezing each other for a spot around her hospital bed, all loving family members young and old came to kiss her and say their sweet farewells, albeit some just a bit too loudly.

But this was my mom’s time after all and she would have encouraged the children to express themselves without regard to any adult’s preconceived ideas of what is “proper”. She had been a child advocate and had witnessed first hand the deleterious effects of stifling the feelings of kids. Children, in the opinion of my mom, were to be loved, plain and simple.

So, as we were gathered around her bed, I couldn’t believe my eyes. My beautiful mother began to sit up.  Slowly, she began to rise, mouth and eyes eerily open.  The room was suddenly silent.  All of us, young and old, stood frozen and watched, shocked at the possibility of her sitting up after days in the supine position. It was in the loudness of the stillness that we discovered the nine-year-old great-granddaughter accidentally pushing up against the hospital bed controls. Oh the chaos!

Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, I decided to get some fresh air.  I had said my goodbyes, told my mom how much I loved her, just like I did every day of her life and left the room.  If she died moments after I left the room, I would have to be ok with that.

Sitting outside on the swing, that warm summer evening and thinking about my perfect “fantasy” of mom’s passing, I began to laugh.  What a relief. It was the sweetest, softest feeling, a balm for my own exhausted spirit. My fantasy after all was boring and unimaginative. Mom would have been mildly disappointed at my clichéd ending to her life.

Ironically, pre-Alzheimer’s my mom was not one to revel in being the center of attention, especially when two or more gathered in a room.  She preferred to be a quiet observer and took pleasure in watching others take center stage.

A master at turning the interviewer into the interviewee, she could deflect questions about herself like no other.  It would be one-on-one when my mom would open up and share intimate details of her interesting life, her own neglected childhood, hence her reverence for children.

Post-Alzheimer’s she had no choice but to be the center of attention as we doted over her, fed her, bathed her, and helped her with her daily ablutions.  To cope, we all laughed, including mom. She would often laugh the loudest at the incredible absurdity of this devastating disease.  If not laugh, what was the other choice?

I knew from the depths of my soul that my mom was very likely laughing hysterically, never taking herself too seriously, even in death. We could not have orchestrated a grander goodbye from this perfectly imperfect, flawed, wonderful family.

That night, I learned to let go — let go of my expectations, let go of my needless desire to control things, let go of my mom.

She did not die that night like we thought she would.  Perhaps there really was too much noise for her to make her exit.  She did not die with the three of us sitting around her bed praying. She died in her own way and her own time, three days later, in the quiet of her candle-lit room.  All alone.

Image credit: CreeksideVinyl on Etsy

About the Author

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Teresa Oefinger is a Middle School Science Teacher and Personal and Professional Development Coach. She’s been married for 30 years and is the mother of two adult daughters who inspired her column called Help! Parenting Teens in the Ark Newspaper at Tiburon, California from 2005 to 2009. She blogs on issues of Whole Life Living at teresaoefinger.comteresaoefinger.com.

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