Kay’s mother’s death watch…

Kay’s mother is 95 years old.   Kay’s mother is in the process of dying. Kay is spending most of her time now, sitting with her mother. They converse whenever her mother is lucid – her mother’s mental faculties are intact and she communicates her physical discomforts as well as her desire for and appreciation of how Kay has been  and continues to be a caring companion and caregiver up to now. 

Two days ago, her Mother announced that she was “ready to go”, and that she felt she had died twice that day. They had an interesting discussion about whether this actually happened. Kay reports telling her that “Yes, she was still here”, and where here was.  They together looked around the room where her mother was lying, to enumerate things familiar there. Look at the wallpaper (check) grasp hands(check) sing a hymn(check).

Kay’s mother then requested that Kay keep her company and go with her to the afterlife.  She really thought this was a good idea and would prefer this to happen.  (Kay’s mother has, throughout her long life, reinforced and acted on her belief in a strict hierarchy of “Power from the top down” with God at the top, prophets, the Bible, priests and other learned men, Government at all levels, bosses, parents and finally children. She fully understands the importance of her position in the pecking order of “Power from the top down” authorities and what duties she must fulfill and how she must fulfill them. She also has firm expectations of Kay’s duties and desired conduct as a daughter, someone operating from a lower level of power. She dispenses her approval, permission or displeasure in what she considers an even-handed way; she is the arbiter of all matters pertaining to family life.)  Kay patiently explained that she had still some of her own unfinished business to complete here.  Her Mother understood and approved the need for Kay to finish her tasks, and gave her permission to remain behind.

Today, Kay has reported on the phone that her siblings have all arrived in suburbia to be with their mother in her final days.  They spent the afternoon together by the bed, where their mother is lying, now mostly unconscious. They remained quiet, and to preserve silence, they sat on their respective chairs doing cross-word puzzles, each by themselves.

Kay said she has been taking photographs of her mother, whenever she has lapsed into sleep, to have a record of her mother as she is right now. One of Kay’s sisters thinks this is not a good thing to do. Her brother just shrugged. Kay, an artist as well as business woman, expressed to me that she wants to make some artwork using her mother’s image.  We segued into a conversation about why it is okay to take pictures of people while they are alive, but is considered less desirable to show them in the stages of dying. Kay mentioned the various paintings that Edvard Munch had made of deathbed scenes. In these scenes, people dying are tastefully depicted, and  those who surround them are shown in various postures that can be read as expressions of their feelings of loss. Kay said “Imagine the furore that would have erupted in Munch’s day if he had painted a death scene showing family members playing cross-words”.  We  considered that Munch would have been considered dis-respectful, unloving and thoughtless, or insane. He would be highly criticized, maybe shunned. Kay ruefully stated that her mother, would  react in a similar fashion, and perhaps also with sadness and anger, if Munch had been her son and painted such a picture..  Next, Kay wasn’t sure how to feel about doing cross-words at her mother’s deathbed.  She made this candid and thought-provoking observation –

“Mother is beyond caring about this and I guess I’ll have to live with the consequences that result.”

7 Responses to “Kay’s mother’s death watch…”

  1. onemoreoption Says:

    Great post. Great observations on your specific family and on how generations of women perceive their roles differently. Plus, just great, uncommon observations.

    In defense of doing crossword puzzles in hospitals (wit intended) . . . I’m not sure I’d associate that quiet, mind-exercising activity with many negatives. Nor would I consider solitaire or knitting disrespectful. The dying and the sick don’t always want us to stop living, learning, and creating.

    And I have no idea what Munch would have thought, but I think what both you and Kay implied is true – he painted where the REAL story was happening. Who knows, there probably were similar “crossword” style activities going on around the dead back in those times. But Munch didn’t paint those “crossword” activities. He painted primarily people who were going through a major life feeling (a death, a kiss, a murder, a scream, a stage of life, or a nude reflecting being pensive).

    Similary, your post has painted major, important moments in a family’s journey, their not-always-in-agreement ideas, and their love for one another.

  2. suburbanlife Says:

    Thank you for your comments, onemoreoption. It encourages me to keep on with keeping at this hobby of mine – writing.

  3. mjau Says:

    Yes, I agree, this was a wonderful text. I just wanted to say that.

  4. Deborah Barlow Says:

    Very provocative to think about confronting those beliefs or norms that remain transparent to us until light shines on them at a certain angle. Thank you for this post, much to think about.

  5. Kay Says:

    Death does not come easy.
    On watch night two, my mother convulsed all night with ligaments pulling tight and locking. Painful and agonizing.
    All night we tried to comfort her. The morphine was working but didn’t touch the depth of pain. My sister and I struggled all night, spelling each other off for a short respite; but often working together to spoon minute amounts of liquid into her mouth to minimize her difficulties; to knead out the powerful spasms; Funny how a weak and helpless body could produce movements of such dynamic force.
    Next morning, we were able to get a doctor to increase the morphine dose and now, instead of hour by hour, it was administered at four hour intervals through a single butterfly entry into her bloodstream. Poor butterfly. I had always thought of it as a symbol of freedom. Of flight. Of lightness. Perhaps that would be what this next step would bring this suffering soul.
    Night watch number three, the drug had taken effect and she was no longer convulsing. She still had tremors but the agonizing moments were fewer and farther apart.
    We were awake both of us and watched unlikely programs on the television. “Shark” and “Arrested development”. It distracts.

    There is much to tell about our vigil nights. Maybe some day I will post it all.
    It is horrible, this ending, but a privilege, none the less, to serve this elegant and refined woman in her last hours. Through her drugged state, she can still thank us for a droplet of water; ask kindly, politely, for relief from her various primordial needs. Never a cross word passes her lips. Swear words were always verboten. In agony, she never uses a rough or impolite word.
    At one point when she was resting and we were taking respite before the next wave of tremors, I was unravelling an extremely tangled ball of yarn. I am crocheting a blanket for the newest born soul in my orbit, my best friend’s first grandchild. One of the skeins was hopelessly tangled.
    I managed the first part of it, then realized I was really working with a double skein. When I went to unravel the second part, I could find no end to begin with. How ironic. How symbolic.
    I gave the skein to my sister to find the end. She said she liked unravelling things. It was something she was good at. It took a good hour but she did find it. She held it up in triumph and she began to create an orderly ball from this starting point.
    I was quite glad to leave her to it. I needed more order in my chaos so I returned to my crocheting feeling slightly guilty as if this mundane chore I was doing, the creation of a blanket for a child, was somehow distracting me from my purpose – helping my mother’s soul go quietly into the deepest night.
    I crocheted away thinking with a twist that I was just like Madame Lafarge, knitting, waiting for death take my mother.

  6. onemoreoption Says:

    Kay, wow, thank you for writing – human kindness as an artform.

  7. Kay Says:

    Death does not come easy, watch night 5
    Thanks, One more option.

    Last night my nephew stayed with me while I watched. Mother is restless. The morphine has been increased again – four hour doses with one hour booster shot and still she mumbles trying to communicate; trembles with an internal earthquake simulator; begs “please let me go”.
    Finding comforting and soothing words to bring her back to calm is difficult and definitely repetitive.
    Nephew is a godsend. A gentle giant, tender and caring with his granny.
    I didn’t give him much notice, but my sister had become very weary, tires easily and then gets sick easily. Of all the caring people in my orbit, he is one I love to spend time with. He gives me intelligent and observing conversation; brings me youthful enthusiasm and keeps my spirit young.
    He has an irreverent sense of humour which lets me keep my balance.

    He accepted readily my invitation-date for care watch. When he arrived , we had in one of those very privileged conversations between aunt and nephew. He confessed that he’s had quite a week, staying up late to apply to grad school on time; and to one of the recruiting agencies of the government for an entry position in his own field – so hard to get started right after graduation. With granny’s condition weighing on his mind, he has felt more tired than ever.
    So with his work companions, he went out for a few drinks. It was only after two beers, the rum cocktail with apple cinnamon flavor, the martini with pear and another exoitic cocktail whose composition I forget now, he received my call.
    He came straight home, slept an hour, drank a very stiff coffee (the spoon was disintegrating as he stirred it) then came to give comfort with me.
    “Ah, youth,” I thought. If I’d had two of those I would have been under the table and miserable for the next two days.

    He stayed awake for three in an awkward position to enable him to hold her hand in position of comfort. I would give her liquid when the tremors came, or rather in the final stages of the tremors. He helped me spoon feed her thimbleful by thimbleful. He helped massage her legs, smoothe her hair; adjust her blankets.
    Finally his fatigue repossessed him and he dozed in the arm chair at the end of the bed. Just his presence was a comfort for me. I took up hand holding duty.
    Hand holding is a critical care function.
    A person will improve their condition many-fold if someone holds their hand, the closer the rapport the greater the improvement, it has been proven.
    Hand holding also is like a finely tuned alarm. When the ailing body quivers, like the earthquake plant does, you know a tremor is coming. You know your dozing is over and you need to pay attention. When the spasms come, you know you must give the patient liquid. It soothes, I find. And then your bedside patter needs to wind up and blare like a trumpet grammaphone.
    My voice always seems to be so loud and inappropriately wooden on these occasions because there is no answer back; the room is very quiet; and the words seem to lose meaning. But the patter works and slowly we return her trembling frame to quiet.

    My gentle giant, nephew, works on the verbals differently. He says little. He gets his lips close to her ear and soothes with a quiet “shush, shush” and it’s equally effective.

    There were no revelations this night. She continues to hold to life while asking to leave it. It doesn’t seem fair. I can’t imagine any conditions under which she deserves this lingering and painful death.
    I have never been this close to someone dying before. It’s possible that it’s common. But we had put in an order for “Death, peacefully in her sleep”.

    It is cathartic for me to write about it.

    Live well while you can; think with an attitude of half full (or more); love is still the answer.


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