“What you possess in the world will be found at the day of your death to belong to someone else. But what you are will be yours forever.”Henry Van Dyke
Typical morning: Dogs are sleeping in the living room. A fire is burning. It’s cold in the living room, still, so I’m wrapped up in warm things made of flannel and knits, black, white, and gray for the morning, but when I get dressed I’ll zest up the wardrobe with a bit of color. Thin clouds barely cover the blue of the sky, and there isn’t even a hint of breeze. I can hear the wall clock ticking. I can hear my dogs breathing. I can hear a robin singing in a nearby Douglas fir.
My mother-in-law died this Saturday. It wasn’t unexpected, because she’s had Stage Four cancer for years, but the sudden turn from “tired with a lot of nausea” to “resting comfortably” happened with an alarming speed. I was horrified when I walked into her room Saturday mid-morning. She wasn’t the person I knew anymore, and I knew she’d hate it that we were sitting around her bed watching her struggling to breathe.
But we stayed anyway. We missed her death by an hour, but returned to sit with her body until the overly nice, and soft-spoken undertaker (or whatever he was) came to take her away. He made us leave the room while he moved her from the bed to the gurney. He covered her with two beautiful quilts. Two of the women who worked there: nurses? Attendants? Walked with us down the hall, into the elevator, down another hall, then outside to the white van. One of the nurses(?) held a battery-operated candle with a fake flickering light while she walked with us. I didn’t know what to do. Do I smile? Weep? Stay silent? Hold my husband’s hand? My sister-in-law took my arm and asked me about the fake candle.
“Maybe they’re just trying to be sweet,” I offered. One of the women told me how so many people visited my mother-in-law this week.
When we rushed back to the nursing home to say the first of our final goodbyes, and when we got out of the car, there was a rogue wind that blew through the both of us. The hospital is set on top of a hill in West Seattle. From the parking lot, if you turn to the east, you are looking out over the most beautiful city scene you’d ever hope to see, far above the buildings across the Puget Sound.
“It’s wonderful, now!” I thought I heard my mother-in-law whisper in the wind. I’m glad I imagined her finally free, because seeing her lying on that bed, perfectly still and permanently dead was a life changing shock. I know she feared death, and now there she was – very, very dead. I kept looking at her face, realizing she truly wasn’t there anymore. That adage about our bodies being left as a shell seemed true enough. I kept wondering if she’d breathe. I expected her to tell me a story and laugh. She laid there, completely still. So quietly.
A friend named Tim was on Facebook as I sat in that room. I told him I felt traumatized and he replied,
“Oh that is a great gift. I just said good bye to a friend who died. Went in with his ex to say good bye and touch Tom. Helps make everything complete to be present. Her spirit is thanking you for staying with her. All the FB talk about gratitude is practice field for right now. She’s grateful, and I am sure your Jim is grateful you are there, too.”
Then he shared a beautiful poem by Jane Kenyon:
So beautiful. I hope she felt that acceptance at the end. I hope she welcomed the evening, that she let it come, that she felt great peace. And I guess that’s something I’ll never get to know. Our journeys are uniquely our own, aren’t they?