On November 22, 2014 at 11:47 ( Note: not 23:47 ) my birth mother passed away.
We knew it was coming. She’d really been mean to her body throughout her life and now in her early 50’s she was suffering from advanced cardiac failure, renal issues, and Stage IV pulmonary cancer.
I could be mistaken, but I think she’d had kidney issues for a really long time. One kidney was significantly smaller than the other. Then the heart problems started – not quite a decade before her passing. Depending on who you ask and when you ask them, she’d had a heart attack or a number of them. She swore up and down that she did, but I heard with mine own ears a very prominent local cardiologist tell her to her face that she simply did not have a heart attack. That was kind of how it went with my birth mother’s health history – between her own skewed perceptions of reality, lack of intelligence / education, and not understanding a lot of the medical lingo, she told you whatever she thought to be true, and often refused to change her understanding even when the truth was factly presented to her face. I recall around Mother’s Day of this year that my sister and I were in the hospital with this woman and we spoke to each and every specialist who came into her room – she had in her head what she had in her head and nothing was going to change that. (Side Note: As a Hindu, I find immense and authoritative value behind one’s personal experience. After all, my religion is founded on direct and personal experience. But the questioning Western mind within my head also remains humble enough to understand that perception often flavors and skews what we think is our experience and sometimes greatly so. One must remain open and submissive to truth beyond what we think.)
So not quite a decade ago a pace maker was installed into within her cardiac organ. Apparently, those things typically have a life of just under a decade ( I think I recall hearing something like 7 or 8 years, on average). If I’m keeping the story straight, as the battery (or whatever) in her pace maker began to go kaput it began firing more often. It was at this time (around Mother’s Day) that discussions included the idea of replacing her pace maker. However, the cardiologist who’d been watching her for 8 years said that would be “unethical” on grounds that it was doing at least as much damage as it was good. Like a smoker smoking to “manage” their stress and then getting stressed out because of the stigma associated with such an unhealthy habit or because they’ve developed COPD or emphysema. Definitely a double-edged sword with this gadget – the solution itself creates the problem. Frankly, it reminded me of Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies: Prior to being strong enough to sustain a physical body on his own he fed off of the blood of unicorns, which kept him going alive but only at a “half life.” I guess that’s what a pace maker does – it’ll set you right for the moment but does damage in the process so is really a mixed blessing.
Because of the dying pace maker and the increasingly compromised condition of her heart, she needed to have installed some other sort of pump that basically facilitates the pumping the heart should be doing but isn’t. She was also on the list of patients needing a transplant – which seemed really selfish of her. These options were issues though because she’d continued taking medicines she shouldn’t have (read: was told to no longer take), wasn’t taking the prescribed ones as she was supposed to, had been delinquent with her various appointments, and she hadn’t yet jumped through a few other necessary hoops that would make her a candidate for this pump.
Around Mother’s Day she was given 6 weeks to live. At that time, I began making efforts to help her get her affairs in order. She had no Last Will, no Living Will, no POA, …. nothing. She made a few steps in the right (preparatory) direction, but the man she was living with had other plans. Any chance he had to be alone with her usually meant that plans would change. It crossed my mind just today that all of that started right around a year ago now. The pic below is one I took that day in May of 2014 while I was in her hospital room – probably during one of the few moments she and I had together with just us two in the room.
She surpassed those 6 weeks by a lot, actually. I’m told that she eventually followed orders well enough in regard to all the stipulations that the pump was finally installed. I’m also told that sometime in September of this year, she had a biopsy of a “spot” found on her lung earlier in the year. No one knew it at the time, but it was a kind of cancer that reacts severely to just about anything that might stimulate it. So when they took the biopsy a cancerous wildfire was unknowingly set off. From that point on, her condition deteriorated quickly.
Throughout all of this my sister and I received so many “cry wolfs” we lost count. My grandmother and aunt also were dragged through much of it. Eventually, we stopped rushing to every scene with the same fear as we had earlier in this game. We would sometimes hear things from the source, but often hear things second- or third-hand. You never quite knew what to believe or the degree to which it should be believed. Often, the things we were told (not by the MDs) weren’t supported by any of her actual symptoms. This was something her mother struggled with a lot. So much talk about heart failure, and yet so many of the tell-tale symptoms were not present in my mother. This, understandably, made my grandmother skeptical at times. We all were, truly.
I only found out about her Stage Four lung cancer a few weeks prior to her physical death – and that news was brought to me by people who’d grown really skeptical by that point. It’s hard to trust the person who was just about the worst you’ve ever known or her “true love” who was known to be a druggie and abusive.
The afternoon / evening before she died I received news that she’d been having trouble breathing and was taken to a hospital about 45 min from her home (about 70 min from my own). A brother of mine was in town and drove by her residence sometime thereafter and noted that they were yet at home and that things looked as normal as they could. Yet another false alarm, it seemed. Something really was up, though, as we later found out. I’m told she went to the first hospital and was shortly thereafter flown to a bigger hospital closer to where I live. One of her sisters and boyfriend were with her.
I don’t know (remember?) at which point during all of this that she was placed on life support, but I know after arriving at the second hospital she definitely was. The last time I’d spoken with her about such matters, she expressly stated that she wanted nothing like that. No machines to keep her going. That was back when I was her POA.
All that changed though, around mid-summer, when she was once again in the hospital and had by then replaced myself and my sister as her contacts and POA with her boyfriend – something I don’t think we were aware of. She’d gone in for surgery (pace maker replacement, I believe – which was another surprise considering earlier talks with specialists where this was called “unethical” by those doctors), and when the surgery was finished a medical professional came and took her boyfriend to see her while my sister and I were brought to a table in the waiting room where it was explained to us that we were essentially being kicked out by our mother. She wished not to see us at all after her surgery and made very clear to the medical staff that we were to “know nothing” beyond telling us that she’d made it through the surgery. My sister openly wept right then and there. I maintained as much composure as a child rejected by his mother could, thanked the staff, and then left with my sister. Lots could be said about my mother, but if my mother was consistent in only one thing in her life, it would be that she consistently placed men above family, including her children.
The day she was brought to the second hospital it made for a lot of scrambling because of the minimal information we were given, but a handful of us (myself, my sister, a brother, my birth mother’s brother and his wife, and my maternal grandmother) were able to arrive at the second hospital about 10 hours after she did. By the time we arrived, her body was fully supported by gadgetry and she was in an induced coma.
The decision had been made to take her off of the support and we were being allowed one more chance to say what we wanted to her before she fully expired. The boyfriend did the same without us in the room. Then the tubes were removed from her and we watched her body die. Even before then, her feet were already showing signs that, despite the fact that her body was alive, she was beginning to leave.
We all stood around the room – some closer to her at her bedside and some of us a few more feet away. I stood on her right side by her head, quietly and softly chanting the Maha Mrtunjaya Mantra in her right ear through my sobbing and occasionally gently touching her forehead in the ear of her “third eye” ( ajna chakra ). I recall her overall color ( in her face, arms, etc… ) not changing in the same way as the others I’ve watched leave their bodies. I also recall her body (her head specifically) remaining quite warm even a while after she’d passed and the life support had been turned off / removed.
Almost immediately, I called the funeral home my grandmother has used for her husband and began the arrangements for my birth mother’s body to be transported to our hometown. A local funeral home was needed to come get her to prevent her from going to the hospital’s morgue – which my family doesn’t usually allow. My sister and I remained in the hospital room with her corpse, allowing for the rest of the family to begin traveling back home. As morbid and maybe even as sick as it’s going to sound, it was during this time that I took a picture or two of my dead mother. I don’t really know why I did. I remember that, after the tubes were removed from her mouth and she had expired my grandmother, right before everyone but my sister and I left, came up to my mother, gently kissed her forehead and used her finger to apply some lip balm to my mother’s lips which had dried out a bit. In the pic I took, the lip balm container is still on my mother’s shoulder where my grandmother left it. But I wanted to take that pic, and so I did. A short while later, a representative from the second funeral home arrived and we watched them ( literally )bag our birth mother up and remove her body from the hospital.
My Beloved is convinced that my family has a tradition of dying in winter months because in the last decade, anyone who’s died (I’ve lost both grandfathers, an aunt, and now my birth mother) has passed during winter.
In the week after her passing my family really went through some crap. It’s a terribly selfish thing for someone to remain entirely unprepared for their own death. Sure, no one wants to dwell on such things, but the truth is when you leave your loved ones will likely need to grieve. If these same people are forced into a scenario of making all manner of final decisions for you, half of the time guessing about what you would want, then you are necessarily hindering a time of healthy grieving for them. All that is true, even before the financial burden of it all come into play, which is an entirely separate drama to deal with. My mother had ZERO preparations. No living will. No last will. Neither money set aside nor prior arrangements purchased. In May of 2014 while I was with her, I even had her almost convinced to make a video wherein she would express her last wishes – and she agreed to! That weekend, after spending the entire weekend in the hospital with her, the day she was finally released as stable enough to go home, I was behind them on the interstate following them back to where they lived (90 minutes away) when she called me on my cell and was like, “Joshua, honey, we need to run some errands and stuff. We have to stop at CVS and a few other places to grocery shop. Today’s not a good day for the video.”
Things get so messy so fast when this basic responsibility is avoided while you’re alive. In Indiana, when an unwed person dies children are considered the nextest of kin. Then parents and siblings. As her oldest, things technically fell the most to me but luckily my siblings were willing to help as much as they were able and they really were helpful, each of them, in their own ways.
It still wasn’t easy for us – all emotion aside. Depending on who you talked to, you would encounter varying degrees of emotional stability ( or lack thereof ), varying degrees of concern ( or lack thereof ), varying degrees of financial commitment to funerary expenses ( or lack thereof ), etc… She’d told most of us that she wanted cremation. But there were some others to whom she’d apparently expressed the desire to be buried. To a number of people she was known to be a practicing witch ( I didn’t know much about this side of her life until after her death), but generally speaking that side of my family is Catholic. Obviously, we had lots of conflict between what was thought to be her desires and what were the desires of those she left behind. The living are the absolute worst part of having a funeral or dealing with death.
In the end, she was embalmed because a viewing was determined to be necessary for my grandmother’s peace of mind. The Friday after her death was the date of the viewing. This was right after Thanksgiving 2014. It was simple. She was placed in a “ceremonial” ( read: rented ) casket. She was holding a flower or two and a black rosary. And there was a crucifix in the casket with her. I ended up with some of those things – you’ll see in a picture below. We purchased only a few bouquets of flowers because they’re pretty expensive. I remember, the one I bought wasn’t even very fancy or big and was $200. A number of others contributed to this as well, which helped. The handsomest priest from my hometown’s Catholic church came and offered a very abbreviated service. My siblings and I had to spread some kind of cloth over her closed casket when the viewing wa
s coming to an end – the priest said some sort of thing (not quite a prayer) and then we were removing the cloth almost as soon as we had spread it over her. She was later cremated and aside for a few keepsake urns and vials being filled, she remained on a shelf at the funeral home from the end of November 2014 until the end of April 2015. On the 25th of April the family came together one last time on her behalf.
On what was an absolutely cold, windy, and rainy day we came together along with a priest and a representative of the funeral home. She was placed on a table next to the priest while we stood before them. The priest recited some prayers that required us to respond in ways like “Amen,” and “Hear our prayer.” Once all that was over, the man from the funeral home went to the car and returned with a dozen balloons – one was given to each family member present. We all kind of circled around my mother on the table and looked at each other not knowing what should be done next. My grandmother spoke up suddenly and asked, “Would anyone like to say something?” One of her sisters present (the other local sister decided not to come) took a step or two toward the table, extended her arm straight out while holding her balloon with the same hand (she looked like she was presenting the balloon to the box of ashes) and gently said, “We love you and we’ll miss you, sis….. Until we see you again…” and then she released her balloon. Immediately after her, we all followed with the same. We then stood for a second watching the balloons make their way into the sky. Her cremains were then buried in that cemetery where my family has purchased a dozen or so burial plots. Her ashes are now resting next to the grave of her father.
I thought for a while that I would write a post about the kind of person my mother was and my experience of being her first-born. In the months passing since her death, I’ve decided against that. My experiences with this woman are no more or less worthy or biased than anyone else’s who ever knew her. Certainly, the woman I and my siblings knew was different than the woman many others knew. I’m not sure I could write about all that and produce something easy to follow, and besides, what’s that we’re taught as children? “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.” I don’t know that there’s NOTHING nice I could say, but anything nice I could find to say would almost certainly be buried by everything else said.
Aum Shri Mahaganeshaya Namaha | Aum Shanti