Tiptoeing Toward Death

 Window at the Georgia O'Keeffe museum, Santa Fe, NM.  Reminds me of "the veil" between worlds. Photo by the author.

Window at the Georgia O'Keeffe museum, Santa Fe, NM.  Reminds me of "the veil" between worlds. Photo by the author.

She is tiptoeing toward Death as she would a vaguely familiar lover. And Death gently reaches out to her, rubbing her feet, her hands, leaving them cold. Death strokes her cheek with a soft, open palm. At first she leans in, like a cat accepting the caress. Then she pulls away, not ready to fall into these arms. Her eyes open and look into mine and she says, “My darling girl.”

Most hours my mother rests peacefully and seems content, pain well controlled, her physical body is doing the slow work of shutting down. But calm surface waters belie a deeper level of agitation. Tears erupt to the surface, frightened looks, the words “I’m okay” and “I’m going home” replaced by “I don’t understand what’s happening.” My tears match hers; helpless to soothe. She even rejects my touch at one point, perhaps mistaking it for Death. Though these moments are brief, I know from experience they are part of the inner work she is completing and no one can do it for her. All I can offer is a safe presence.

 Gnat Creek Trail, Oregon. Calm waters? Photo by the author.

Gnat Creek Trail, Oregon. Calm waters? Photo by the author.

Our Story
Remind me again—together we
trace our strange journey, find
each other, come on laughing.
Some time we'll cross where life
ends. We'll both look back                              
as far as forever, that first day.
I'll touch you—a new world then.
Stars will move a different way.
We'll both end. We'll both begin.

Remind me again.

—William Stafford

 

I notice something else with my mother that eluded me with the others I sat beside on their end-of-life journey. At times I clearly see her face. Her features. I glance at a photo next to her, and though she is now thinner, her eyes, her brow, her nose, her chin—all reflect the face I have seen since I was an infant looking up at her as I nursed. And then she seems to slip behind the veil and her face changes. It takes on the patina that I saw on my patients. It is the mask of Death.

As I watch her sculpt her own mask, which seems universal and unique, I am beginning to sense this too is part of her journey. With each trying on, the layer is thicker, protecting her from the pain of leaving behind those she loves. When she is ready, her inner waters will quiet and she will try the mask on one last time. Her face will take on that universal sheen of Death. This time I will stroke her cheek with my lips, knowing it is for my comfort, not hers.

As I continue on my journey with my ninety-year old mother, who is on hospice, I have found it helps me to write. As mother and daughter, we have always been close. This is by far, the most difficult and most sacred end-of-life journey I have had the honor to witness and companion.

I know not all deaths are expected or welcomed. Not all relationships are close. This is my experience, informed by working in hospice and years of my own inner work. My observations are both personal and professional. I can’t separate the two.

I usually end my blog posts with questions. So here they are: What have you noticed when you have been with someone who is dying? How has it touched you?