In the December that my mother died, before dawn, as she was dying, near death, I crunched my way through three feet of newly-fallen snow and stopped in this opening in the woods, and suddenly (like a dove descending from heaven--it truly was that profound), all my tumultuous feelings resolved into a profound understanding: the gift my sisters and I and my father and the caregivers were giving my mother was the gift of a good death. I stood still; couldn't move, it felt as if I moved the vision, the understanding would melt away. I composed this, standing among the trees pictured here:
This Christmas, my sisters and I are giving my mother a good death. Preparing for a present like this has taken us many years. Once we knew Mom had Alzheimers, we also knew we wanted her to stay at home for as long as imaginable to be supported by and supportive of my father. They live in a Victorian house and sometimes my older sister Nancy said it was like balancing everything on a toothpick. When my mother had a stroke six months ago, we moved to twenty-four hour care instead of the daytime care we then had in place. And now the work of caregiver interviews, the work of responding to emerging needs over the years, the work of being committed to them living an old age of dignity and as much independence as possible, is coming to fruition. I don’t know if we ever thought of it as having a point of fruition, but now in this bleak midwinter, in these days of windstorms that snatch our electricity away and snowstorms that challenge anyone on the road (except our intrepid caregivers), as our village is blanketed by beautiful white flakes and the ground is buried by the snow, now my mother, when she needs it, can have it – a good death.
She’s in a bed, not her own, a hospital bed, but it’s her own bed right now. And she has her family around her. My father sings songs to her, when able. We hold her hand and we talk to her, and we are reading from Mama’s Bank Account, about a Norwegian-American mother at the turn of the twentieth century. And we know this is our Mama, the archetypal Norwegian-American Mama, resourceful, funny, determined Mama, whose recipes have names like lutefisk, yulekage, leftsa, rumegrat. I know a Mama who prepared hot chocolate and spritz cookies; a Mama with a daughter with a desire to be a writer.
So we read these stories, we take turns, each sister, one holding her hands, and one reading, and one sitting in a rocking chair as the snow falls outside, snow on snow. We know that out mother is comfortable, and we know that our mother is loved and experiencing our love, and we take our tears to another room, where we decorate the Christmas tree, and we clothe this old Victorian house in more Christmas lights than its ever known. And we think of how some of the Christmas carols that talk about welcoming birth could just as easily be talking about giving a good death.
I wake up early in the morning and look out my window at a winter wonderland, and I know that because I’ve slept through the night, all is calm downstairs. And I feel the intersection of mythic stories and the Christmas story. The tender loving care that a babe in a manger needs, a dying person needs. Like birthing, dying is a holy time. We struggle to accept the mystery of it. Our primary caregiver, Freddie, is now a midwife of the soul. She is teaching us all. Each night here, is a holy night. And as this silent night passes into a snowy morning, I know I can go downstairs and do again the things we did yesterday and the day before. The things that all together are giving my mother, I pray, a good death.
In the bleak midwinter, what can I give? I will do my part. I give my heart to this, to this gift that my mother most needs: a good death