By Margaret Treadwell
"Every night I pray that God will take me, but I wake up the next morning and he didn't!" My mother said this often during the months before her death on Oct. 28. On her good days, she was looking forward to her 100th birthday on April 17.
Suffering with her frail body, yet extraordinarily independent and unafraid to speak her mind, my mother was interested in all my adventures, whether it be an opportunity to teach or publish, an escapade with our grandkids or travel with my husband. Last summer she said, "Peggy, I don't have time to die; there's always something going on with you!"
When my father died in 1996 after a long bout with Alzheimer's, my strong mama got a whole new life despite her grief, made diverse friends younger than she, listened to them and us without judgment, refused to gossip, kept her lively sense of humor and stayed faithful to her Episcopal church and the priests whose ministries sustained her as she became more homebound.
With a beautiful community surrounding her in Alabama, I determined to help her remain in her own home. As her pain grew, along with her litany of complaints, I tried to stay emotionally present despite being physically distant. But how I worried I wouldn't be with her at her death.
So when Mother's rector Rick called to say, "Come down now. It's time," my daughter Glennon and I were blessed to be able to go for five remarkable days before her death.
During that time, Mother was either deeply asleep or completely awake and present, wondering why we thought she was sleeping when she insisted she was hearing all we said.
Indeed, her responses were right on. On the second day, when my husband Jay called from a business trip, she asked about the details of it. When my son Josh called from New York, she wanted to know about his baby's first steps. When Rick called to check on her, she told him she wouldn't be here much longer, then said, "Know that I support you in everything you do except when I don't, and then I won't!"
Mother's singing voice disappeared several years ago, but on the third day she pulled herself out of sleep to recite words to songs, which we then sang to her, especially "Now the Day is Over" and "I'll be Loving You Always." She said, "I dreamed about Will [my dad]. We danced together, and he looked so handsome with the sweetest smile. I've loved my life!"
On the fourth day, when Mother never awoke, we continued to sing and pray with two close friends and her three caretakers. Early morning of the fifth day, we observed the signs of death. We gathered around her to recite in her ears (hearing is the last sense to disappear) Psalm 23 and The Lord's Prayer. On the "Amen" Mother took her last breath.
I know now what "a good death" means.
Later, at her funeral and life celebration, my husband observed, "It takes a village to let a 99 ½-year-old go!" Indeed her community poured out that day with love, memories and delicious food to nourish us. Our grandchildren joined the chorus of "Always" when I sang it during my eulogy, and Rick's homily captured Mom's mind, spirit and soul, which continue to live even as she has been released from her ravaged body.
My cousin Francis, a retired Episcopal priest, officiated at graveside. He told the story of a Jewish funeral where the rabbi turned the shovel over (upside down) to place the first spade full of dirt on the coffin. This signified regret but acceptance, and Francis did the same for Mother. Then grandson John, 5, wanted to dig the hole deeper and be chief shovel man; granddaughter Nola, 4, rounded up flowers from nearby tombstones for Mother's grave, while her sister Lily, 6, made sure her toddling cousin Katja, 14 mos., didn't fall into the hole. "Life is for the living," Mom would say.
As we continue to celebrate Mom's life, I'm surprised at the waves of pain and exquisite grief, which unexpectedly "smack me upside the head," grab my heart and punch me in the gut. A long life well lived doesn't diminish the void and ache of missing. I'm giving myself permission to be sad, to sleep when I'm exhausted, to have patience with myself and others for assuming that there is little need to mourn a good death of one so ancient. There are signs that transformation is in progress but will take time – God's time.
Margaret M. "Peggy" Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice.