Years ago a nice lady booked me to perform a concert at an assisted living facility where she worked. Then she invited me back again, and again. We enjoyed visiting with her when we saw her, but it wasn’t until we became Facebook friends that I truly got a glimpse into her personal joys and struggles. Amazingly, I know more about her now that I haven’t seen her for several years than I knew about her when I saw her face-to-face on a regular basis. I have prayed for her as she moved on from the assisted living job to a degree program, rejoiced with her when she passed her tests, and appreciated her support via my Facebook page when I faced struggles or enjoyed success. Today she posted that her mother is dying. I typed a comment, then deleted most of it, then retyped it, then deleted all of it, typed, “I’m so sorry. My heart is with you,” and then decided that my full response would have to be in the form of this blog. Here’s what I think I wanted to say – what I hope the simple words I left on her wall will say:
This journey we call “death” is one we know we all must take, and one we know we’ll watch others face. We may even be called upon to be with someone as they take the journey, and most of us say we would do that willingly for our loved ones. But when we’re actually faced with it, we’re scared witless, most of us. Even if we believe (and I do) that life is eternal and Heaven is “for real,” the reality of death is an absolute end to what we know and understand in our finite existence – in this life. Our reality is altered, completely and “forever,” in our sense of the word. Even when we’re together again, it won’t be like this. It will be better… but we don’t know in what ways it will be better, or when, or how, or anything. So we’re scared, and reluctant, and sad, and at peace, and scared.
Last year we lost both of my husband’s parents: first his mom and then his stepfather. It was hard in countless ways, and it continues to be hard. It was a blessing in countless ways also, and it continues to be a blessing. We were with both of them through their illnesses, in various hospitals, supporting them in really tough decisions, and finally in the moments of their crossing from this life to the next. We spent the better part of a year in a constant state of “ready” position: ready to drop everything and meet someone at the emergency room, or ICU, or general hospital ward; ready to drive someone to a medical appointment; ready to pick up the phone and hear the results of oncology tests and listen to the hopes and fears of the tested; ready to make a pharmacy run when new meds were needed; ready to sit in a hospital waiting room as long as it took to get a report… ready…ready…ready.
We would not change anything about that, because we can now look back and know that we did all we could for them, and we have no questions or regrets. But we feel like we’ve come back from a war. My mind got so used to being in that state of constant “readiness,” that I temporarily lost my ability to plan ahead. Good news was so good and bad news was so bad, that we learned to take it all with a steadiness of emotion that was almost emotionless. Our grieving process has been different from the norm (if there is a norm) also, because we were responsible for so many decisions, and we still are. As Executor, my husband deals with daily reminders of the fact that his parents are gone. A piece of mail addressed to “the Estate of…” A notification from their health insurance provider. The regular visit to their house to check the mail and finish packing and cleaning their things. Legal matters. Daily reminders of their absence and daily reminders of how blessed we were to be present for them when they needed it, then and now.
So, my colleague-turned-friend who is facing this journey with your mom, my heart is with you. My heart is with you because I get it. I may not know exactly how it is to be you or how it is to be the daughter of your particular mother, but I do understand what it’s like to reach this inevitable point in life and to choose to face the journey with someone you love. We knew it would happen, and we hoped it would be later. We don’t want to go through it, but once it’s happening we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world but right there. We steel ourselves so we can be strong for the person who needs our strength, and we find quiet, out-of-the-way places to break down and cry it out so there’s room for more strength, for one more day, or week, or month, or hour. Because, while this is happening, what used to be important just isn’t as important anymore. This is big. It happens once and that’s it. It tears your heart up and rebuilds it over and over again. You’ll come out of it stronger and wiser, and weaker and more confused. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get to tell someone who is just beginning the journey that it will be OK, and that your heart is with them.