Most Americans believe there is an afterlife. Regardless of what you believe about an afterlife death slams the brakes on the present, unlocking a cavalcade of memories. In the afterglow of that impact there is an unexpected invitation to a container of wholeness. Death is not the final cradle.
As my mother navigated the final weeks of her life as best she could, her resolute longing to die was striking. Not because she hated life but because she imagined rejoining my father. The kindly medical staff doggedly determined to interrupt her sleep in order to collect a myriad of data believed that if a test or procedure existed it should be performed. In her they discovered a determination to choose to avoid further indignity.
In spite of decades working with the dying and bereaved families, my familiarity with end-of-life choices, death and grief was now staring me in the face, reflecting the image of the woman who gave birth to me. The tools I'd learned and the wisdom I'd received from the dying was suddenly stripped naked by my own emotions and responses.
I turned to the resources offered by the national organization Compassion and Choices. Well-versed in the subject matter, I soaked it in like a desert plant storing water. Faced by a well-meaning doctor who wished to keep my mother hospitalized for a final salvo of tests and indignities, she rallied to insist that she wanted to go home to die in peace. There were worse experiences for her than dying.
With the support of her own primary care physician and her sons and sons-in-law hospice made it possible for her wish of dying with dignity at home to be honored. In the last hours of her life death was slamming the brakes on a breath she freely wished to relinquish.
My own grief and the memories that surface at unexpected moments are not unexpected. Unexpected are the memories of others that craft a more fulsome picture of my mother, which fill me with gratitude. They all reflect a common thread of a woman who made others laugh at her own expense. They speak of love in their friendship, albeit the love of a certain generation that went unspoken and unnamed. Unbeknown to her sons there was even a reconciliation of a frayed relationship just weeks before her death. As a son I knew of her love, but it is in the stories of others that I realized the pride and depth of that love for her sons and their spouses.
Like many my mother was a person of contradictions and unresolved nuances. Charming, funny, engaged and embracing of life she was equally adept at seizing the moment to be obstinate, withdrawn and circumspect.
The stories that reveal her fullness illuminate the truth that she was a large personality who was raised in an era when most girls were frowned upon for claiming that truth about them. No wonder she was drawn to the personalities on steroids of people like Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diana and the pantheon of star female tennis players.
Death may have slammed the brakes on my mother's life, but it was a happy day for her. Those same brakes have pushed open a host of memories revealed in the stories of others, in which I discover a new wholeness and fullness to her life. Thinking about an afterlife is nowhere as comforting, surprising and life-giving as the gift of the spacious container of her life robustly cradled in the breath and voice of others. The final word is not death but life.
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