My mother died at age 89, the day after April Fool’s Day, 1998. She had a blood cancer which normally takes five years to kill its victim, in a long slow decline of energy until at the end some tiny challenge creates a fatal crisis. In my mother’s case, the end was triggered by a bit of food-poisoning which caused violent vomiting that tore the wall of her intestines and started slow internal bleeding. Her blood was incapable of clotting.
The problem was not medical but how to handle the end-time relationship between me and my mother. (I have two brothers but they are a different essay.) Her family had come on the Oregon Trail and were proud of it, but traumatized by the terror and hardship. My mother’s grandmother, a proud and passionate woman, died of childbirth infection after the birth of my mother’s uncle, so my maternal grandmother was raised by a stepmother who was critical and demanding. This nurturing deficit was addressed by marrying a fiery activist building contractor with twin brothers and a vigorously successful father. But one of the twins died and the contracting business shrank until the whole family moved to Roseburg. That’s where they were when the Great Spanish Flu epidemic hit in 1918. My nine-year-old mother nearly died. At recess another little girl had had a headache and my mother cradled her head for a while -- long enough to catch the flu. My grandmother felt very proud that she was able to bring her oldest daughter through that pandemic with devoted nursing.
In her long and vigorous life my mother defined herself as strong and capable. She had defeated a disease that killed ten per cent of the population of America. She was never a victim but one who rescued others, from Oregon pioneer stock. When I was in high school, she had a radical mastectomy for breast cancer, and bore it almost silently except that she became angry at me. Earlier, when she broke her wrist, she was angry at me for that, too. At that point I didn’t understand that anger was her defense against danger and she was afraid those things would happen to me. Anyway, she wanted me to pick up the housework on the level of hard labor she had done on the farm and I was not prepared to do that. I’d rather read.
She was ambivalent about this final blood cancer. She had taken up smoking. My father was shocked by smoking, so she had given it up when she met him, but years after his death she began smoking -- secretly. At least she tried to hide it from me. (I don’t smoke and I’m not about to. Why pay money for something to burn up when one could buy a book?) She knew the statistics as well as I did, but in her eighties she began to be fatalistic and then a chain smoker. Maybe that started the cancer. Maybe not.
At the end the doctor ordered the hospice home support she had wanted. He estimated a week until death. I asked her if she wanted to see her minister. As a young mother she had been quite active in the little neighborhood church which we attended because there was no car -- we had to stay in walking distance. Earlier she had belonged to a major stone church with a prestitious minister -- actually, a man who was a major figure in Clinical Pastoral Care -- but it was too far for her to make little kids walk and even the bus was too expensive. She didn't want the minister. She said, "I don't want him to see me like this." A common response.
When I went off to college in Chicago, I was very earnest about religion. Our neighborhood pastor had emphasized that membership hinged on the Apostles’ Creed and said that if we didn’t believe in “virgin birth, physical resurrection and the Trinity,” we didn’t belong. At college I signed up for “World Religions” and “Philosophy of Religion” (taught by Paul Schilpp, a famous humanist) and inevitably discarded those three Christian dogmatic cards. I wrote to the neighborhood church and withdrew my membership.
That minister wrote me an impassioned letter about the planet Pluto (you can’t see it -- you can only tell it’s there because of its influence on the other planets -- no doubt he's had to discard this metaphor now that Pluto and mainstream churches have been demoted) and then, from the pulpit, condemned people who sent their children off to heathen universities to become atheists. My mother rose from her pew and transferred her membership back to the pile-of-stone prestigious church.
She diagnosed the neighborhood minister as jealous because I had a scholarship to a good school while his daughter could only afford Portland State. She was probably right. By that time she had a car so she could go back to college. It was a green coupe that some kid had equipped with a diesel truck horn which she much enjoyed. In order to start her car in the morning, my brothers had to get out of bed and push it until it rolled down the street far enough to jerk into gear. (Luckily, we lived on a hill.)
At retirement she became more active in her big stone church and the Scots minister who was there when my father died was one of her heroes. After reliably visiting my father’s bedside while he lay in a coma for a month (a major stroke) this minister had done a remarkable memorial. But as often happens, the minister had become controversial and had moved on. After he left, my mother volunteered to work in the church office and maintained the Rolodexes of membership for years, but became a little too aware of church politics. When she became ill, no one noticed. It was a big church. They had a “caring minister” but he had to be advised and she didn’t much like him. She said he was a fuddy-duddy.
More than that, her own mother had died a very long death from abdominal cancer, suffering for years and becoming ever more dependent on sentimental religion. As a little child I got from her many gilt-edged cards of verses illustrated with pastel angels. My mother didn’t want to be like that. Anyway, she had never really reconciled with her parents. (They were opposed to her marriage to my father, who was fond of announcing he was an atheist.)
When the hospice spiritual advisor asked about her faith, my mother said stiffly, “I read my Bible!” During a brief stabilizing stay in the hospital the staff suggested that the chaplain might be helpful, but my mother was opposed. I told her she was making the chaplain look bad, that the chaplain needed to show that she was visiting many patients. On that basis, she did talk to the chaplain. When I did a little mild prying, she said, “We addressed a few issues.” I asked what she was like. “Oh, the usual professional middle-aged woman.”
By this time she had jumped to denial and told her doctor that she didn’t have cancer, that she had never had cancer because she never had a lump. Nothing had been cut out of her. She couldn’t assimilate the idea of blood cancer. Finally she accepted the fact of an internal hemorrhage.
At first she was angry that I came to the hospital prepared to stay for the night. “You sit over there in the corner like a big black dog!” she accused. “Get out. Leave me in peace!”
I went home. Woke up at 3AM, showered and went back to the hospital. The place was all sealed up but I finally got in through the emergency entrance. My mother’s room was dark and she slept. I went into the little lounge and there was a young woman sobbing. Her husband had just died of cancer after a long fight. He’d been removed from his room. She’d been asked to take all the personal items when she left and now they were stacked beside her, too much to carry. She said their only relative in town was a cop who was still out on patrol. He’d be off work soon and come to get her.
So I took her in my arms and held her and rocked her and said all the comforting things. She said, “You smell so good!” over and over. (I’d just gotten out of the shower.) Finally it was enough and she steadied. I helped carry her stuff to the elevator and she said she could make it from there.
My mother was awake. We were not a hugging family. I told her about the woman and she approved. She wanted me to repeat what I said. It was as though I had held my mother.
She was keeping track of who came to visit her. When my brother and cousin showed up, we had such a raucous funny time in her hospital room that the nurse came in to shush us. “This is a cancer ward,” she scolded. “People are suffering.”
My mother said, “I don’t know which planet I’m going to next, but I hope it’s as much fun as this one has been!”
When we were in the last few days, I asked her about burial. “Any place where I’m under a tall evergreen tree and there are daffodils,” she said. Would she like to be in Roseburg with her family? NO! Vehemently. She was cremated and buried in the same grave as my father and his parents. I bought a hundred daffodils for her funeral.
Later I went to Roseburg to talk to her sisters and we went out to the family graves. There was the tall tree with the daffodils, beside her father. Because a teenaged daughter had been killed in a car accident and the mother had been buried beside her, and because the graves were sold in pairs, the father had been buried with an empty space beside him. My mother knew that, said she didn’t want that, yet she did. She had loved her father fiercely, but she was as fierce as he was.
But that’s not the barb that stays with me. Nor is it the ritual I insisted on at the moment of death. My brothers and I were alone in the house with her when she died at 3AM. They stood by me while I re-enacted a ceremony I’d read about in a pastoral care journal. It was written by a man who had left the priesthood but spoke of giving “last rites” to his own father and described how it was a blessing of the body, from the feet to the head.
I had thought what I would say and said it for the balky audience of two. “Bless these feet who walked so many hills, these feet that pleased my mother with their aristocratic narrowness and high arches; bless these knees on which our mother knelt to scrub and garden and play games with us; bless these hips which cradled us before birth and on which she rested us when she carried us as toddlers” -- and so on up. When I got to her face, the older brother quickly covered it with his hands. I blessed it anyway. I invited my brothers to speak. They had nothing to say. They were devastated. One stayed there and drank himself unconscious. The other went back to bed and wept alone.
But that’s not the barb either. Here’s the point of pain.
The hospice people supplied a practical nurse to bathe my mother. She came the first time and then didn’t return. My brother, who had taken charge of everything, didn’t want to call her for fear she might be offended. I said he didn’t understand bureaucracies and he should at least call and inquire. He felt dependent on the good will of the hospice people -- not me. My mother kept asking for the woman. I offered to bathe my mother myself, but she flared up angrily. “Certainly NOT!” I was hurt.
After a day of pleas from my mother, my brother said that if I still thought it was important, I should be the one who called the hospice. Hurt and stubborn, I thought he could call himself, so I didn’t. My mother died dirty. I don’t think we even turned her or offered a little leg rubbing. We were almost afraid of her, of her anger. We didn’t realize she couldn’t turn herself on her side.
Then, too late, I remembered her oft-repeated story about the moment as a child when she knew she’d recovered from the flu. She told how her mother washed her all up, put a newly laundered white nightgown on her, and prepared her for the entrance of the doctor who came in triumphantly, put his black bag on her bed, and said, “Your eyes are as bright as two silver dollars!” She liked that line. For all I know, the whole scene was out of a movie. At another time she said the flu killed her doctor.
Too late I understand that what she wanted was not just to be bathed, but to be prepared by her mother for a miraculous recovery. One cannot suddenly be a mother to one’s mother on her deathbed. One must prepare over many years. And if it can’t be done, one must forgive oneself.
I come the closest to that when I remember a moment after she slipped into coma, when she began to thrash and call out. My brothers were alarmed. I said to her, as she said to us many times in our childhood, calling out at night from her bedroom, “It’s all right. It’s just a nightmare. Everything is all right.” I said to her, “Everything is fine. You’re at home and the wisteria is blooming outside this window. You’re right where you wanted to be. Everything is fine now. You’re safe.” She relaxed and smiled faintly.
My brothers are still bitter. They feel that I did all this for myself and to make myself look good. I think they felt that I could have kept my mother alive if I’d tried. They think I take her death lightly. But I think my mother felt that Death had accidentally dropped her back in 1918 and that now Death was only picking her up again.
I had a fantasy that after my mother died, that I would wash her body. It was clear that my brother would not allow that. When the mortician came with his body bag, the only thing I could do was to grab the armful of stargazer lilies beside her bed and put them into the bag on her breast. A bouquet for her voyage to the next planet.
The point of this is not MY story, but that every minister worth his or her salt has a story like this. Clinical Pastoral Education is meant to get it out where the minister can deal with it, grow from it, and never give any parishioner the idea that the minister only wants to see that person in church, dressed up. Religion is more than a social event. It is about more than prestige.