My mother died last night. In a bed, in her living room, surrounded by her remaining children, a few granddaughters and my sister’s partner; a daughter out of law. Her own particular version of the modern family, proudly defying at the words we use to capture relationships.
There was poetry. There were tears, but not the agonized sort that might accompany a more tragic death. There was laughter and quiet singing from the few who could hold a note. There was whiskey and a cup of tea, and awkward moments from a family that didn’t really have a plan for this most unusual, but predictable of times. One caught between the Celtic urge to suppress and a Polynesian will to express. What we in New Zealand broadly call whanau.
She was lying on her side. It was peaceful, imperceptible. She ebbed away; each succeeding breath lighter and more distant, until one wasn’t followed by another. The exact moment of her passing only discernable in hindsight, marked not by a dramatic little gasp, or a visible exit of energy from her body, but just a diaphragm that didn’t contract another time. A muscle that had squeezed air in and out of her lungs for 86 years just stopped. Unable to lift her chest anymore.
Perhaps she still had a pulse, her heart beat on, until the life-fueling oxygen supplied by that last little puff had been exhausted. If there was, her final heartbeat was beyond the ability of my sisters’ gentle fingers to detect. As with the breath the last moment was only knowable by the absence of a beat that followed. “So, that was the last?”
The time of death was around 12:36am. But to try and reduce it to a moment seems inadequate.
It was as if she died from the outside in. Her grip had long let go; her hand limp in mine, growing cold, but for the heat her flesh borrowed from mine. When was that? Another moment only detectable from a point in the future: By the absence of.
My Gabby had paid tribute to her grandmother, by observing she was always delighted when I entered the room.
Maybe it started when Ruby arrived from the airport about 10:30. There was a nod and a final smile: a last little moment of joy at the arrival of a grandchild.
Or was it earlier when she concluded our poetry reading by removing her hearing aids, then pulling the prongs of her oxygen system from her nostrils and lifting the loops of tube from behind her ears. Had she decided then, that it was time to curl up for one last sleep?
Did part of her die last Friday night when she went from being the compassionate social being, inviting an old friend to stay for dinner, to a more naked state of needing her to “Go Away!” in a matter of minutes? Were these two moments in an armchair just two points, dramatically juxtaposed, in the long process of dying?
Incidentally, Friday was the night her brood has finally gathered. I’d arrived from New York on Wednesday morning. Mary had flown in from work in Wellington on Friday morning. Once we had completed the set, her set, she started to let go. Her final shutting down.
She was on a cocktail of drugs, to ease the distress of struggling to breathe. The morphine, mizadolam and clonazepam warded off that most primal of panics. But over the last two days her discomfort could not be hidden. By Monday, she couldn’t swallow, and suddenly each sip of water trickled down her outside. She was thirsty. She was restless. She kept trying to stand, to relieve the pressure of sitting in the same place for so long. Upright in the chair, then upright in the bed. She couldn’t decide if she was hot or cold. Covers kicked off, then blanket called for.
It was awful she declared on Monday night. And it was. On Tuesday morning she was sore. I hated to she her suffer like this. This was no mysterious terminal pain, but everyday travails that I to could imagine. Why did she have to go through this?
By Tuesday night I made peace with this. It was the best way one could hope to go. Having had a good life, not without heartbreak, but one to be more than content with. None of the sheer panic I saw when Sean sank into the Haast River. None of cold machinery that switched Dad off.
Sarah, who unexpectedly broke into tears while showering in distant New York, just as she had the morning her lovely Sam had died, knew. Earlier she had sent a photo of her own mother, Jenny, at a rest home in Auckland, dead with Alzheimer’s, but trapped in a body that didn’t know, or couldn’t remember?
Yes, this was an end we would all bargain for.
And the sun rose this morning.