My mother died on December 9, a little over a week ago. The ravages of pneumonia were too much for her frail and tiny 91 year-old body. She spent her final days in inpatient hospice care. This unassuming wing of a quiet Albuquerque hospital was like a Zen monastery – serene and oddly sublime. Here, she was finally able to get relief from her suffering and to rest comfortably as she settled in for her transition. The hospice nurses were some of the most compassionate people I’ve ever encountered. They were like angels and created a safe nurturing cocoon around Mom and the whole family.
Mom loved Christmas, and when I was growing up, the holiday was always a big to-do in our home. Every room was decorated. Lights glittered inside and out. There was a spirited and steady flow of family friends dropping by to share some cheer and raise a glass or two (or three or four). One of my favorite memories is of the aluminum Christmas tree in the dining room window. A spinning colored light next to the tree created an ever changing display of green, red, gold and blue. On Christmas morning, we had to sit on the stairs and wait for our grandmother to arrive before bursting into the living room to see what Santa had left for us. The wait was always torturous but quickly forgotten as we gleefully ripped open presents and nibbled on homemade English muffins, toasted to perfection and topped with bubbling hot cheddar cheese. It was classic Christmas magic. Mom was the architect, with a little help from her main elf Henry.
Martha and Cindy, my sister and sister-in-law, created a sweet shrine next to Mom’s bed in the hospice. It had a strand of Christmas lights, no flame candles, a picture of my late father, a charm bracelet and dog tags and Saint Christopher medals that my grandfather and father wore in World Wars I & II respectively. The shrine cast a gentle glow throughout the room. On the night before Mom died, we sat around her bed, listening to Christmas music my brother Allen pulled up on his phone. I’m so grateful that Mom got to have this one last Christmas. To me, the evening was absolutely sacred.
Holding space with a dying person is a profound and transformative experience. It’s tender, vulnerable and deeply painful. It’s also exquisitely spacious as the mystery quietly reveals itself. The clarity therein is crystalline and absolute. During this vigil, our bodies- both the living and the dying- are unnecessary as our souls intertwine as one, soaring back towards the source together as we prepare for our good-byes. In the dark morning hours before Mom’s passing, I prayed to my father, asking him to guide her, and sang “Amazing Grace” ever so softly into her ear. In her last minutes, we read the day’s entry from one of her devotional books:
“Gentle me, Holy One, into an unclenched moment,
A deep breath,
A letting go
Of heavy expectancies,
Of shriveling anxieties, of dead certainties,
That, softened by the silence,
surrounded by the light,
and open to the mystery,
I may be found by wholeness,
upheld by the unfathomable,
entranced by the simple, and filled with the joy
that is you.” (Ted Loder)
Allen also shared Psalm 118:24 – “This is the day that the Lord has made. Rejoice and be glad for it.”
And then she was gone.
My relationship with my mother was complicated. But those complexities feel irrelevant now. What I’m holding in my heart is her humanity. It’s our shared humanity actually, poignantly flawed as it is. Although sometimes imperfectly expressed, love is still genuine. And when the elements of space, death and time keep us apart, love is what we’re left with. All the rest falls away.
The grief is living in my body right now. It shows up as exhaustion. There is lethargy to every thought, every action. I’m shuffling through the days with a foggy mind and a completely broken heart. A parent is a pillar to the psyche. And when they’re gone, we lose our equilibrium. I feel untethered to this world and disoriented. Yet although I’m adrift in the unknown, I’m not sure I want to return to real time with its urban aggravations, workplace frustrations and relentless obligations. The gift of grief is transcendence.
Christmas is the story of seeking refuge. Grief is the journey towards grace. Each is tinged with pain and beauty. This was my last Christmas with Mom. We’re traveling separately now, but hopefully, following the same star.