Have I told you about Mrs. Mary? My 97 year old neighbor who informed me she was a widow and an orphan with no children on the first day we met? She broke her hip, ended up having some complications during the repair surgery, ended up getting another surgery, and then having more complications. The kids and I have been visiting her at the hospital the past couple weeks and our conversations have turned from Mrs. Mary getting better to getting worse. I started writing about her when she was starting to die.
Over the last weekend she decided to stop medical treatment and switch over to palliative care (comfort measures only, like pain meds when she’s hurting and whatever else to keep her comfortable as possible). When I found out I realized this will probably be my kids’ first memorable exposure to death. My out-of-town grandmother passed away a few years ago but the kids were too young to remember, too few interactions at too young of an age.
Mary, on the other hand, is the resident neighborhood grandma. She lives 3 doors down from us with a living room full of curiosities: a working hand-wound grandfather clock, square coasters her mother crocheted from flourescent orange and green yarn, a collection of porcelain and metal bells, and a menagerie of indoor tropical plants so large my kids would play “jungle” in their foliage. I never once saw her glass candy dish empty; she was always ready for a visit and treat with anyone who stopped by her house.
I remember my first memory of death- my grandma Betty when I was in fourth grade. I remember feeling a cold rubbery hand, how grey she looked as she lay, asleep it seemed, in the coffin. I don’t remember crying at her funeral but I remember sobbing every day for weeks during “prayer request time” at the Christian elementary school I attended growing up. I remember not understanding why I was crying because we only saw her a handful of times. I think, in my 4th grader way, I realized death disconnected me from someone who made me feel loved. It’s still difficult to express big amorphous internal feelings with clear words.
I remember another grandma figure in my life, Ruth Moore, who died when I was in college. She was in the same hospital as Mrs. Mary, with comfort care measures, but for weeks, not days. Although someone was always with her, I never visited her. This is one of my truest regrets. I felt afraid of what feelings might well up and how they might be expressed- days of crying like before? I was more afraid of the fears inside myself than I was brave. In the most difficult way I was selfish, honoring my fears more than Ruth.
I realized I had to wrestle with the idea of death in a personal way. Yes, I have been at hundreds of deathbeds in my previous career as an ICU nurse, but that was a professional interaction. I had a role, a job, the luxury of emotional distance. Knowing Mary is about to die felt personal, pressing deep on those tender dark areas I’d forgotten about.
How do I face death?
How I answer this question can invite them into the greater story about death as a part of life, and I am now responsible for how I want to tell this story. Do I repeat the story I lived before- to ignore anything to do with death because it is so scary, lonely, painful and confusing?
I believe the answer is found in the question: I must face it.
I made a conscious decision to change my perspective, for myself, my kids, and Mary. Especially for grandma Betty and Ruth. Even if I feel afraid, this time I will look death in the face.
In dying, Mary gave me this blessing: the gift of rewriting part of my story. I began to examine how to help my children (including my inner child) approach death from a place of love, not fear. We talked about how death is a consistent part of life. We talked about how we support the beginning of life with love and affection, and how we can also surround those at the end of life in the same way. Birth and death can be equally saturated with love. We talked about how death can be scary, fear-inducing, lonely, and sad, but it’s not limited to those things. During this time I realized the stories we tell about death can also be beautiful, hopeful, and full of love. I feel grateful that as far as dying goes, this time we have knowing Mrs. Mary is close to death is a gift. Not all are given this kind of “heads up” with time to process before and during the dying process. It’s how we tell the story, when we realize how important it is that we love well.
After a few days I realized Claire was beginning to get it. Over the past couple weeks her prayers have shifted from, “God, Please heal Mrs Mary” to “God, help Mrs. Mary know we love her.” Even more so, I really think both kids started understanding how important it is to BE love to Mrs. Mary. Praying from a distance wasn’t enough, they kept asking to be with her so they could tell her they loved her. I hesitated, wondering if seeing Mary so frail and sick, facing the concept of death in a very real way, would be too premature a burden for them to carry. As I thought about our previous conversation about birth and death with love, I realized how important it was for me to model approaching the death of a loved one not with fear but with love.
I wasn’t sure, I felt a little afraid, but love seemed to be pointing us towards her, not away. So we leaned into love, sharing the warmth of our hands while we walked the cold hospital hallway to face death together.
When we arrived, Mary was resting, sleepy but content, and she reached out for Claire and Emery. She held Emery’s face with one soft hand and Claire’s hand with the other. We told her we loved her and would always remember her, and then settled into a few moments of peaceful nearness. After a few moments Mary asked for ice chips and the kids took turns carefully feeding her soft ice with a plastic spoon. When it was time for our visit to end we gave her hugs and kisses. The kids thanked her for the visit and told her again “I love you.” Mary whispered “Any candy at the house is for Claire and Emery” and told us she loved us while squeezing our hands tight as she could.
On the drive home we talked about the visit. Although the kids were curious about some of the hospital equipment in the room, they both said they weren’t afraid. Claire described how she felt sad she couldn’t visit Mary for much longer, but she wanted to come back again while she could so she could keep letting her know she was loved. Emery agreed and asked if I thought she felt loved. “I think she felt very loved,” I said.
Did you know the last breath is not in, but out? I have been around hundreds of deaths in my time as a nurse, and when death happens naturally the body’s muscles fully relax into complete rest with a final exhale. I know no death is ever “ideal” but I also believe no death has to be a complete tragedy. Hope is inseparable from love, and when you choose love even in death you will also eventually find hope. There is hope in exchanged breath. The sweetest start to life is when a child’s first breath is the exhale of words of love and belonging in this world. When the first breath is celebration and hope and blessing. The sweetest end to life is when someone’s last exhale is not breathed into empty air but dispersed into the interior spaces of those they belonged to in love. When the last breath is celebration, and hope, and blessing.
I feel no regret; I loved Mary well. I know I leaned into love and resisted fear and led my children along the same path. I feel the forgiveness of Grandma Betty and Ruth, the parts they played in my journey were necessary and revelatory, their exhales finally found their way to my inhale. I found redemption in the life and death of Mary.
Let this be a call to live and love well. Do you know how important it is to know you are loved? From the beginning of your life to the end, you are loved. Do you know how important it is that you love? We know only of receiving at the beginning but we can always learn how to give more love. When you feel afraid or hold back because of fear, look for how you can lean into love instead. Yes, there is a cost, but the return for leaning into love is so much greater than anything fear can ever offer. This matters in the big decisions but also in the ordinary moments, the real results of our internal choices. It matters how we live, how we receive life and how we face death. Inhale deeply, exhale deeply, love deeply.
On her 97th birthday I asked Mrs. Mary what advice she had after living as long as she has. This is what she said:
“Don’t stop yourself from doing things. If you have an idea just go do it! Don’t look for excuses not to do things. Look for reason to do things. The only regrets I have are the things I didn’t try.”
I heard you that day, Mrs. Mary, and I will continue to take your words to heart. You will not be forgotten and I will find reasons to do things and will keep trying. I will keep writing, I will keep loving, and I will take every chance I can to share your story.
In memory of Mrs. Mary.