Wednesday, October 19, 2016
Endings and Goodbyes
The end of a life, the actual biological ending, is not an experience to be longed for. Romantic ideas and movie images of the end are all wrong. Lies. The peaceful drift into eternity is shit. This woman you see here pictured is my mom. She will be remembered by everyone who knew her. I saw what I believe was the moment her life ended but was pushed on a bit longer by drugs and machines. There was no calm closing of the eyes followed by a final contented sigh.
As much as possible I think the hospital staff did well according to their responsibilities. I don't blame them for doing what they did. I just know that there was nothing about the end that she would have wanted as it happened other than the presence of her family. We got that part right. As long as I can recall Mom spoke of doctors and hospitals as things to avoid whenever possible. She would have avoided them longer if she could have found the strength to walk away. It was not to be. Her last days were spent among some of the people she loved most and people she desperately wanted to avoid. She could not have one group without the other.
I don't know what I wanted to write about this experience. Others more talented than I have explored the topic of mortality deeply and poetically. But when I was there, watching the light of life flicker and fade, none of the fine words of the great masters seemed to matter much. One of my children, Nora, during one of her visits to the hospital, left a message on the marker board in my mom's room. It was a quote she recalled from from the fictional Professor Dumbledore.
"Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light."
This was written on a board used by the staff to make notes of their own purpose, but my brilliant girl used it to remind her grief-stricken father that there is still joy, even in that room.
My brother, dad, and I made the decision in the end to have Mom cremated. This was certainly not the only difficult decision made in that span of several days. We made a choice. It was a choice, like all choices, which set us on a path we had no true way of knowing. I was able to do one more good thing to honor what Mom would have wanted. Because of the cremation, I was able to take her home.
Germany can sometimes be very far away. I don't think my mom enjoyed traveling much, but she did enjoy being home with her parents and family. I was able to take her remains with me to Germany. We went on this final trip together. She always felt like the delays and security processes were somehow a personal affront. She would recount each time a security guard or airport worker had anything to say to her, or how roughly they went through her luggage that time.
I couldn't stop from finding some humor, a light even, when as I passed through one of several security checks leaving Chicago, my mom's remains became the reason for a security delay. Even in death they had it out for her. No one quite knew what to do about a plastic back full of ashes. They had scanned it because it was in my bag. This was not quite right, though, even with my showing of some official papers I had from the mortuary. No, they called one guard, then another, all quite inexperienced in this type of procedure. They finally called over an older guard who had the proper arcane knowledge. He explained it to me.
"You see, we have to scan this separately," he politely began. "Since we don't want to open the bag...," thankfully not I said to myself, "we have to run it through again on its own." Right. "Now, it sounds strange, but I need to place this coin underneath it." The search for the coin took some time as well. "If we see the coin on the scan, then we're good." I could almost hear Mom's eyes rolling in disbelief. Modern technology at work.... The required scan was made, and the coin was visible, apparently, as the gathered crew breathed a relieved sigh, probably thankful that none of them would have to dig through the ashes of a dead woman. Maybe they were equally delighted to move forward the oddly smiling man who had brought them their unwanted scanning puzzle.
When I arrived in Germany, I took a train to get me closer to where our family lives. A cousin of mine was kind enough to pick me up from the station, and kinder still to make an extra stop at the church cemetery where Mom's parents are at rest. I know there are rules and laws and many other barriers to prevent people from doing what I did, but those are only the people who ask permission. I wanted to fulfill a wish for my mom to be with her parents. This I did. She was laid to rest between two of the greatest people I've known. It's a fine, lovely cemetery, the kind that in Germany are kept like public gardens. Her name isn't on a stone, but she never cared much for such things. She was private and never wished to bother others with her problems. This was finally the quiet and peaceful ending she wanted.