Mon Nov 12, 2012 - 1:10 pm EST
My mother’s dignified, holy death
My mother died on Sunday, 28th of October. She was 90, and had been completely dependent for 18 months. By progressive standards, her life was completely useless. During that year and a half, she was only vaguely conscious of her surroundings, lying in a hospital bed, incapable of any autonomous action whatsoever. She could hardly see or hear us. She could not eat or drink alone. Everything had to be done for her. But in those blessed 18 months, she taught us the extraordinary value and dignity of human life, and her death was such an example to us I would like to share it with you.
My mother had been ill for quite some time with a form of Parkinson’s disease, but while we felt she was slowly going backwards, she still had the greater part of her faculties and was at home with my father, who looked after her lovingly. Suddenly, last year in spring, she passed out for an hour and woke up delirious, in a state of great agitation. Luckily I was spending a short vacation at my parent’s house, and when the ambulance came I was able to accompany her to the regional hospital.
We were all afraid her last hour had come and while she was being taken care of in the emergency department I pleaded with John Paul II. “You know what it is to have Parkinson’s,” I said. “Please help my mother!”
At that exact moment my husband’s cell phone rang. It was a friend, a priest who was organizing a day of conferences and remembrance in Paris on the occasion of John Paul II’s beatification. Would I give a one-hour talk on John Paul II and natural law?
“OK, John Paul II,” I thought. “I’ll do something for you, and you’ll do something for my mother.” I accepted. From that point onwards my mother’s condition worsened, swiftly and inexorably.
But it was a blessing in disguise.
The infection that had been responsible for her delirium was treated, but only after 18 hours: much too late. Her brain had been harmed. After two weeks my mother was discharged from hospital and returned home, but she was by then already incapable of getting up from her bed, she was more and more agitated and my father, who was then 92, could not possibly cope. Providentially, we were offered a room for heavily dependent persons at the local hospital, only a few kilometers away. Ordinarily obtaining such a room takes up to six months or more. This time apparently the room was waiting for its patient. It was heartbreaking to take her there. But what could we do?
My mother, from that time onward, was no longer agitated, depressed or unhappy. She was living in a world of her own, although she would answer our questions appositely in her normal, firm and clear voice, often wittily, and always welcomed us with a radiant smile when she realized we were near her. The last really conscious and complete sentence I heard her say was the day after she had entered what was to be her last home, and I was saying goodbye before leaving for Paris, my family, and my job.
“I want to go to where the Pope is,” she said.
“Which Pope: John Paul II or Benedict XVIth?” I asked.
The answer came immediately, clear and completely incongruous, coming from her:
“Wojtyla,” she said.
One of my sisters had another experience. On the first day in that hospital, she heard my mother saying loudly and clearly the prayer taught by the angel to the three children of Fatima – Our Lady of Fatima having always been her great devotion: “I offer all my sufferings to the Sacred Heart of Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, for the conversion of sinners.”
My mother lost her own mother when she was 11 years old, way back in 1933, and it was a shock so great she had no memories preceding that date. She had asked the Virgin Mary to be her mother, and had always prayed devoutly, hoping for the good and peaceful death Our Lady promises those who serve her. But she had been, in her last years at home, very anguished by the perspective of death.
For the eighteen months following her admission to the center for dependent elderly persons, we, her five children, had our mother close to us, strangely and unexplainably close. She was living in another time, another dimension almost, where the value of material things has disappeared, where only the person counts: the person with his or her capacity for love and relationships. She was mysteriously and completely herself, loving us, showing her profound pleasure when we were near, needing no riches other than our words of affection. My father – 93! – would take out his car almost every single evening to visit her in hospital and to give her supper, spoonful after spoonful. For this she would often thank him, as she would also thank the hospital workers when they came to help her, feed her, change her, care for her, with a slight pressure of the hand.
During those long months, my “Mammie” was indeed wonderfully cared for by the nurses and hospital workers who all showed the same consideration and respect for this life, “useless” as it was and slowly nearing its end. They would often come and make up her bed, change her sheets if necessary, and brush her hair just before they knew my father was due. They did all they possibly could to make her comfortable, massaging her to avoid bed sores – she had not a single one in those 18 months, after being healed of the wounded heel she had brought back from her two-weeks stay in the previous hospital – and arranging for my father to bring in an air-humidifier to make her breathing easier.
On October 13th, I got bad news from home. My mother had been found in a critical state in the morning: she had probably had a heart attack during the night and she was suffering from pulmonary edema. She was given oxygen and appropriate medication to help her get over the condition, but once again we thought it was the end. I was due to speak at a prayerful meeting for persecuted Christians that same evening, but I waited to hear that her condition was a bit better to decide to stay in Paris.
That same evening “Mammie” was apparently asleep, but when she received the Last Sacrament on this 95th anniversary of the last apparition in Fatima, something extraordinary happened. One of my sisters said loudly into her ear the prayer she loved: “I offer all my sufferings to the Sacred Heart of Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, for the conversion of sinners.” My mother smiled, opened her mouth widely, and said: “Aaaah!” as if in profound approval. This was to happen a few more times during the days that followed, although she was almost continuously sleeping.
From that moment on my mother ate very little: at the end, a few spoonfuls of yoghourt in the morning at most. She was constantly given water and glucose intravenously so that she would not suffer from dehydration. She was given oxygen, but no violent treatments so that she would not suffer unnecessarily; we also decided not to have her transferred to another hospital as transporting her would have probably made her even more ill.
Just before the beginning of the two weeks school vacation for All Saints, my father called me to say he thought my mother would die soon: a matter of days or weeks at the most. We hurriedly prepared to travel to Brittany with our two younger children, the eldest being away on an end of high school retreat with his class.
It was a sorrowful trip on that Saturday, October 27th, and when we called my father to say we were nearing his home he said he would drive out to the hospital to meet us there so that we could see “Mammie” straight away together with him. It was 11 p.m.: the night nurse quickly answered our call and came to open the hospital doors for us, warning that my mother was “very tired”. She was lying peacefully, receiving oxygen through tubes in her nose and sleeping easily. We all kissed her and told her how much we loved her. The nurse told us we could call at any time during the night and promised to warn us if my mother’s condition worsened, but there appeared to be no immediate cause for concern.
Next day was Sunday. We went to Mass together and stopped at the hospital at midday on the way back. My mother was the same, so we all returned home to have lunch.
Less than three hours later, the dreaded call came. The nurse on duty found my mother’s breathing very irregular, with long pauses. Would we come? Quickly we prepared for the five-mile drive to the hospital; my father, my husband and our two younger children, 13 and 10, hurried off. Tactfully and respectfully, the nurse accompanied us into the room. My mother was breathing so shallowly it was almost imperceptible; the nurse could hear that my mother was still alive as she perceived her respiration and blood flow through her stethoscope.
A hospital worker came in and told us to hold my mother’s hands, assuring us that even if she seemed asleep, she could feel us and would be helped and comforted by our presence.
Together, we said the prayers for those who are agonizing – but such a peaceful agony so as not to deserve its name! – the litany of the Divine Mercy, and the psalm “Nunc Dimittis” : Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace…
Two of my elder sisters had soon been able to join us. Together we started to say the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. The nurse came in regularly: each time, she would still hear my mother’s almost imperceptible breathing: no, she was not dead.
Our two young children cried quietly: no, they would not leave the room, they wanted to be with their grandmother till the end.
At the end of the fifth Joyful Mystery, it must have been 5:20 p.m., my father and one of my sisters felt my mother’s fingers slowly growing cold. That was the only certain sign we had of life’s departure: “Mammie’s” life had slowly, gently, peacefully ebbed away, no one could have said exactly when. Her last moments, in the prayerful presence of most of her family, were fully respected, she died in her own time, at her own pace, having fully accepted all that was to come about in a spirit of reparation, without fear and oh, so softly.
In the traditional liturgy my family loves, it was the feast of Christ the King, another favorite devotion of my mother’s.
Her death appeared as a sad mystery, a bereavement, but it was a natural and familiar parting, not a tragic destruction. For all of us, and especially for our children, it was a lesson in savoir-vivre as the French would say: knowing how to die is the better part of knowing how to live…
There was no indignity in her diminished state, her end of life was definitely worth living, and consoled those who loved her. Her life was offered up, not violently taken by a murderous doctor committing what they dare to call “euthanasia”, or “easy death.”
My father asked to have my mother brought home, so that we could “wake” her as used to be the custom in former, more humane times. We all prepared the room where she would lie next morning, borrowing candles from the parish church. The undertakers came that same Sunday evening and kindly, sensitively helped us to prepare for the arrival of my mother’s mortal remains. Did we have Holy Water, some appropriate vessel to place before the bed, a branch of blessed palm so that our visitors could bless the body? Yes, that’s in poor, secularized France…
The next two days were strange and awful, but also very consoling. Many friends and neighbors came in to pray at my mother’s bedside and we had the feeling we were getting that bit of extra time we needed for her death to sink in. And life went on: between the hassle, worry and paperwork, keeping everyone fed, organizing family lunches and dinners that have such a special capacity to make family bonds palpable, arranging for the funeral and the reception which would take place at home afterwards, we would go softly into my mother’s room and pray. The children came into the room now and then, between a bout of tennis in the garden or a subdued game in the living room. No one even thought of asking to watch a film. The situation was completely natural because we had let the supernatural occupy the space it deserves.
The hardest time came when, on Tuesday evening, they came with the mayor of our village to close and seal the coffin. Many pent up emotions came loose, and we were able to feel the importance of saying a definitive “good-bye”, a last word of gratitude, an “à Dieu”. It was much harder than the burial itself – which took place after a splendid and consoling funeral Mass where death is portrayed as it is: a terrible thing, but also a promise of eternal happiness for those who implore God’s Mercy.
Please pray for my mother, that she may truly rest in peace.
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