The Dying Man and My Memories

The dying man is still dying. The family's managing, but of course it's taking its toll on them. I spent several hours with them on Friday, arriving around 11 and staying for lunch and into the afternoon. Good things happened. Old family friends from across the country are arriving to say their goodbyes to him, which is extremely meaningful to the wife/mom and the two daughters. As I left we gathered around his bed. I read scripture and a poem I'd brought about thresholds. We held hands, including his, and prayed. Earlier in the day I had a chance to simply hold his hand and sing a hymn. Beautiful experience, really. I'm so privileged to spend this holy time with them all.

He's dying of the same thing that killed my mother, COPD. Part of the experience for me was simply watching him breathe, seeing how difficult that is for him, hearing the rattle in his throat and chest, and being taken back to September 1994 when my mother lay dying in the hospital, breathing just like that.

Before she lapsed into a coma, I was leaning over and brushing her hair. She said to me, "Now I'm giving you what you've really wanted, Katy."

I didn't know what she meant, and I still don't, but I said nothing in response because I thought she must have been implying that I wanted her to die. [Our relationship had been conflicted from the time I was a teenager.] The heart-stabbing pain was too much for me, and I immediately repressed the whole thing.

Three or four days later, my brother had gone home (to my sister's house) to rest--he'd been staying with her every night at the hospital--my sister had gone downstairs for a break, and I was left alone with her. Like I said, I'd repressed what she said; I had not thought of it at all since it happened. I decided to pull my chair up to the side of her bed and sing some hymns to her. After one or two, I stood up and gently touched her hair, and I just whispered to her that it was OK for her to go. She'd been in a coma for a couple of days by then and had been hallucinating about "the door. The door won't open! Open the door!" she'd said.

I sat back down and was singing another hymn when I suddenly noticed that she had stopped breathing. I froze for a moment, then she took another labored breath. I kept watching and yes, after another few breaths, she stopped again. I called the nurse who came immediately. We called downstairs for my sister, but as I recall by the time Beautiful Blue Eyes Laughing arrived, our mother had stopped breathing completely. She was gone. My world, my anchor, was gone.

We called my brother who stayed with me in the hospital room until a doctor arrived to pronounce her dead. I remember that as the doctor was leaving, he turned, faced my mother's body, said "Have a nice trip," and then left the room. (Is that strange or what?)

I didn't deal with what my mother had said to me until about a year later. As a student in my first pastoral care class, I was nervous about being called on to role-play the part of a pastor providing pastoral care. So I made an appointment to see the professor--I thought if I just told him about my fear I'd deal with it better (plus, I'm sure down deep that I was hoping for the added benefit of him being nice and telling me: 'oh don't worry; I won't call on you if you don't want me to.'). To my surprise and consternation he instead said, "Well, what can we do to help you with this fear?" I was nonplussed, having given no thought to a solution, just a way out. "Uh, I really don't know," I said. "Well, would playing the role of the parishioner be better?" he asked. I said, "Oh yes, I can do that. That's no problem." (I was a therapy veteran even back then.)

The next class, he asked me to play the role of a parishioner. No problem. I did fine, but for some reason he announced to the class that we'd continue this role-play next time. I didn't understand why he said that, but it didn't bother me. Next class came and once again I sat down in front of about 30 other students as the parishioner. Suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, out of my mouth comes this story of what my mother had said to me. The student playing the role of pastor looked stunned. The professor practically pushed him out of the chair, taking on the 'role' himself. It was unbelievable. I couldn't BELIEVE that I was telling this horrible horrible story, my face beet red, shaking like a leaf, snot running out of my nose as I blubbered the whole damn thing. I STILL can't believe I did that. But I'm certainly glad I did. The professor knew exactly what to do. He was a model of compassion, and toward the end he invited me to go home and write my mother a letter and throw a pillow around the room. Both of which I did. With gusto.

I've been healing ever since.

Witnessing the dying man's labored breathing brought these memories once again to the fore for me. As I've written them here I don't feel any pain, although I did tear up a bit remembering the sadness of losing my mother. Our relationship was so full of conflict. I kept trying to grow up and be who I am. But she had other plans for me, and my efforts were NOT well received. On the other hand, I could have attempted to break the ties with much more grace than I did. I said things to my mother that I deeply regret. She died too soon. That's what fills me with sadness even now. How I would have loved to simply sit and talk to her about things, but that was usually strangely difficult. The ties were obviously not yet healthily broken while she lived. I know that because when she died I immediately knew my "anchor" was gone. What will I do in life now without my "anchor"? I kept thinking.

Goodness. As I finished typing the above, I received a call from one of the daughters. Her father died 10 minutes before she called. I went over to their house and stayed a couple of hours. We gathered around his body, sang a hymn, and prayed. A beautiful, grace-filled death, and I feel amazingly privileged to have been part of this family's experience.

My mother's death had elements very similar to this man's. She, too, had been surrounded by her children. We had all kissed her and said our goodbyes, including Handsome Boy and Beautiful Blonde, her grandchildren. After she died and we'd come home and made our phone calls, we all went out to eat. And we told stories about her, a wonderful experience, full of laughter. Although I didn't contribute many (if any) stories, I remember thoroughly enjoying the experience of hearing my sister and her family speak of our mother with such love. I look back at that now and see how incredibly healing it was, how healthy and good.

And although my relationship with my mother had lots of ambivalence to it, I know she loved me. I mean, I know she was trying to love me. Our personalities were so different that her attempts didn't feel loving to me. Neither of us understood what was really happening at the time.

I hope she understands everything now, as I hope to one day as well.


Gannet Girl said…
This is a beautiful set of reflections. Your love for ministering to the family of the dying man is so evident, as is the source from which it comes.
Katherine E. said…
Thanks, Gannet Girl. Gosh, I re-read the post this morning and it's Sooooooo long! Yikes! Oh well. :-)
Jan said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jan said…
Oh, Katherine, I felt your pain, especially in reliving the event next to your mother's bed in your pastoral counseling class. What a wise professor! Thank you for sharing so vividly how you felt, letting me have a glimpse into your pain.

I believe that all time is in God. Your ministering to the man's family and others, plus your own present healing, are ways God is redeeming the past. Nothing is lost. Love overcomes -- past, present, future. All is God, and as Julian of Norwich said,
"All things shall be well
You shall see for yourself that
All manner of things shall be well."
Marie said…
Beautiful reflections and a lovely window into your soul. Thanks for sharing them.
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