As my mother’s health declines in the middle of this pandemic
My mother isn’t dying from the coronavirus, but she is dying. It’s probably just a matter of months, we’ve been told. She’s lived a long life and her body is simply winding down. A part of me is at peace with that, and a part of me is already grieving. But even more than that is the strange sensation of hurtling headlong towards a world that she no longer lives in, a world that will be irrevocably changed.
My dad died 25 years ago, and there are times when it’s still an adjustment to be in a world that he doesn’t inhabit. My only sibling, a brother, is also long gone and pretty soon none of my family of origin will be left. It’s profoundly disconcerting and contemplating that in the midst of all of the other changes to our regular way of life right now, only compounds it.
I’ve had a plane ticket for several weeks now to go and visit my mom in early April for her birthday, but when I called yesterday to tell her I was going to postpone it, she let me know that per her doctor’s recommendation, she’s been having hospice come and visit her three times a week. I wasn’t really all that surprised, but it does bring it all home and make it more real. Mom has been spending more and more of her time sleeping. She just doesn’t have much energy or much appetite anymore. I’ve known that the end wasn’t all that far off.
I get a lot of my pragmatism from my mom. She’s been preparing for years for her eventual death — adding me to her bank accounts, making sure I know where the insurance policies are and the key to her safe deposit box. She’s even put together a memorial service, with the music that she’s like and some of the things that she’d like to have said. We very much believe that death is a part of life in our family but at the same time, it’s still a time of major transition. I can’t really imagine what it will be like to not be able to talk with her any longer, at least not in the I’m just picking up the phone kind of way.
But there is something to be said for the blessing of knowing that it’s coming, rather than the abrupt disruption of a sudden passing. My father had cancer. It went into remission for a couple of years, and when it came back, we knew what was inevitable. I quit my job and moved home to spend the last few months with him. It was hard at times to watch him decline, but we also spent some really beautiful moments together. I’m so grateful that I had that opportunity. My brother, on the other hand, died suddenly. He had a blood clot go to his heart and he was just gone. I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye.
In trying to figure out how to handle all of this in the middle of a global pandemic, I’m reminded of how much of it just feels surreal — like maybe it’s not truly happening. Perhaps it’s just a dream, and the world is the way that it has ever been — messy, sure, but solid enough that I always had a few touchstones I could count on. My mother has always been one of those for me. But all of that is changing, and it isn’t a dream. Everything is coming unraveled, and although I believe that I will survive it, I also think that it’s going to change me in ways that I can’t even yet truly conceive of.
In shamanism, the world’s oldest spiritual wisdom tradition, dismemberment is a symbolic death that gives way to a profound rebirth. It’s a type of initiation that allows you to powerfully interface with a fear or an illusion. Who you are before you’ve been dismembered is not who you will be on the other side of it, provided of course, that you survive, which isn’t necessarily a given. This description of the dismemberment process says it well.
“We are chewed up and spat out by some experience, a loss of control or betrayal, an illness or disability, the death of a loved one, a reversal of fortune. And we must contend. No matter how much we resist and try to rewrite the script, return again and again to the original plan or dream, our original way of being, everything we thought we had has turned to dust. What once was is no more.
Regardless of whether the dismemberment (transformation) is invited or not, worldly or Otherworldly, individual or collective, familiar or foreign, the same rules apply. We need to be awake and present or we will miss the point of the sacrifice we are making and the suffering we are enduring. No change is random or mindless, so we cannot afford to be mindless in it.”
This dismemberment is happening for me on both the personal and the wider levels. I’m trying my best to be alert and receptive to the experiences, even though I don’t relish either one. I’m trying to be smart about traveling to see her, especially now that my son and husband are coming also, but some things are just a stab in the dark. Is driving really better than flying? As I understand it, the airports are pretty empty right now, but I feel like we’ll have more control over ourselves that way, and more autonomy once we are there. We’ve been creating a game plan for ourselves based on the latest recommendations. All we can do is our best and to cross our fingers that it’s the right thing.
I don’t think any of us are going to end up getting sick, but I wouldn’t want to bring it to my ailing mom. On the other hand, I don’t know how much time she has left and I don’t think we can afford to wait. What if mom hangs on another 6 months or a year and we could have waited until this pandemic had eased? But what if it’s only a matter of weeks? It’s not a time for hand-wringing and second-guessing. We just have to do what feels right through the lens of love and make the best of whatever results from that.
From now until the foreseeable future, it’s going to be one step at a time, simply dealing with what is right in front of us, and trying not to fret about tomorrow. I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, except that I do know that at some point, my mother is going to die and that this day is probably closer than I’d really like to acknowledge. But, I’m going to die at some point too. This is a given. How we navigate these next weeks and months is the only thing that we can control. In this time of unraveling, I hope to meet it all with as much love as possible.