Yes, my daughters had been exposed to this trauma without my permission… the least I could do at this point was offer some follow-through. What was I to do? Their grandmother had been at our home. She had just accompanied all of us to JaneGrace’s dance classes. They had walked with her up the stairs, and after a few minutes, heard the commotion, and then seen her sprawled at the bottom of the stairs. They had heard my despondent wailing alternating with anguished commands thrown at them as I cared for my mother while awaiting the ambulance… pull the trunk out of the way to make room for the medics, go outside and wave down the crew, get the dogs and put them outside…
LiLi and JaneGrace needed to see where she was, the outcome of the fall, to try to begin to understand the transition that she was about to encounter, and we were about to suffer. It was an immersion in the study of death, of crossing over, of loss. They were way too young to have to be experiencing this event, but it was out of our control. LiLi, unbeknownst to us at the time, was about to succumb to an exacerbation of post-traumatic stress disorder from yet another exposure to an event from which no soul could have offered protection. This sucked.
We waited in the ER until a bed could be found in the ICU. Mom was transferred to the neuro-surgical ICU where her vital signs would be sustained for as long as my family chose. It was only her shell that was alive. I was certain her spirit was hovering. Her “life” had exited her body. I had taken care of a young woman in this very ER who had survived from the brink of death and had experienced the beckoning “light” that survivors from near-death experiences describe. I was certain that my Mom’s spirit was hovering, even now. My husband talked me into returning home with him and the girls. We made it in through the front door and I collapsed in his arms on the steps where she had fallen. I needed a glass of wine, then felt guilty for having asked my husband to pour it for me. I was upside down. This night had been ripped out from under us. My mother had been taken in the twinkling of an eye. I couldn’t think of anything except to get back to the hospital. We got the girls tucked in, and back to St. Anthony’s I drove.
This was to be the longest night of my life. As I sat at her bedside, sleep eluded me amidst the rhythmic hum of the ventilator and the cycling of the monitoring equipment. I held her lifeless hand and marveled at how much it looked like mine; my hand was stronger and darker, but the proportions and contours were so similar. This time with her was precious. My Mom and I had rarely spent time together without some old conflict arising, but this time had been different. I had felt a deep affection toward her that I had rarely permitted myself to feel. I was always too busy being judgmental or disappointed; to feel anything else would have humanized her to a degree that my comfort zone was not ready to tolerate. It was quite complicated, this particular mother and daughter relationship. And here I was, sitting at her bedside, chosen by fate, and by God too, I suppose, for this watch. Today, before I opened up my word program to finish this piece, I read a prayer journal entry from my husband’s blog (http://beingwritewithgod.blogspot.com/) about wrestling with God. He cited the story of Jacob, who wrestled with God in an “all-nighter” and walked away from that encounter with no resolution and a limp for the rest of his life. I could relate. This night, spent at my Mom’s death-bed, would forever leave me limping. Days and weeks later, I found comfort in the activities we shared: serving communion, wonderful meals, and shopping. Two nights before the accident I had drawn a bubble bath for her, complete with music and candlelight. The day of the accident she had said to me in the car as we left St. Anthony’s hospital grounds following our visit there, “Paula, I just feel so peaceful, why do you think this is so?” My response to her had been that she had been on the receiving end of care, not having to worry about a thing, just sitting back, enjoying, and relaxing. In retrospect, in my gut, I feel like she came to Colorado for her passing. Without a doubt, I feel like it was her time to go, and that my family’s role in her passage was of divine design. I can’t wait to see her again, someday, and talk about this in greater detail.
The first glimmers of sunlight began to peek through the blinds, and I began to count the hours until my sisters, their husbands and my nieces arrived. These hours had been the most agonizing of my life. Clergy and friends drifted in and out, prayed with me, and shook their heads at the twisted turn of events, with some just remaining silent, and sitting with me. Just being there was enough. Mom’s nurse for the day came in and introduced herself. I liked her immediately. She was from Tennessee, our home state, and the geographical love of Mom’s life. She told me to sit back and be Mom’s daughter today, and to forget the nurse’s cap. She was a source of great comfort as she expertly managed Mom’s care, releasing me to the role of loved one.
Shortly after noon, the rest of the family arrived. I greeted them at the front door of the hospital, and led them into the room, while trying to prepare them for what they were going to see, if there is any such thing. We all spent the rest of the afternoon at her bedside, my daughters included as their comfort level permitted, and said our goodbyes through the tears, the grief and disbelief. A music therapist came to the bedside as well, and sang some of Mom’s favorite songs from Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and other old gospel hymns that Mom cherished. We laughed, cried, hugged, held hands, prayed and became closer than we ever imagined during that fateful afternoon. There was never an ill-word, nor an accusation uttered. I was released by my family for any of the blame for this tragedy.
At six o’clock in the evening, the nurse and the respiratory technician “pulled the tube,” thereby disconnecting her from the life-support equipment that had been keeping her alive. Her heart stopped beating six minutes later. She was gone. Her physical presence would be no more. I’ve clung to the memories of the night I spent at her bedside, holding her hand that looked like mine, many, many times.
The next several days were filled with the necessary activities of “making arrangements.” In a way, this is a good thing. It keeps one busy with “tasks” and the mandatory decision making activities that accompany sudden death. It provides a cleverly built-in diversion. We flew to Tennessee for a service and burial, then to Florida for a memorial. Both events were sweet remembrances of the impact my Mom’s simple life had made on those who loved and knew her. She was treasured by many.
I just returned from China on a heritage tour with my daughters and husband. While there, we were so blessed to be reunited with JaneGrace’s foster “Grandmother.” While Mom was with the girls and I the weekend that she passed, we went to the adoption agency that helped us bring our daughters home. They were having a Christmas and holiday bazaar, selling all sorts of trinkets that had been brought back from China. While there, I purchased two necklaces, each one exquisitely designed, sterling silver pendants. One had the Chinese characters of “Mother” and the other had “Grandmother” presented as paper-cuts on a mother of pearl backdrop. I had purchased one for me, and the other for my Mom at the bazaar, intending the “Grandmother” pendant to be her Christmas present that year. I was never able to give it to her. Shortly after her death, I placed both of the pendants on one chain, wearing them often in memory and in honor of my mother.
During this heritage tour to China, with JaneGrace’s permission, I gave the pendants to JaneGrace’s foster “Grandmother.” I didn’t plan in advance to do this, it just occurred spontaneously. The decision was reinforced as we sat in Nai Ying’s apartment, and she pulled out all of the things we had mailed to her before and shortly after JaneGrace’s placement into our family, eleven years ago. This was a woman with great sentimentality, and I was convinced that she would cherish this necklace that represented my Mom, and the last weekend of her life. The chain was a circle, much like the “red thread” tradition in Chinese culture that tied all of us together. The pendants represented the three of us; Mom, Nai Ying and me, as the primary matriarchal presence in JaneGrace’s young life. Who knows, maybe one day this necklace will make its way back to JaneGrace, carrying with it an enriched sense of history, tradition, and closure. I am certain this gesture would have pleased Mom.
Dedicated to the sweet life of Anna Lee Bullen-Breeden: Born September 16, 1924; Passed into eternal life November 7, 2006
postscript: Aurora, Colorado, I grieve with you today.