71: A Gift of Time

71: A Gift of Time

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

A Gift of Time

The human spirit is stronger than anything that can happen to it.

~C.C. Scott

During the second week of January 2001, my mother became very ill and was rushed to the Red Deer Hospital, and was subsequently transferred to a hospital in Edmonton, Alberta. After a six-year battle with cancer, my mother’s specialist held her hand, as he told her there was nothing else he could do to help prolong her life. This caring doctor told my mother she had the choice of being hooked up to a dialysis machine for the last few months of her life, or as an alternative, could simply go home. He advised my mother that without any medical assistance, she would possibly survive another month.

Before making her decision to leave the hospital, my mother asked my eldest sister Karen if it would be possible for someone to care for her, if she decided to return home. Karen consulted with all of us and my brothers, sisters and I made the decision to take this on as a team effort: we would all be caregivers during our mother’s final days. My youngest sister Kim and I had already taken a break from work; my eldest sister—a nurse—arranged for a month’s leave of absence and three of my brothers adjusted their work schedules so that we were all available to provide homecare for our mother.

Before my mother returned home, my brother Kevin arranged for delivery of a hospital bed; furniture was rearranged in her wee den, and within hours my mother’s home was transformed into an environment that could accommodate her care. On the day the Edmonton hospital transported my mother back to Red Deer, two of my brothers and I stood at the front door of my mother’s house as the ambulance arrived, waiting to welcome her home.

What do you say to someone who is dying? How do you greet them each morning and how do you say good night? What do you talk about during their lucid hours? I don’t think any of us had thought about this until the ambulance arrived and the porters carried our mother into her home and placed her in the new hospital bed. I can still visualize my mother reclined in the bed, looking at her adult children sitting all around her. It was our mother who spoke first. She simply said, “Well, what do we do now?” Then she laughed. In our nervousness we all laughed too, and from that moment, we learned to cope with the situation one day at a time.

During her first week home from the hospital, our mother’s local doctor assisted her with a living will, including a do not resuscitate order that we had to post on the wall. Mother decided to arrange her funeral and took careful consideration of where she was to be buried, ordered the urn and selected the hymns for her service. Our mother also asked us to arrange for all of her grandchildren to visit, before her health deteriorated to the point of making their visits too stressful. I can still envision Mother holding my nephew Bobby, as he lay sobbing on her chest, while she stroked his back and murmured how much she loved him.

My husband and our children, Michelle and Andrew, visited my mother one evening and it was painful to watch them both cry as they said goodbye. I clearly remember how Andrew’s tiny body shook as he sobbed in my arms. Michelle returned on another day to spend an afternoon with her grandmother, and I stood outside the door to my mother’s den watching them both deeply absorbed in conversation. There was no thought of what might happen in days to follow; they were simply enjoying each other’s company. It was a very touching sight.

The weeks passed quickly and with help from Alberta Home Care, visits from our mother’s local doctor, her minister, friends and neighbours, we managed to get through the good and the bad days. Each of my siblings took on a specific role during the last month of our mother’s life. My eldest sister Karen was our mother’s nurse; my older brother Keith cooked and brought us our evening meal on a daily basis; brothers Kevin and Kelly performed all the errands related to our mother’s pending funeral and service; my youngest sister Kim took care of the laundry, and my role was “miscellaneous activities” that included massaging my mother’s feet every afternoon.

While growing up, Mother had “trained” all of her children how to massage her feet. Although all my siblings attempted to avoid this task as much as possible throughout their youth, I had always found it to be the best way to have quality time with my mother. Consequently, this became one of my duties during the last month of our mother’s life.

On a sunny afternoon several days before my mother died, I started massaging her feet and we began to talk about many things we hadn’t discussed in years; we talked, and talked, and talked. At one point during our conversation, I remember caressing my mother’s feet while thinking about how beautiful they were—such tiny, perfectly formed, unblemished feet. I massaged my mother’s feet for hours, until she drifted off into an afternoon nap.

When she woke from her nap, Mother discussed how it was her desire that we prepare her body for the funeral home after she died. I stood in stunned silence while my mother explained that after we prepared her body for the journey to the funeral home, she had made arrangements for an immediate cremation once her body was placed in the hands of the mortuary staff. Unknown to us at the time, our mother had completed her final preparations. Three days later she deteriorated very quickly and on a Sunday afternoon, with all her children gathered around her, our mother drifted into a coma that lasted only a few hours. Our mother left this world just the way she planned to, with all her children gathered around her, while she quietly took her last breath of life.

My brother Kevin telephoned the doctor and minister and they quickly arrived at her house. After the doctor examined Mother’s body and signed the death certificate, and the minister said a prayer, they left us alone with her.

My brothers then left the room, so that my sisters and I could prepare our mother’s body for the funeral home, just the way she had asked us to. We washed her body, each of us taking turns gently cleaning her face, neck and chest. I remember washing her hands and thinking that my mother had melted away into a tiny woman, a mere shell of the woman she was just a month before. I massaged her beautiful feet one last time, before helping my sisters dress her in one of her favourite outfits. We then combed Mother’s hair and asked our brothers to come back into the room for one last goodbye.

My eldest brother Keith had already arranged for the funeral home to transport Mother’s body and the funeral home van arrived about a half hour after we had finished cleansing and dressing her. When the funeral home staff walked into the den, they were shocked to see an immaculately dressed elderly lady propped up in bed, appearing as if she had just closed her eyes for a moment. We quickly explained the situation and the funeral home staff made every attempt to be respectful and caring while they transferred our mother into the van.

Similar to the way my siblings and I greeted our mother the day she arrived home from the hospital, we stood in her front doorway watching her leave home for the very last time.

As traumatic as our mother’s homecare was for all of us, I’m aware that like me, each of my siblings has personal and special memories of various events during the last month of our mother’s life. I’m sure we will cherish these individual memories for the rest of our lives. On reflection, we had a full month to say goodbye to our mother, each in our own way. It was truly a gift of time.

~Kathy Dickie

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