As I write these words, my 93-year-old mother is dying. We are separated by an entire continent and an entire ocean, 6000 miles apart. It is a tremendous challenge to not race onto a transatlantic flight to be by her side. But I realize that our distance now is a gift, for I have no other recourse but prayer and the willful and conscious act of radiating Light and Love.
Only a month ago, we were together in sunny California where I was visiting her for three weeks. While I was there, my mom told her Hospice care worker, “I’m having such a good time with Catherine that I forget to take my pain medicine.”
Most afternoons, she rode her scooter while I walked swiftly beside her, my arm occasionally wrapping around her rounded shoulders. We meandered around the nearby mall, always stopping by the charity shop where my sister works. One afternoon, we picked the avocados in Mom’s backyard, her eyes lighting up each time the overgrown tree relinquished a large hard fruit. These “green pears” were destined to ripen inside a paper bag alongside a brown banana. We later marveled at how sweet and buttery the avocados were once they became soft, cut open, salted and sprinkled with a squeeze of lemon. A lemon from another backyard tree.
I was fortunate to spend this time with her. I even managed to ask her the details of my birth. To my delight the doctor who delivered me was called Dr. Goodman. “He wasn’t very handsome,” my mother reminisced, “but all the women were crazy about him. He was so kind.”
We spent time in the library, pursuing the used books for sale. Mom loves to read. “I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t read,” she said one day. She would disappear into the depths of the Dollar Store, me running up and down the aisles in search of her, a kind of hide-and-seek. We bought all our Valentine’s Day cards there. Later, her card from the same store arrived exactly in time for my birthday last week. This will be her last letter to me, and I already miss her every time I peak into my mailbox.
In her shaky hand she had signed the card with her initials: “Come back I need you. Mommy. It’s only 24 hours. D.L.”
Inside I found, a new $100 dollar bill and the “Loving Kindness Meditation” by Thich Nhat Hanh:
May we be at peace
May our hearts remain open
May we awaken to the light of our own true nature
May we be healed
May we be a source of healing for all
Underneath she had written faintly in pencil: “Do you like it? I do. Boohoo.”
Hospice calls my mother’s state at this moment “Active Dying.” Last week she was in “Transition.” While in the US, I also spent time with my friend Susan (not her real name) who has brain cancer. Susan was told that she has 1-2 years to live. But recently the doctors discovered that she also has a gene mutation which “portends a more favorable prognosis.”
And so, I sit in wonder. Susan must live as if she might die soon and, at the same time, as if she might die later. But isn’t this how we all should approach our fragile lives? On the cutting edge of life and death? Aren’t we always in “Transition,” alive in in a state of “Active Dying”?
It is the first day of spring, and violets and primroses quilt the Umbrian meadows that surround me. At the same time a blanket of powdery snow has blanketed the hillsides. Almond blossoms are suspended in ice. And yet, my soul is so close to my mother dying. Like Adam’s family in the fresco by Piero della Francesca, we stand stupefied before death. Eve, old and wrinkled, her breasts sagging with age, stands as a living witness. I am that Eve pondering her same thoughts. What is happening? How can this be? Why now? And what does it all mean?
This is the mystery of the Easter story. Like the green avocado, we all must be plucked from the Tree of Life and languish in the dark. We wait to soften, ripen, and be cut open. Once seasoned with bitter juice and the salt of the Earth, we can then joyfully taste the buttery sweetness of our lives.
My mother has suffered during these final days. And she has occasionally smiled. Now she sleeps. Meanwhile the rest of us wait for her final sweet release and awakening to new life.