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transitions with peace

My heart was heavy as I flew to Austin. Even though I knew the time was near, it still felt like fresh news that my mom would be leaving us soon.  The tears welled up in my eyes as I thought of what I would find when I arrived. Focusing on the deep love I shared with mom helped me keep my composure. And I remembered the symbol again, delighted to have something unique to our connection and yet still had no clue what it really meant.

When I saw mom, she was quite weak and slept mostly. My sisters and I celebrated dad’s 82nd birthday with him while sitting on mom’s bed, including her in the celebration as best we could. We each did our best to celebrate while we knew the end was in sight. We even took pictures willingly. Mom went in and out of sleep as we celebrated. Her blood pressure was quite low these days, around 50, and she had stopped eating mostly.

As I sat with mom later one on one, I could hear her voice even when her eyes were closed and her lips were still. As if her soul was talking to me. She said she was scared to leave, not sure of what she would find when she left. How it would feel to transition and if she was worthy of receiving God. It was a little surprising to observe such a faithful woman still having doubts. What happened next was probably the most amazing and expansive experience for me yet, definitely pushed me way beyond my edges of understanding and belief. It was as if I was given the gift of being a vessel to help mom visit where she was headed, reassure her of the peace she would feel and help her embrace self-love completely.

I held mom’s hand and closed my eyes. Somehow she and I were all of a sudden standing on a beach, one of mom’s favorite places to spend time. It was similar to a dream or a vision of what was to come, a pristine place with white sand stretching as far as we could see. I could feel the sand between my toes and the water lap at our feet as I held her hand. All of a sudden we were not alone. There were hundreds of people around us clothed in white who shown brightly from the inside out, like a candle, and looked like they might be angels. What I felt was the most pure and expansive love in every cell of my being, as if I was radiating light myself. In the bible, Jesus spoke about the highest form of love being agape love. A type of love that gave life meaning and substance. In this moment, what I felt was this form of love, a source of pure strength and power that could transcend time and carry us forward. As I looked at mom, the fear started to dissipate from her face, her muscles all started to relax, and a smile began to emerge on her face. A smile of pure joy, without any pain or regrets or suffering, just pure light. Time seemed to suspend as we stood there, just taking in the beauty and grace of the light around us. After a while, mom spoke to me. She said she felt at peace and was no longer afraid of where she was headed next. All of a sudden, the experience was over and I opened my eyes. Still sitting on her bed holding her hand, in Austin, Texas, and still feeling the pure love in every inch of my being.

I had seen experiences like this in movies and had read of people’s experiences similar to what I was able to feel and see, but it seemed far out of my reach. Something only for the few to experience. For some reason, I was chosen to help mom in this moment one last time. Maybe through the process of opening my heart and allowing my faith to guide me over the previous three years prepared the way for me to be open enough to embrace this journey of love. Not sure. What I did know was how very grateful I was for that experience and the ability to provide one last gift to mom, a gift of service to set her free.

It was now Friday and time for me to go home, wrap my children in love and support them for what I knew was next. I was so torn about leaving, not really wanting to let go for good. As hard as it was to leave, knowing I would not be there when she passed, I knew in my heart that I was at peace with my connection to mom.  Over the past several years, I had practiced giving selflessly from my heart to mom, something she had done for me my whole life. I had the gift of time to say all I wanted to say and to heal the past when I could not receive mom’s love. I had transitioned from the little girl who was not capable of feeling mom’s love growing up, although she was so very thoughtful and giving, to a woman whose heart had expanded several times over and now shared a deep bond with mom.  And more than anything, I knew mom would want me to go be with my children and support them when she passed. I headed back to Nashville.

A couple of days went by and early in the morning on May 22, I was awoken by the sound of pouring rain and loud thunder. It was 4 am. Mom used to calm my children through storms by telling them that when it thundered, it was the angels bowling in heaven. And boy were they loud on this Monday morning. I sat there quietly in my bed, listening to the storm, and then I felt it. Felt mom’s physical life come to an end.  At  4:30, the phone rang. It was one of my sister’s. She had awaken as well and gone in to mom’s room right as she took her last breath. I spoke with each of my sisters and my father for about an hour, feeling the peace that mom’s suffering was over. It felt as if I was in the room, transcending thousands of miles, and very connected to each of them and to mom. While a deeply sad moment for each of us, we had experienced a unifying bond that brought us all closer together over the past year, a great blessing in the midst of our loss for sure. A waterfall of tears started flowing down my face, in part selfishly for my loss, and in part pure joy, for the depth of love I was able to share with mom.

My children and I caught an 8 am flight to Austin that morning. As prepared as I had been, I was still deeply in shock of the reality of it all. Quite distracted and out of sorts. Something gave me strength to keep my composure for my children as we shared stories of grandma on our flight. When we arrived at mom’s house, she was still lying in her bed, as if she was sleeping. She looked so peaceful and beautiful, and the skin on her face was taught, with almost no wrinkles. One of my sister’s took my children down to the lake to build a sandcastle, giving me time alone with mom. I prayed for her peaceful transition and could feel her presence so very strongly, as if she was still there. I sat there in the stillness for some time and said my last goodbye.

Mom’s minister came over to perform a service with all of us in the room. My son read a note he had written on the plane about all mom had taught him and my daughter went over and kissed mom’s face and touched her arm. I was stunned by the strength and faith of my babies in this moment, not afraid in the least. Pure love surrounded us all as the minister spoke. He shared many wonderful things about mom, how she gave so much of her time to the church, as a Stephen Minister and more. And then he smiled and shared something new. That he was amazed at how mom could embrace her traditional Christian faith, and faithfully listen to his sermons, and yet also challenged him to expand his beliefs further. How mom had studied and embraced other religions and that she wanted her pastor to integrate some of those concepts in his talks. And she did it in a calming way, he said.

Mom chose to be cremated and wanted her ashes spread in all of her favorite places. After the lovely service, we followed the funeral home car with her body to the place where she was to be cremated, supporting her safe passage. Mom had learned through her studies of Buddhism that Buddhists believed it took seven days for a soul to completely leave a body. As such, the funeral home had agreed to hold her body for seven days before completing the cremation. The seven days also give us time to grieve somewhat quietly before joining with all those who loved mom at her service the following weekend. Even in her death, she was thoughtful and giving. As we flew home, I thought of mom’s life and the lasting gifts she bestowed on me and my children. And then I remembered the purple butterfly. Our unique symbol of connection. I still had no clue what it really meant and felt a little strange thinking about it. Little did I know what would come next, how my edges would be pushed one more time….

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a loving release

As our visit in Austin with mom was coming to a close, I was able to sit with her one last time. She was much more withdrawn from what was going on around her now, seemed mostly focused inward. Her speech was slurred some and she coughed often. She was not able to walk on her own anymore and was sleeping more often during the day. I sat next to her and held her hand. Touch and space was more what we shared now. She looked up at me and smiled and then looked beyond my shoulder, as if there were someone there. It was puzzling to see her do this and smile in the process. I looked over my shoulder and saw nothing. When I asked her what she was looking at, she said her father. That he and her mother, who had both passed when I was very young, were around her now, talking to her. I didn’t quite grasp what that meant. My experiences were increasingly pushing me way beyond my edges now and this was definitely one of those moments. I decided to go with what mom was saying in that moment and let go of my need to understand.

Mom turned her attention back to me and spoke softly. She said that she did not feel she had any unfinished business and she felt at peace. With herself, her loved ones, and her life. Her words warmed my heart and I knew she was ready to leave, I just didn’t know when. Each of my kids spent time talking to mom one on one and then we said goodbye. Maybe until the next time, maybe forever. I wasn’t quite sure.

Before I left the house, I went looking for the pamphlet that Hospice had left that explained the dying process, something I had never observed so closely before. Suddenly I was more interested. And there it was under a heading ‘disorientation.’ When close to dying, a person often becomes ‘confused, may see and converse with loved ones who have died before them.’ On some level, I was fascinated by the intricacies of life and these details of the process of life ending. On another, my heart grew heavy and almost felt like it was on fire, radiating out in all directions, knowing that my goodbyes would come to an end soon.

Back home, I tried to move through my day and stay busy with focusing on my children’s needs and work. I was mostly kidding myself. I would start one thing and then end up doing something totally different, almost as if I had ‘lost’ a moment of time in the transition. Something that seemed to keep me somewhat focused was regular exercise, both in the gym and at the park on the trails. During my daily phone calls with mom, I would check in on how she felt, and what was important to her. I could feel her smile as she shared that her minister had come to her house to carry out a private Easter service for her, since she was not able to make it to church anymore. I shared that while I really wanted to come back to see her, I knew in my heart it was more important for her to have time with dad. Mom agreed. Then she talked again about her life and summed it up to having never fully relaxed, ever. She said she never just sat around and read or painted, solely focused on what she was doing. While she did those things, she was always thinking of something else at the same time. Or she would interrupt her quiet time to go help others in need. Mom shared that while she had the time now to just be still, it was somewhat foreign to her and made her uncomfortable.

Several weeks went by. The heaviness in my heart was becoming a permanent fixture and the physical manifestations of my pain continued with leg cramps and feeling nauseous. I felt a moment of peace and joy when I heard what mom shared one day. She sounded weak and her speech was slurred but I could still understand her words. She shared that the brightest part of her day now was when dad rubbed her feet before bed each night. It was such incredible validation for me of the choice I had made, to create space for mom and dad to share their deep love. While it was hard for mom to talk, I could almost feel her smile when she spoke of dad rubbing her feet and I knew she was able to actually feel his enduring love for her. It made me smile. As we hung up, mom also shared that she had let go of all negative emotion and felt totally full of peace.

As Mother’s Day approached, I knew time was running out quickly and I would need to go to Austin soon. I chose to spend mother’s day with my children and go to Austin for Dad’s birthday, a few days after. I was still trying to keep a semblance of focus on work and was expected to be in Monterrey for an important leadership event the day after mother’s day. With mixed feelings, I boarded a plane headed west. As I landed in California, I knew in my heart I would not be there long. After talking with my sisters, I learned why. Evidently dad had shared something openly during mother’s day brunch. He told mom in front of my sisters that she was the love of his life, and that while he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, he knew it was time for her to go. And that she could leave with his deep love and full blessing. So very touching and sweet. And then it hit me. Something else I had read in the Hospice pamphlet. That sometimes our loved ones wait until they are ‘released’ before being fully read to die. Dad had just released her. It was now time for me to drop everything and fly to Austin.


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a symbol of connection

While I felt very lucky to have the gift of time to say goodbye over a long period of time, the grief and pain was tough to manage day by day. One of the tools I used for support was getting a regular massage and helping my body release the sadness, providing a moment of peace from the storm. When I would visit mom in Austin, I continued this practice and extended it to her. We would have someone come to mom’s house and we would each enjoy the calm following each massage. On this trip in April 2006, my discussion with the massage therapist took a little different turn. Down a path I was not expecting or even could have imagined.

As Amy worked on releasing the tension on my muscles, she started to talk about how she had lost her mother at a young age, something I did not know. She described the need to feel connected to her mom and grasped at the smallest symbol that might have represented her mother once she died. She talked about how she would get excited at first to see a certain kind of rock, and then quickly questioned her belief and dismissed it. As she spoke, she started to make connections to my mother. How she could tell mom was preparing to leave. Amy said in that moment that I had a choice to create a lasting and true connection to mom, and work with mom to define what that was. In the midst of my grief and pain, it felt like a glimmer of hope. I didn’t fully grasp what she was saying. It was so very foreign to me. Why I chose to act on her advice I will never know for sure. Maybe it was the extension of believing in something magical as a child like Santa Claus or the Easter bunny that led me down this path. Helped me feel in my heart that it was ok, that I was not crazy.

The thought stuck with me so I decided to ask mom. I shared Amy’s advice and mom was open to hear it. More reinforcement I should continue down this path. Mom wanted to figure it out together with me, what that symbol might be so that I could be sure it was her. Mom’s request was for me to go down to the lake and think about it. Clear my mind and allow the answer to come forward.  I was not quite sure of what I was headed to do. Probably my desire to continue my deep connection with mom pushed me forward on this journey. I walked down to the lake and stood there taking in the beautiful view. Something I had done many times. This moment was different, calm and peaceful. I felt a strong sense of love around me. I closed my eyes and asked God for an answer. What kind of symbol would be meaningful to both mom and me? Surprisingly, the answer came quickly. I just didn’t understand it at the time.

I walked back up to the house, somewhat in a daze thinking of this answer, not sure what to make of it. When mom woke up, I went in to share it with her. She said it was perfect. Silently, I questioned how it could be perfect, since it was not something real. Mom beamed with joy when she spoke of this symbol of our connection- it was the favorite color that we shared, purple, and our favorite insect, a butterfly. A purple butterfly. Not something I knew existed in nature, only make believe. But something unique to our connection for sure. I set my internal critic aside and decided to cherish this special moment with her. The moment of co-creating a symbolic connection that would last forever. I had no clue at the time what this all meant. How I would see something that didn’t exist once mom passed. How quickly I would learn otherwise.


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gifts from the heart

My day of respite from the fog of grief lasted two days, a much needed break especially for my body. The sadness and grief had been manifesting in my body as headaches, nausea and leg cramps. Interesting that my two good days coincided with two good days for mom. She was upbeat and in good spirits. Funny how connected our body can become with those we love.

The next day the tears were back, welling up in my eyes and hard to control. Mom’s two days of feeling good changed quickly. Her sodium levels were dangerously low and blood pressure still erratic and high. She was back in bed and able to be open about how bad she felt. As we talked, mom commented on how amazed she was that I could remain so positive with all I had been through. It was difficult to be able to really explain how to her. In talking about how with her, I realized that I had merely made a choice to face the pain and live through it. Move forward one step at a time. I had other choices for sure, masking the pain or going crazy, literally. Maybe it was my two children who depended on me for strength and guidance that kept me going and led me to this choice. Maybe my growing ability to trust my faith was also a reason, feeling in my heart that even when I could not see through the fog, I knew whatever was happening was all for me. Just had to be patient some times for the clarity to be revealed.

At the end of March, mom decided to stop taking her blood pressure medicine since it was not working. And once again, she had strength. She was able to go outside and walk down the street, to the big tree in the middle of the road, about 3 houses away. Dad was convinced she had ‘turned the corner’. I was supportive of his positive outlook even while I felt this tug inside- kind of like a yo-yo. Mom experienced really good days and really tough, low days. The rollercoaster continued to change direction quickly and the emotions followed. The low days came back strong with a vengeance. As we moved into April, her headaches were increasing so much and with the low sodium levels, Dad became very worried and took her to the emergency room on April 1. When the doctor came in, Mom told him she was ‘not supposed to be there’. She told the doctor she ‘felt like she should already be dead and something was keeping her here’. Probably shocking for the doctor to hear and even more so to dad. Mom spent the day in the emergency room while they stabilized her. She would not let them run any tests on her so they gave her fluids. We did learn that the lung tumors were likely depleting the sodium in her body, and may eventually cause a heart attack. When she told me about the experience later, mom said she was trying to shut down her body, she really didn’t want to live in the state she was in. She was done. Mom actually believed that her mind was strong enough to shut down her body. She never ceased to amaze me with her expansive beliefs, even now. I listened intently, yet didn’t quite comprehend. A part of me had a feeling of wanting to help her, I just didn’t know how.

Dad was finally able to convince mom to let Hospice come help. Mom wanted to stay at home and Hospice would be able to help her feel more comfortable and manage the pain better. This news was a confirmation that her time to leave was really near. While I knew it was coming, it was shocking nonetheless, the pain in my heart increased and cut deep to my core. I knew it was time to take my children to see her, to say goodbye in person.

We traveled to Austin in early April. It was hard to see her in such a frail state. I realized that in her current state, she was not able to walk down to the lake anymore, something she cherished. Mom had followed Dad to several different cities and states during their 55 year marriage and she had always said she would get to pick where they retired. Her choice was to retire on a lake. As I reflected on this, a thought popped in my head. I could take the lake to her. Really? Well sort of. I realized I could in a way and took a plastic tub down to the lake and filled it with water, sand and shells. I carried it back up the many stairs to the house. Not sure how I managed to do that but something was giving me strength. I think my sisters thought I had lost my mind. When I brought it to her and placed each foot in the water, her eyes lit up so brightly and she seemed to feel peace. It was as if she was imagining standing in the lake while feeling it lap at her feet. It brought me such joy in my heart that I could grant her this moment in time, a break from the pain.

Feeling the well of grief trying to break out and needing support, I reached out to my friend Corinne. I asked her to go on an errand with me. It was healing to have her support and feel the deep pain for a little while, in a place I didn’t feel the need to be strong. We talked through the situation and the signs of the end approaching quickly. I was struggling to figure out how to help mom feel loved every day even though I could not be with her. I had read about the healing power of certain crystals and had decided to make her a necklace. Corinne and I went to the bead store and I found what I was after. A deep purple amethyst crystal and two smaller rose quartz crystals, mom’s favorite colors- pink and purple. I strung all three together on a pink piece of leather with the amethyst in the middle and the rose quartz on either side. Later when I brought it to mom and tied it around her neck, her face lit up again. Her joy was beaming from the inside, almost as if the light was shining straight out from her heart.

As we sat together, I could see mom visibly relax. She closed her eyes, yet still had a grin on her face. When she opened her eyes again, she shared how calming the necklace was, how she felt more settled with it on. We then moved to a discussion about her time on earth being short. Dad had asked a few weeks previously for each of us to write an obituary. While the thought was quite sad on some level, I felt prepared mostly, as mom had shared so much in the months preceding April about her life. There was one more thing I wanted to know, in her own words. So I asked. I wanted to know how she wanted to be remembered, what she would say about her life. Mom said that ‘she gave all the time and love, and it was so easy for her to give. But so very hard to receive.’ It gave me peace to give a little gift from my heart back to her, with the lake water and necklace. In that moment, I felt in my heart that my gifts from the heart had made a difference.


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a celebration of love

As I prepared to be in Austin for mom’s 77th birthday on March 9, I could feel myself getting more depressed yet happy at the same time. In my daily calls with mom, I started to notice her coughing more.  Probably the part that was putting me in a funk. The happy part was mom had survived long enough to be able to enjoy all of her daughters, son-in-laws, grandchildren, and one granddaughter-in-law in Austin as we came together to celebrate mom.  My godfather and his son were able to come as well. It was probably the most enjoyable all family gathering I had experienced yet. We spent time out at mom and dad’s house on Lake Austin. And one day, dad rented a paddlewheel boat for all of us. We spent several hours out on the lake, enjoying the sunshine, relaxing out on the water, and celebrating mom. It was hard for her to receive all the love that was gathered just for her. She was not used to the spotlight and was more comfortable in the background. And she was becoming much more visibly out of energy and more introspective as days past.

When we got back to the house, I was able to give mom a foot massage, something that we were all starting to do more and more. It seemed as if this type of love was something she could receive openly. I was also able to talk a little to my dad. It was becoming harder for him to watch mom’s energy decrease and the signs of her health deteriorating increase. He asked that I make sure he was never put in a hospital after mom died, that he wanted to be left where he was. And that mom was the most giving person he had ever met. We were then able to talk about the need for hospice and he agreed that he needed to talk to mom about it. Although he acknowledged that they didn’t communicate well. He committed to try as he knew hospice was needed. The next day, we had a photographer come out to the lake to take family pictures. Such a fantastic idea and such a blessing that we were all together. Family photos we usually not a fond memory, after yearly trips to olan mills when we were growing up. Several of my sisters really did not like their pictures taken. On this day, we all seemed to surrender and participate, knowing we would have some lasting memories documented. Later as we all prepared to leave on the 12th, dad asked each of us to write an obituary so we would be prepared, not knowing how much time we had. That left a sinking feeling in my stomach as I headed to the airport. I really did not want to leave. I was not sure I would see mom alive again.

The next day, back at home, I learned from one of my sister’s that mom had a rough night after we left, with lots of coughing and difficulty breathing. One of my sisters had stayed behind. Mom shared with her that mom was not sure she would make it to her birthday and was surprised that she did. Now she could let go. With this news, I started to feel completely out of control and wanted to move to Austin for a short time. Be with mom and cherish each day that was left. I was quickly reminded of my responsibilities of raising two children and working full time and knew that was not an option for me. As I considered what to do, I let go and turned my situation over to a higher power. Asking and trusting that the details of my busy life would work out as they needed to while I prioritized time with mom. Thankfully, I was able to go back to Austin the next weekend, for St. Patrick’s day. Mom loved to celebrate all the special days and holidays with décor and special food. It was a nice distraction to focus on St. Patrick’s day and tell stories of growing up, with all my sisters around.

While in Austin, I was able to talk more with mom about where she was, what her life was feeling like now. She described a feeling of being almost ‘lost’ in her own life, unable to feel her strong life force guiding her forward each day. She was struggling with even being able to feel all of our love for her. When I asked her what she was thinking about, it was all negative. The inner critic voice inside was complaining, asking why ‘she could not just get up’. She was not able to walk much on her own these days. And her appetite had vanished. She asked me if I thought it was the cancer spreading through her body or the sustained high blood pressure. Neither of us really knew, and she was no longer seeing her doctor. She told me then that if it was her time to go, she accepted it but she didn’t want it to drag on, or be a burden to any of us. We both acknowledged that we didn’t really know how or when it would happen. I still felt in my heart that she would die in her sleep.

As I looked in her eyes while we talked, I could see a lightness I had never seen. Almost angelic light shining brightly. She drifted off and closed her eyes. I held her arm as we talked. Her body was so very cold to the touch these days, almost as if it was empty. She opened her eyes again and talked about her acupuncture. Something she had enjoyed weekly for over a year. Mom talked about how she was not able to relax enough now to receive the treatment and knew she wouldn’t get the benefit if she was not able to relax. She struggled with relaxing and thought maybe it was fear, scared to let go as it may be forever. She also described how hard it was for her to do nothing every day. Mom was used to a highly active state of being and not very comfortable sitting still, just being.  I started to feel pain in my heart as we talked. Then I shared that I accepted where she was at this juncture and if her path was to leave, I accepted it. She then asked how I would remember her when she passes. Another sharp pain shot through my heart. I was so very grateful to be talking so openly with her, yet my heart was breaking into pieces from the inside out.

Mom said she did not want me to remember her in her current state. I reassured her I would remember the incredible gift of sharing such deep love with her, the unending giving and incredible support she had offered me, and the valuable guidance she had given me as a mother, learning how to raise to children from one stage to the next. Mom then acknowledged how much she felt my love and how grateful she was that I had included her in so much of my life. How she felt my presence when I would call and how she could feel my love when I visualized wrapping my arms around her when I was back in Nashville, something I was doing daily now. Such great validation for me of the deep connection we had developed. Mom drifted off again and when she re-opened her eyes, she said she knew how much I loved her. More validation and my heart filled with peace. It felt as if this talk gave both of us strength. As if we were in our own little world having this discussion, while the busyness of everyone in the house moved around us. As I prepared to leave again, my sisters and I were figuring out how to communicate better and talked about death a little easier. Dad was understandably very sad and depressed. He had seen his wife of 55 years survive late stage cancer before. He was starting to verbalize more now how he knew this time was different.

The day after I returned from Austin felt like a gift. A break from all the emotion and stress of the past couple of weeks. Felt kind of like the eye of a hurricane, calm and clear.  I felt joy again and had a skip in my step. I also could feel the love and support from my dear friends. As such, I was able to focus and knock out a couple of items on the to-do list, a helpful change from the limbo I had been living in. It was so very nice to feel normal for a day. My life was in such transition with so many changes. I enjoyed the feeling of peace and calm while it lasted.