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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.