My mother died the other day.
It should be in no way particularly remarkable to you that she did. It happens to hundreds of people every day in Canada, so it’s not exactly an uncommon event. Looking at it another way, you might even call it an extremely common event, since immortality remains the province of fiction.
But how do we do it? What do we do? What’s important?
The answers to those questions don’t necessarily mean you have a choice in the matter. You may be able to influence it, but the manner of your decline and demise is not within your control. So the “how” and the “what do we do” are, many times, interesting but ultimately academic questions, dictated by the strictures of imperfect science.
“What’s important” is a more important question. As a witness, what can you take with you to ease your own passage and its impact on those around you.
Lacking a school, one thing we can do is look to our immediate environment for examples of what’s important about how to die.
My father, Allister, a coal miner, predeceased my mother, Cecilia, by 20 years. He died at what I increasingly see as the unfairly young age of 59.
He was sometimes a hard man, something born perhaps of working during the Depression on what are known as bootleg pits – unlicensed coal mines where he often, with a couple of his brothers, would work eight hours with a pick and shovel, then spend eight more hours guarding piles of coal they had mined from desperate and hungry thieves. For me, this experience may as well have happened on a different planet. With time, my father reconnected with God and made amends.
To say he was complex is to say that the theory of general relativity is a bit of a head scratcher. But as he slowly died of cancer over 18 months, what was clear and unambiguous was how he stared down his mortality, not transferring the fear he must have felt to his still-young family and focusing his limited time to maximum effect.
These were valuable lessons and I hope I can remember to employ them should similar circumstances arise. But as I sit here thinking about my mother, and the events of the past couple of weeks, I am humbled.
Although by necessity, she had a career in retail clothing sales and as a nurse’s aid, but for most of her life she was a housewife and mother to three daughters and one son. She firmly implanted in her children the importance of reliance on family. She put all of her intelligence, creativity and considerable stamina toward keeping our family together and unified despite the strains and pressures of a world that seems to drive us further into our own heads.
The cruellest cut came seven years ago, when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Over time it robbed her, the creator of so many good family memories, of the ability to even recognize her family.
Three years before that, at the age of 70, perhaps sensing something or remembering how she nursed her own father’s suffering from dementia, she preplanned and paid for her funeral, wrote her own obituary and wrote each of her children goodbye letters that would tear your heart from your chest.
These two-page notes, which we proudly had framed and displayed at the funeral home, told us what we meant to her and her best memory of us. Her words left us with an enduring feeling of the pure love that can, if you’re a lucky human being, exist between a mother and her child. Her parting message was the same for all of us: Stay together. Rely on each other. Don’t be distracted by the world.
The end came quickly. In the last week and a half of her life, her four children and her six grandchildren dropped everything they were doing, and from across the province and the country made the pilgrimage to a nursing home in Greenwich, N.S. We held her hand, wiped her brow and cried while she made the hardest journey any of us will ever make. In doing so, she did what she always did – brought us together and created something good from something bad.
Cecilia’s way to die was to be prepared, to not to be a burden and to say the things that needed saying while there was time and memory to say them.
In her beautiful letters to us, she also told us what she had learned about dying, and what she took from the painful experience of the sudden death of her mother of a heart attack at the age of 65. She knew what it was like not being able to properly say goodbye. Her lesson for us was to take control of the thing, if you could, before it takes control of you.
The remarkable thing in all of this is how unremarkable it is. It’s unique yet it’s universal, and it goes mostly unspoken outside your particular tribe. Just because something is common, doesn’t mean it’s not the most important thing you’ll ever learn.
Cecilia says to get ready if you can.
Todd A. Brown lives in Lower Sackville, N.S.