To start, today, I want to share with you a passage from one of my most favorite, treasured books. It is a book of tiny chapters, some only half a page long, sometimes a whole page. It is by the amazing Pierre Delattre, part of the Beat Generation, now still a writer and painter with a gallery in New Mexico. The name of the book is Episodes: Allen Ginsberg, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Brautigan, and the Dalai Lama Meet In The Pages Of This Wild Distillation of Bohemian Life. This post is an homage to a great man, and a book that has made me laugh and cry and learn more than I ever knew I needed to know. The passage I am going to quote for you is about the death of his dog Lolla, which I have been here reading at the time of my mother's near passing. Lolla was his dog, and she has taught us all, through Pierre, a deeper, more profound knowledge of death, and the journey we must walk alone...
To Pierre, To Lolla, to my Mother...
"After my dog Lolla was poisoned by strychnine a second time, she didn't seem to want to go through the agony of the long recovery again. I was keeping her bedded down near the fireplace. But every time I went into another room she would get up and drag her body into the backyard, lying down under the peach tree and somehow covering herself with dead leaves. I'd go out, brush her off, pick her up, and carry her back to where it was warm. One time I returned from talking on the phone to find that she had made it only as far as the steps into the garden, where she collapsed. I decided not to try to save her anymore. I carried her out to the peach tree and lay her down. She let me know that she didn't want me to stay too close to her. She didn't want to be touched or talked to. She just wanted me nearby. So I sat on the steps and watched while she wiggled into the leaves, a maneuver she seemed to know by instinct. When her body was entirely covered, except for her snout -- which as pointing directly at the late afternoon sun shining there on her from over the fence -- she lay quietly alert. Just as the sun set, she gave off a shudder that took away the leaves. I saw a pale silver glow surround her. The glow lasted for about 15 minutes, faded away, and left her body quite dead. I dug a grave there under the tree. From Lolla I learned once again that dying is a solitary act of enormous spiritual concentration that should not be disturbed by our tears and words of grief or consolation. The best we can do for dying creatures, human or animal, is to let them connect somehow with the earth and then guard them so that they can die uninterrupted."
I read the above passage by Delattre and tears ran down my cheeks and I couldn't breathe. That I would pick this book up after some time and it would open to that passage. You see, my mother has been in the hospital for the last few weeks, and her dearest wish has been to go home. My Aunt Babe, her younger sister, cleaned the whole place until it shone, and Tuesday my mother went home. I know that she went home to die.
My mother's family, that generation of Irish Catholics (and many others I'm sure, this is simply what I grew up with, what I know...) didn't let their people die in hospitals and nursing homes. They brought them home and loved them into death. Being close, reverent, tending to needs, and letting the dying one rest. I was there when my beloved grandmother died. I just missed her passage because I had a new baby at home I had to go home and nurse. Shortly after my grandmother passed, I got the call that she had gone. I had been there for hours and hours. Something told me then that she didn't want me there when she died, just as I know my mother wants to die at home. She has a nurse practitioner in 8 hours a day, which she really didn't want but that's the only way they would let her out. Now she is home, and the rest will take it's natural course.
I was trained as a lay midwife to work with a doctor who did homebirths. I would examine the mother, sit with her until the doctor arrived, giving him reports along the way if he was in the middle of another delivery, and on the odd chance he didn't make it, we were trained to "catch" the baby. I had two babies at home and at my 2nd child's birth both my mother and my husband's were there to see their grandchild born. 3 year old Jenny sat on the end of the bed watching. It felt like the Nativity. And unto us a child was born.
I sit her wondering when it all changed, when birth and death became institutionalized and homecare, surrounded by your loved ones and your familiar things, drifted into the mists making way for a clinical process that leaves you just a name and number on a chart. I know that there are very wonderful and caring hospital personnel, but it is not like being at home. Something very precious was lost when we gradually drifted from one way of being to another.
Now I know full well that many a birth and death need to be in the hospital for medical issues that cannot be handled at home, but where it is possible, I believe it should be, surrounding the new mother with babe at her breast, or the dying one, about to walk through the passage from one world to the next. It should be a precious Holy act. The new little one comes through the tunnel into the world, and the dying one goes through the tunnel to a world we cannot, yet, know. The beginning and end of life, the two great mysteries.
And so Pierre bent to Lolla's wishes and witnessed a beautiful, natural, instinctual death. We all deserve that, the death of our own choosing. My mother has gone home to spend her final days in her home, amongst her familiar things, with her family surrounding her and yet giving her space, allowing her the silence she needs and must have to ready herself for the walk through the tunnel into the light. No matter what your belief system, none of us can really know what is on the other side of that tunnel, just as none of us can remember, once we have exited the womb into the world, and the veil of forgetfulness drops, what life was like before our birth. Some young children have an amazing recollection of time in and before the womb, but most adults write it off as fantasy. We should listen more closely.
I cannot carry my mother out under a tree and cover her with leaves. But she will be in her own familiar bed covered with the sheets and blankets she has known, with all of the objects surrounding her that are full of memories, and perhaps when that stillness and that glow come, those around her will have to grace to honor it in silence, and allow her a safe and peaceful passage to the unknown world beyond.
I am about to call my mother to check on her. I do not know how many more times I will be able to do that. She is sleeping most of the time now. She is gathering the leaves around her. It is very close to the time of her journey.