Posted originally October, 2017
It just occurred to me (not always the sharpest tool kinda thing) that there is a connection between my present infatuation with my matriline and the fact that my mother passed away just eight months ago almost to the day.
In February of this year, late at night on the sixth day of our vigil, I sat beside my mother’s dying body in her nursing home, watching her breathe, knowing there were only a few more breaths left for her on this earth. Four days worth, to be exact. I was documenting her breaths in my journal:
10 breaths, stop for 20 seconds, one tiny breath, one deep breath, then starts over with another 8….
In my last blog post, Family Karma, I mentioned a book– It Didn’t Start With You, by Mark Wolynn. In it, I discovered that as an unfertilized egg, I shared a cellular environment with my mother and my grandmother. When my mother was a five-month-old fetus inside my grandmother, I, just a wee egg, was already fully formed in my mother. There we were, my granny, my mother, myself, all tucked in together in one body.
I didn’t have this knowledge as I sat with my mother, but I knew this on a cellular level. She was being severed from me. I sat beside her with my hand on her body and wrote in my journal:
"Sitting here feeling physical pain at losing her. We are of the same flesh. I came from her body. I became a person inside her. That is so profound."
I remember feeling the same way when my grandmother died when I was 15, though I didn’t know her well, and was, in fact, very intimidated by her. My journal writing from back then seems almost comical, and I almost feel I’m betraying that intense, heart-felt 15-year-old girl, but I’m not mocking her. I’m amazed at her depth, her insight, and her pain.
This is what I wrote in my journal, June 24, 1976:
Uncle Steve just called and she’s dying! She’s got about two hours. Oh Granny! I miss her already. I can’t cry in front of Susan and Dad so I’m downstairs. Oh Granny, Granny, Granny! She just managed to say goodbye to Steve and Mom. Oh she has to go to heaven! Oh Mom! She’s probably taking it so hard. Dad should go. The phone is ringing. Oh Granny don’t die!
It was Kelly.
Granny wanted to see how me, Eric and Susan turned out. I can’t stop crying. Goodbye Granny. I love you. I’ve never lost a person that I love as much as I love her. Mickey was a dog, but I don’t think I loved him as much as Granny. It wouldn’t be bad for Granny if I did because I loved Mickey so much.
Granny died at 9:20 pm. It’s ok though (I’m going to cry again because I’m writing this) She died the way she wanted to. She didn’t suffer or anything. She kissed Uncle Steve and Mom goodbye. She’s being cremated and her ashes are being buried beside Grandad. It’s hard to imagine it.
My mother had the good fortune to be able to say goodbye to a woman who recognized her. When I said goodbye to my mother, she didn’t say goodbye back. This panic and pain-stricken woman didn’t know I was her daughter. She didn’t know the concept of daughter, didn’t know the concept of death. I’d been losing her to Alzheimer’s in increments for 15 years.
A snowstorm was raging in Squamish as my mother died, and had been for days. My sister was barely able to get here from Toronto. We thought she’d die the first night, but she didn’t, so we set up cots in the tiny room and waited. We slept there night after night and it seemed our mother would never let go. Or did we refuse to let her go? “Tough old bird,” my brother said over the phone from Ottawa.
On one of the days I went home for a shower and real food, barely able to get my Subaru through the unplowed snow, and deliberately opened my library book of Tarot as I sat on the toilet, as though I were drawing a guiding card from the deck.
The Queen of Cups: "She often appears as a mature female. She can manifest as a person in your life, or as a part of yourself."
I almost fell off the toilet.
"Her sensitivity draws those who struggle and suffer towards her. In many ways she is a safe harbor for others. Her warmth and genuine caring make her a beacon of light. Because she is so responsive to the feelings of others, the Queen of Cups must constantly uphold her boundaries between herself and others. If not properly protected, the Queen can lose her own sense of self. This is her greatest vulnerability."
I know in my heart of hearts that Tarot cards are flakey, but my mother was a true Queen of Cups. She volunteered at the Crisis Centre. She was a psychiatric nurse. She took in stray cats and dogs and people. She stood up to my father and fought her aversion to asserting herself to save my best friend in high school from her abusive father, bringing her into our home for almost two years. She scooped up another friend who’d lost both her parents and became her surrogate mother as well, and that woman wrote to my mother right up until the end.
But my mother also lost herself. As I lost myself. Our greatest vulnerability.
I wasn’t going to read the reversed Queen of Cups, but I had to. Even with my limited knowledge of Tarot (two readings) I knew it held more wisdom for me than the upright Queen of Cups.
You may be feeling out of touch with your emotions or forced to restrict how you feel deep inside. If you do not address these issues, they will eventually reach a boiling point. You are turning in any direction that any wind may blow… you are easily overwhelmed by emotion….
I am the emotional train wreck of the family. My mother was my anchor; she kept me grounded to the earth. Whenever my life overwhelmed me, which was often, I phoned my mother. At 18, the night before I left home, I crawled into bed with her and sobbed all night. My heart was torn in pieces. I was leaving her. She was my safe place.
But for almost 15 years I’d been mothering my mother. I’d been advocating for her in a health care system that didn’t seem to give a shit. I’d pushed aside my people-pleasing tendencies to be her warrior. I’d written letters, filed complaints, taken photos, I’d even said to someone in a care meeting: “You’re either lying or incompetent.” A few years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed I could be so rude. So assertive. So self-possessed. So in possession of my SELF.
My mother was still breathing, my sister snoring softly from her cot in the corner, and I refused to sleep myself because I was afraid that if I did, when I woke up I wouldn’t have a mother. So I kept writing:
What have I learned over these past 15 heart-breaking years of looking after Mom? Especially these past five in this godforsaken nursing home?
I’ve learned to trust my interpretation of a situation, to defend the vulnerable, to accept pain and loss as a part of life, to stand up for myself, to take pleasure in contributing small joys to people’s lives who have little pleasure left. I’ve learned to put anger to action, that I won’t break, that I am strong, that my mother is brave and dignified and as Ted put it – a classy lady. I learned to push through the fire, to stay with the discomfort and not look or run away, to let it transform me. I’ve learned the ancient art of caregiving, and how essential this role is. How love-based it is. I’ve learned loyalty and steadfastness and companionship and family and love and familiarity and connection are what I want. Not novelty and excitement.
I feel like a reversed Queen of Cups, about to be turned upright with Mom’s death.
She kept breathing and the days passed by. No one is supposed to be able to live with no food or water for ten days. But my mother would not let go. She was 90 years old and her tough old body kept trucking along. Maybe this wasn’t the end. Maybe she’d live to 100! God forbid. And I’d have to battle the goddamned nursing home for basic care for an additional 10 years.
Nurses came and went, giving her meds, often letting her spiral into pain before we could track them down. Care aides also came and went. One came in to swab her mouth. Mom's poor tongue was dried up like a walnut. My sister and I were in our pajamas on our cots, writing in our journals and talking quietly with the lights dimmed and Mom’s favourite classical music playing softly in the background, and the care aide said, “Your mom wants to be with her daughters. She doesn’t want to leave the slumber party!”
“Maybe we should put on some Clash,” I said, and my sister and I doubled over in hysterics, unable to stop laughing, our legs squeezed tight together.
We peed our pants about four times in that ten days. I can’t even recall what we found so funny.
When my father was dying, my mom and I took a wee break on the couch, and something struck us as so funny that we couldn’t stop giggling. Then I noticed a change in Dad’s breathing and we rushed to his side. I was overcome with guilt, wondering if he was thinking, “What are those goddamned women nattering about over there while I’m dying!”
But I know Mom would have been happy to hear our laughter. It would have comforted her.
On February 10th at 9:18 pm, almost the exact time of her own mother’s death, my mother, took her last breath. We opened the window so she could fly–no soar–away from that place, and join her ancestors. My mother was free.
The last slumber party was over.