My mother died on July 21st. There is finality to that statement. At the same time, I have such a strong sense of the continuity of my mother, or at least of something that relates to her being and her life.
I had been prepared for her death, as much as one can be. I had been expecting it. I had been trying to gage when it might happen so as to be present with her in that important moment. In the end, the most challenging aspect of her passing was that it happened as my flight was leaving London Heathrow to take me to be with her in Vancouver, Canada. It felt like all my attempts to be the perfect daughter, and to be with her in significant moments, were in vein. She left before I got there, before I could have possibly have gotten there.
The disappointment and sense of failure softened over the days. Help came from kind offerings from supportive others, like the thought that she may have intentionally left before I arrived to make it easier. People often die in that moment when their loved ones leave the room for food or to relieve themselves. It is said to be too challenging for some to leave while in the presence of those attached to them. As someone who had loved and was loved by many of the caregivers at the care home where she lived, my mother died peacefully in solitude during the night, discovered at 2 a.m.
Did she leave, however? When I arrived 11 hours later, I felt compelled to lay my head on her shoulder and hold her, as I had wanted to, perhaps as I had yearned to all my life. I was startled to feel her body moving. I sensed a rhythmical movement, similar to that of breathing, though more subtle. As a Craniosacral practitioner, accustomed to sensing very subtle, slow rhythms, this did not feel so subtle to me! When my father had passed, two and a half years earlier, I had sensed subtle energies and rhythms receding as I held him shortly after his death. This was different. I checked visually to see if my mother was indeed still breathing. She was dead. Her body was getting colder the longer I stayed with her, but there was an undeniable sense of breath. Others, too, had thought they had seen her breathing as they sat with her body.
Perhaps even more surprising was the story of the night nurse the night following her death, when her body had been removed. Apparently, the call bell from my mother’s now empty bed rang repeatedly through the night. Each time the nurse turned if off, only to have it call her again later. Finally, she went into the room and said, “Hello Ruth.” After that, the call bell was silent. The irony is that my mother didn’t know how to work the call bell. Perhaps she had figured it out finally and wanted us all to know!
Death is a gateway, reminding us of the mystery from whence we come.
Death and Birth
Being with my mother’s dying, I was acutely aware of an intense longing to be with her. I just wanted
Still, the craving to hold her and be physically close with her haunted me. From my extensive studies in prenatal and birth psychology, I recognized my feelings. They were what every newborn wants and needs in relation to mother. When I was born, I was whisked away from my mother and kept in a nursery for several days, as was the custom in the fifties. My mother used to tell me how she had been given a “whiff of something” and did not remember anything of the birth after that. We had both been essentially unconscious for the big moment of my arrival. Years later, I understood that potential source of the challenges we had experienced in our relationship.
As my mother lay alone in her bed after my birth, unable to get to know her new baby, she felt lonely and longed to be with my three-year old brother, Gary. When I was three days old, she cried with what she as a nurse recognized as the usual post partum blues, and spoke to Gary on the phone to soothe herself. We now understand that new mothers become depressed after being separated from their newborns, their bodies reacting as if the baby has died. There is a natural physiological grieving, often without understanding its source. Interrupted by this separation, bonding may be difficult when mother and baby reunite.
On this day of my mother’s depression, she asked the nurses how her baby was in the nursery. She was told her baby was crying non-stop. My mother convinced the nurse to bring the baby to her, even though it was not a scheduled feeding time. She fed the poor baby, wondering at how much her face had changed in such a short time. Baby was returned to the nursery until the official feeding time. When I was brought to my mother at that time, she eventually realized she had been brought a different baby earlier. The main point of the story when she used to tell it was that she had had enough breast milk to feed two babies. Super mama!
For me, however, the story had a different point. My mother, three days after my birth, didn’t even know what I looked like. How could we bond under those conditions? I felt as if we finally bonded just nine years ago when we danced at a family reunion. Since then, my sense of repulsion for my mother diminished, replaced by a growing desire to be close to her.
The longing I felt as my mother was dying, far away on another continent, resonated with the feelings of the newborn, desperately needing her mother, who felt as far away as the 5000 miles between London and Vancouver. All I wanted then, was to nestle into the mother I had been with all my life before birth. Nothing could compare with that familiarity, just as nothing ever will again in this life.
All of this came to me as I sat with my sadness on the plane. There was nothing I could do. Like the baby in the nursery, I was completely dependent on others to take me to my mother. I was surrounded by strangers, however kind, all of us in a artificial environment, high above the earth, perhaps comparable to the ungrounding effects of anesthesia my mother and I had both been recovering from back then.
Being with my early history with my mother in the days before I was able to get to the airport, I was shocked to hear the nurse explain that my mother was now on Scopolamine to enhance her comfort. I had already been wondering about my mother’s gradual decline in function through dementia as reflecting her own drugged birth process. Her mother had been given Scopolamine, then used in combination with morphine to induce “twilight sleep” in laboring women. I had learned many years ago that we tend to die as we are born. The resonances here were amazing! My mother and I both seemed to be re-living our births through her process of dying.
Love Heals All
A day or so after my mother passed, I began to feel her essence around me. I had been feeling upset, as I engaged with the shock and grief of her death, and having arrived too late. Suddenly, a wave of soothing love surrounded me. My upset shifted into peace. I was surprised, as I had been when sensing my father and brother after their deaths, at the form in which I experienced my mother’s presence. Actually, there wasn’t much form this time. I had the sense of my mother as pure love. Form was no longer important. This is what I had witnessed as she had deepened into dementia. As aspects of the personality I had known faded away, I experienced the loss and death repeatedly at different levels. All that remained towards the end was love.
As I was about to begin my Continuum dive this morning, I felt compelled to open the book of my beloved mentor, Emilie Conrad, who passed just three months before my mother, in April. The book opened to a description of the memories of pogroms and Nazis coloring the field of Emilie’s family. Having spent time stroking the bag of my mother’s ashes, sensing how these burned cells seemed to still hold some aspect of her, I was particularly struck by a quote in the book of how the Nazis had used the ashes of the Jews “as fill for swamp lands, as thermal insulation between the walls of wooden buildings…phosphate fertilizers; and… to cover the paths of the SS village located near the camp” (Conrad, p. 42).
The horror of the past can haunt us through what our cells and tissues absorb, even as they are forming in the womb of our mother. Accordingly, it seems different to lose mother, with whom we are so physically intimate from the moment of conception, or even as an egg many years earlier. Father loss is a slightly different story.
The wave of love I experience as my mother seems to transcend all this history. I read on in Emilie’s book as she writes,
“Movement behavior develops as we take on the history of our family nexus. Information is passed from generation to generation not only through stories, but also at the silent level. The imprints of wars, strife, prejudice, sexual events, meanings, and values are all registered and carried in our ‘field’ – recorded in the intrinsic somatic arena of breath, touch, and certainly the parameters we put around our ‘bodies’ and sensory responsiveness. The internalized inhibition of our movement and sensory domains is complex and far-reaching. We are shaped by our time, space, and condition. Our arrival becomes a continual layering of impressions and messages, both verbal and non-verbal, that becomes the implicate ambiance of all that we inhabit.”
-Emilie Conrad, Life on Land, p. 42
I am aware that my ambiance has changed. Engaging in my Continuum “dive” today, I sense the tissues softening their hold on the past. The tears flow. The diaphragm releases. The pain of holding in my back softens. I return to the fluidity of being, like the little one first encountering mother. I literally sense the ambiance of ancestral history melting as something new emerges. The love of that maternal wave, what I had longed for all my life, now free from historical bonds, embraces me, holds me, supports me. The path ahead awaits, offering more mystery. Welcome.