When the Human Story is Tragic – What Then?

The human tragedy story can be so overwhelming that it obliterates the soul journey story that is also present and far more powerful. Discovering it through my mother’s journey with dementia makes my own spirit more joyful.

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-8-23-34-amOn Sunday, September 18, 2016 I had the distinct honour of attending the Gift of the Hit book launch and, invited by Peter Davison, reading an excerpt from my Chapter in the book. The video is 5 minutes. There is the version that Peter Davison recorded and edited here and the one my son took, which is less steady, here. My voice stays remarkably strong as I relay the minute we left my mother behind in long term care, her confusion, what it was like to walk the corridors to get to her room, the tragedy of rapid deterioration and the soul story that began to fully show up when I reached her consciousness in a meditative state.

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The Passing of an Era

It was the end of January 2008. I was driving down the highway on my way from Halifax to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia on a beautiful sunny winter’s day. I wasn’t just on a road trip for the day, I was on a journey to another era – a past I knew very little about, to visit a man I knew very little about. I was on my way to meet Fred Hanson. A few brief weeks before this I had found out he existed, that he was my birth father, that I had a birth family of which I had had no conscious awareness. Yet he – and the whole family – knew about me for all of my life.

On Wednesday, October 21, 2015, Fred died with his wife Doris, her son Corey and my sister Debbie van Soest present, bringing to a close another chapter of my own life, the passing of an era.

Kathy (2 years old) and Deb (5 years old) visiting in 1964 at Nanny and Grampy Hanson's house in Digby

Kathy (2 years old) and Deb (5 years old) visiting in 1964 at Nanny and Grampy Hanson’s house in Digby

I did not know Fred well. Most of his life had been lived by the time I met him. There are three things that stand out. When he, at the age of twenty-three, and his little family – me as an infant and my sister as a three year old – were abandoned by my birth mother, he did what he could to make sure we were looked after. This meant uprooting us from Halifax to Digby NS where he had grown up and where his parents still lived. Because my grandmother was already ill with brain cancer and my grandfather was already well on his way to alcoholism, they searched for help. Help arrived in the form of my parents, Mary and Hector Jourdain, married a few years, living in Digby at the time and still childless. An agreement was reached for my parents to adopt me and for me to know my birth family. Which I did until my grandmother died when I was still very young. Fred knew where I was and for all the years my adoption was a secret (from me and my brother at any rate), he kept his word and he did not seek me out.

Fred and Kathy

Me and Fred – March 2008

The second thing that stands out is how nervous he was to meet and how welcoming when I walked in the door. He’d been pacing from the front window to the kitchen window to the door in anticipation of my arrival. The door was opened before I even had a chance to get out of the car. He hugged me and we found our way through the awkwardness of first meeting. He gave me pictures from when I was baby.

The third thing that stands out was his agreeing to let me interview him for my memoir: Embracing the Stranger in Me: A Journey to Openheartedness. As I asked him questions and took him back through memories he had not thought of for decades, he forgot for a moment that I was interviewing him. He reflected on the moment my birth mother left and his incomprehension, still all these years later, that she could leave two babies behind.

Doris and Fred 2006

Doris and Fred Hanson, 2006

Fred had a sociable side that enabled him to fit in many places – like the Red Knight in Yarmouth where he and Doris often when for a beer and to hang out with friends. And he had a sarcastic wit that made him a great sparring partner. I didn’t know his second wife who raised my sister Debbie and brought my half sister Robyn into the world. I did however have a chance to meet Doris and experience the warmth and hospitality of their beautiful home. They were together for 28 years.

I am blessed to have known him, filling in some blanks of life story for both him and me. There are many stories that will not be known and many that will not be written now. I do know his brother Bill, his parents and others greeted him as he passed over. My mother and my birth mother had a pact together with Fred and my dad that has gifted me with multiple lineages that are important and relevant to my own life journey and in many ways I am only at the beginning of that exploration. And for now, it is grieving and celebrating the passing of an era.

Death and Dying – Lessons I Learned From My Mother

Originally Posted on February 16, 2012 over at Shape Shift Strategies Inc.

Never having been present at a death before, I didn’t know what to expect; and, it wasn’t what I expected.  My brother, father and I held vigil, practically holding our collective breath, as my mother, Mary Patricia Ann Ritcey Jourdain, drew her last, peaceful breaths on Wednesday, February 8, 2012, falling quiet at 12:30 pm.

Then there was silence.  Her silence.  No more rattling breaths drawn with some effort through her lungs into her ravaged body; ravaged from dementia for many years and the refusal to eat for many months.

Our silence.  In reverence for my mother, her journey and the honour of witnessing the final stages of her transition from physical form into spirit.  I already believed much of her consciousness was active in the subtle realms even as her physical presence diminished.  With her last breaths I imagined her spirit gently tugging until the last wisps of it were finally released into a delightful little dance of joy and freedom.

My mother with the beauty of youth.

My mother with the beauty of youth.

My mother’s journey with dementia was a long one.  My journey through hers was an inspired one.  Her greatest teachings for me may have been in these last few years when she could no longer string coherent sentences together, during the contrast of those times when she seemed to have no awareness of my presence to when I knew she was aware I was there.

I had one of those moments of her awareness the night before she died.  We had moved her to a special room where I could stay with her overnight.  One of her medication times was missed.  I was aware of that but she didn’t seem to be in distress. So, I sat on the arm of the couch, eye level with my mom.  I looked into her blue eyes and she held my gaze.

Summer 2008 212

Me and my mom just after she went into long term care. We posted all kinds of family pictures on the wall behind her in hopes of, I’m not sure what.

When I say she held my gaze, I really mean she held my gaze.  She was just as present as I was.  In fact, I was mesmerized.  I couldn’t take my gaze away.

So, I talked to her.  I told her about some things in my life.  I told her how beautiful she is – not was, is.  I told her how gifted she is and how loved.  I thanked her for being in my life, for being my mom.  Mostly, I held her gaze with love.  Until she began to exhibit signs of distress and I went for the nurse.  And then she was gone again until the moment of her final breath.

Four of us still in the room but now the shape of our lives fundamentally shifted.  As long as we stayed sitting in the room, it was like she was still there in her emaciated form.  But, of course, now she was free of form.  Eventually we had to move and leave her next steps in the capable hands of the Harbourview Haven staff who would transfer her into the equally capable hands of the Dana L. Sweeny Funeral Home.

The staff at Harbourview Haven taught me about human dignity and respect through how they related to my mother.  Even up to the last moment, they treated my mother as if she was fully present and aware.  They called her by her name.  In the middle of the night they would come into our room.  “Mary,” they’d say, “We’re going to turn you over now.”  “Mary, we are going to give you your meds now.  It might sting a little.”

On the morning of her death, a care worker came in to wash her face and freshen her up, providing a depth of love and care, dignity and respect to a woman in her last moments on this physical plane.  I can’t say enough for Harbourview Haven and the care they provided, not just in those last few hours but in the three years and eight months (plus a few days) that my mother lived there.  And not just care for her.  Care for my dad too.  For our family.  They understand about death and dying.  That it is a process and a transition.

My nine year old (at the time) understands about death and dying.  Enough to ask to visit his grandmother with me when I told him I was going to see her.  He hadn’t been there much lately.  I told him what his grandmother looked like and how she was.  He still wanted to come, even when the call came to say it might be her last day.  And his older brother and his girlfriend came too.  We all sat vigil the day before she died, for hours.  Watching my mother with sidelong looks every time her breathing stopped – for the eternity that shows up in a moment.

I am now aware that dying and death requires the same kind of loving care and attention as birth does.  It is birth.  Birth back to spirit.

When my older boys were young children their grandfather on their father’s side died. Their dad and I had already separated.  They went to the funeral and afterwards I asked them how it was.  We began to talk about death.  They said to me, “We think it’s kind of like this.  You know when you go to sleep and dream and when you are in the middle of a dream it seems real?  But then you wake up and you know it was just a dream.  We think life is like that.  It’s really just a dream but it seems real.  Then you die, but really it’s like waking up and realizing it was just a dream.”  Such wisdom out of the mouths of babes.  Closer to source.

I wonder how my mother might be reflecting on the 79 year dream that was her life as Mary Patricia Ann Ritcey Jourdain this time around?