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’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.
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?