Five years ago today, my life took a rather dramatic turn. I recounted that experience in a piece I wrote then titled "The Perfect Death".
If you put aside everything leading up to the final moment of a loved one, what would you want their final moment to be? It's tough to say because as a loved one, generally our wish till that point is to never see the dying person die. Despite our ability to let go, accept what's ahead, be okay with everything the way it should be -- that final moment, the one where we no longer can hold onto that person anymore -- is that moment for us, or for them?
My mother and I spent years discussing how we wanted to die. It was prompted largely by my father's death. While he technically died on a Saturday morning, his life was over Thursday afternoon earlier that week. He waved to my mother who stood in tears as she waved back watching the hospital team wheel him away for his bypass surgery. He told her he'd see her in a few hours, completely confident that he would return to see her smiling face.
For many years, we tried to convince ourselves that my father really died during the surgery and that his last moment was the moment of him waving goodbye...
Unfortunately, upon being administered the anaesthesia, he never woke up. The doctors spent countless hours trying to revive him after he suffered a heart attack while undergoing the surgery. About eight hours later, when we should have seen the doctor come out to give us the good news, the surgeon instead told my mother, "Your husband was a very very sick man."Those words haunted my mom and me for years. While they were able to bring him back, it was more an attempt by the surgical team to give us time to accept that he would actually not come back to us.
For the next day and a half, we sat by my father and said our goodbyes. Every time something on the monitor would change, we would assume the worst and think that was the moment. Yet each time, he'd return to us and our hope for that moment would be restored. So when the moment actually came, it felt unbelievable.
My mom and I had sat with my father early Saturday morning. We held his hand, told him stories and told him about the plans for the day to come. A team of nurses came around to wash him and we stood by as they did their job. When they finished, we returned to him and my mom called my dad's name and immediately the monitor beeped abnormally. The nurse rushed in and alerted the team of a code. I had watched enough medical shows to know what was about to happen. They escorted my Mom and me to an empty private room just right of the curtain separating them from us.
After 55 minutes of failed attempts, the on-call doctor called his time of death. Those 55 minutes played out exactly like an episode of ER. While my mom was mainly focusing out the noise distractions, I held onto every sound and every dialogue that felt recited directly out of a teleplay. But when that moment came, "Fade to Black", we knew everything had changed.
I was of the mind that upon returning to her bed, her things, her world, perhaps that would be enough to relax her and permit her to close her eyes.
For many years, we tried to convince ourselves that my father really died during the surgery and that his last moment was the moment of him waving goodbye to my mother and falling asleep as they gave him the anaesthesia. But after my mother's brain surgery, we realised that the surgery may have started the process but it was meant to end when it actually did. From her surgery date onwards, our belief about the moment of death changed.
My mother and I talked about where we'd like to die. She was very clear that she didn't want to die in a hospital. But as her illness developed and her time spent at the hospital increased, she became more accepting of that reality. When the idea of a palliative care hospital was introduced to us, we hesitated. It wasn't so much the idea of letting go but rather as a result of her treatment, my mother's memory and ability to feel comfortable and safe in a known environment became essential.
Over the span of her illness, I was there for my mother every step of the way. For her, I was the only security she needed to advocate for her best interests. While hope was fading, we knew her options were limited. Her time at the hospital had come to an end and knowing that I would be there 100% of the time, we were thankful to have the option to return to her home for our final few days.
I was of the mind that upon returning to her bed, her things, her world, perhaps that would be enough to relax her and permit her to close her eyes. That did not happen. With my plan not unfolding as I expected, I was reminded of my dad's last days. We waited, we waited and we waited. But while in the process, we still believed, we still hoped and we still prayed for a miracle.
Her moment was a moment of peace, at home, with me, at her side, listening to the mantra that had always guided her...
My mom did not like the idea of being around longer than she needed to be around. But her beliefs and her understanding of each today changed over the course of her life. Before her death, she found value in the smallest of things. Perhaps it was those small glimpses that she had left in order to live but her time to go was only after those moments no longer were possible.
In all the conversations we had leading up to her death, we always believed the best way to go was in our sleep. She felt that my father went to sleep before the surgery and never woke up. In reality, his time of death was at a hospital, around a team of physicians and nurses with my mother and I hearing them work to save him and ultimately call his death.
In my mother's case, I gave her a kiss on the cheek, a kiss on her forehead and I squeezed her right hand, as she would mine in days past. I said to her "I love you. It's late, I'm going to sleep, and I'll see you in the morning. Love you mom." She was breathing regularly and I walked over to my bed (which was just a few feet away in the same room). I had decided to keep her "Jain Navkar Mantra" CD on repeat to calm her as she had had a rough start to the night. As I closed my eyes, I know I immediately fell asleep. At that moment, to her, her son was sound asleep.
My mother managed to say, stage and have her perfect death. It was her moment.
The mantra that asks for liberation from the cycle of birth and death each time at the end continued. Being that it was the middle of the night, it was only natural then for her to fall asleep. And that she did. I woke up a little while later and I saw that she had finally let go. Her moment was a moment of peace, at home, with me, at her side, listening to the mantra that had always guided her throughout her life. It felt like it was straight out of a movie.
While I thought that, I wouldn't have genuinely believed in the moment until a couple of hours later when my Aunt noticed that my mom's hands were in the prayer mudra position, the first position that coordinates the hands while praying. With that realisation, I knew she had heard everything leading up to that final moment. She had heard me, she heard me fall asleep, she heard the mantra and now, she was ready to close her eyes. She got exactly what she wanted that last moment to be.
My mother managed to say, stage and have her perfect death. It was her moment.
While I had no idea how my next five years would go by, I never imagined that I'd spend a good portion of it saying and attempting to stage my own "perfect death". But this was the legacy of my mother... because of her, throughout the searches, the struggles and the always-changing plans, I learned to live in the moment, to "live 4 today" as she phrased it.
And today, every moment is one I accept and every moment is the one that I want. In essence, while I was chasing "the perfect death", I found peace in my "perfect life."
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