On Tuesday, the family and friends of Lorraine Smith celebrated her life at a 3:00 pm memorial service at Rockville United Church. It took much less effort that the preparations following my dad’s passing because we did our learning in January. Now we know the routine, the choices and the timing so it went down really smoothly.
But it was not easy. I am feeling physically ground down, as if I had gone through a mauling. I find it hard to sleep at night, and it would be worse if I did not have my evening restorative yoga routine that allows me to wind down. But my sleep is really light and I wake up multiple times. I’ve been unable to go to any yoga classes. Work has ratcheted up the pressure because I’ve missed three days this past week, and deadlines are not being adjusted accordingly. In 10 days, I leave for a week in Suriname. Today was my wife’s birthday, and I bought her roses on the way home as a way of apologizing for not being in party mode.
I am sure that there’s a lot that I will have to process over the coming months. I’ve lost both my parents in the brief span of three months, and that’s a major milestone in anyone’s life. You’ll excuse me if I don’t want to record all of it in this blog.
My mother passed away at 8:05 am on Wednesday, April 13, at Casey House, Montgomery Hospice. She took her time in transitioning from the back-broken 91-year-old to the freed spirit that joined my father and brother in the hereafter. She fell on April 2, was admitted to the hospice on April 4, stopped eating on April 8 and said her last words (“I am sorry.”) Sunday noon. I was surprised that she hung on so long without food or water. Her last great grandchild visited her on Tuesday to say good-bye so she kept up her end of the bargain.
During those last evenings, I thought that I could still communicate with her even though she was unresponsive. I thought I detected a twinkle of awareness in her glazed, half-closed eyes, but I may have been deluding myself. I kept reading to her from the Scriptures, telling her stories from my life in Peru that I had never told her and remembering the most precious moments of childhood. It was one-way communication, but just sitting around in the room seemed even more irrational.
The last two evenings, her breathing took on an eerie quality, like raspy ujajai breathing, something from yoga that she would have never understood. She took four or five deep, hungry breaths into her chest, then the breath would become gradually shallower and fade to nothing. She would remain immobile for 20-40 seconds; sometimes, it seemed even longer. On a few occasions, I thought she had actually had passed away in front of me. But then she’d take another ravenous, noisy sequence of deep breaths. I spoke softly to her, “Mom, I did not think that prank was very funny.” On the last evening, the gaps in the breathing cycle got longer.
When I left the room that last evening, I turned around and look back at my mother’s still form on the bed for a long while. I followed the up and down movements of her chest. After a silent lapse, I heard the hiss of the air through her dry throat again. Even though her body was broken and her soul longed to escape, the prana, the life force flowed through her.
Not much to add. My mother is close to the end. She’s no longer speaking, eating, even swallowing water. She is gradually leaving behind her body, like a discarded exoskeleton.
The people at Montgomery Hospice have been extraordinary in giving my mother, my family and me support and solace in this time of suffering. Casey House has created a welcoming, sheltered space where I’ve been able to find peace while accompanying my mother through this passage. I’ve frequently come home to rest and immediately gone back to the hospice because it offers a more mindful environment at this time. At home, I just get swept up into busy-ness in front of my computer.
While my mother has been placed in a hospice with a morphine drip for the pain, my work is cruising along at its steepest clip of the year, building up towards our bi-annual meeting to take place in Paramaribo, Suriname the first week of May. This pincer action squeezes out all the non-essential activities from my life. I keep tell myself to slow down to make progress, to get mindful. Otherwise, I am pressing too hard.
Sorry, folks, but there is not going to be much blogging at this intersection of the World Wide Web. My mother fell in the middle of the night, fractured her L1 vertebrae and pelvis, and is now heavy sedated in a hospice. She had only gotten out of the nursing home two weeks ago.
What’s more, my wife’s mother has also been hospitalized in Lima, Peru, for observation because of an irregular heart beat so Teresa is contemplating a trip home, though the airfares are really intimidating.
Finally got to a yoga class today, taking in the 2/3 vinyasa flow class at Thrive. I was in way over my head. I had not done a full 2/3 in a month, maybe more. I have not been making it to the evening classes, whatever level. I have not been going to the gym. I was sick for a full week. So it was daunting to go through one of Susan Bowen’s challenging routines. I just stepped back and let the yoga come to me, took a break when I needed to, and made sure I did not hurt anyone when I fell out of a pose.
I’ve been going to my mother’s nursing home in the morning before work. That means that I get to work late, and have to stay late to make up for the late arrival. My mom goes to sleep between 6:30 and 7:00 and there is no way that I could make it home and then go to the nursing home and arrive before she dozed off. She has recovered some from her stroke. She is recovering some control over her left side, but she cannot walk without assistance yet. She is still trying to fight her way through the mental fog brought on by the stroke. Memory is really spotty; she’s depressed; she feels adrift in a strange environment that holds none of the familiar pillars of her life. She wants to go home right now, but the nursing home staff say that it will be March 16 at the earliest.
I get home in the evenings and fit in my restorative/yin yoga routine, and as much meditation as I can manage — fatigue has a way of distracting focus. But I now realize that this fall-back routine is only a stopgap measure, a bare minimum to hold together body, mind and soul. I am going to have to make time for more vinyasa practice and aerobic exercise.
I thought that I was getting back into a groove, both with this blog and my yoga practice, after the disruption of my father’s death on January 4. But this week, the other shoe feel: my mother (Lorraine Smith) had a stroke and has been hospitalized. Her left side, including arm and leg, has been seriously affected to the point that she can barely get out of the hospital bed with assistance. My daughter, Stephanie, went to check up on her on Tuesday morning and found her asleep in a wheelchair in the kitchen. She immediately that something was wrong with my mother and called the visiting nurse. By the end of the afternoon, there was mob of loved ones, friends and caregivers around her, trying to get the best option for her. My sister, Judy, took her to urgent care at her clinic (Kaiser Permanente) and then to the hospital.
When I was with her last night, she spent a lot of time sleeping and couldn’t carry on a conversation for long. That may just be the body try to heal the damage done to her brain. Today, we had a long session with the support team at Holy Cross Hospital to get a handle on her situation. The team thought there was a good chance that my mother can pull through this crisis because of her tenacity demonstrated in previous illnesses and accidents. We will need to get her into a rehab center as soon as she’s strong enough, and then we have to have a plan to take care of her, either in a nursing home, assisted living or her home.
One thing that we discovered last year with her accident (fell while picking up the Sunday paper, fractured pubic bone, shattered elbow, lots of scraps and bruises) is that she has Stage-IV breast cancer. More than 25 years ago, she was diagnosed and underwent surgery to remove the left breast and lymph nodes, radiation and hormone treatment, and rehab. Apparently, the surgeon did not get all the cancer (or it had already spread). Once she was taken off the hormone treatment after 10 years, the cancer probably became active and spread through her body. So the cancer’s been hanging around for 25 years, but has not compromised any vital organs. When she was given an x-ray after her fall, the doctors noticed a shadow in one lung, and determined that the cancer. She was put back on hormone treatment, and the drug has really beaten back the tumors.
So my mother has been battling a lot of things over the past year or so. She’s 91 years old.
I thought that my mother had really done well before the stroke. She soldiered through the events surrounding my father’s death. In recent weeks, she concentrated on getting her papers in order to settle Dad’s estate. She had reduced the number of boxes of files stacked around her living room chair down to a handful.
And what about me?
Like I said, I want to get back to regular yoga classes, to the gym for aerobic training, to a routine that allows me to focus on writing, reading, learning, taking photos. I’ve put on an extra 5-8 pounds since Christmas. Oh yeah, and I want to get in eight hours a day of work so that I can dig myself out from under a huge backlog of work. I am so late on some tasks that it’s embarrassing.
I guess I’m asking for a lot. But what I’m going to have to settle for is managing each day as best I can, responding calmly to the needs of my family, and seeking out quiet moments of mindfulness. And in the evenings, spread out my mat on my study floor and release all the stress of the day. “Grace, ease and balance,” that’s what my yoga practice is about this year.
When I came home from work last night, I felt completely exhausted and sore. It might have been a bug going around in my family (son, daughter and daughter have all taken ill), but it’s more likely that it just the physical wear and tear coming from the emotional grind of my father’s death. I have been trying to project an image of being steadfast and strong for my mother and the rest of the family so I just keep pushing ahead to get through the memorial service and then get back into the daily routine of life.
It does not help that I have not made it to yoga class since last Friday. Yoga has a way of breaking down pockets of stress and distributing them through the whole body so I may feel sore or tired, but it’s generalized, not focalized. I’ve been doing my evening routine of restorative/yin yoga, but I really need my yang practice, either at home or at a class.
But I did not go to my normal class this morning. I slept in and let myself drown in the silence and solace. I need to visit my mother to see how she’s doing. After that, I want to go to the gym just to get the juices flowing again. The mind-body connection is so pivotal to understand oneself and human kind in general.
I have made it past the memorial service for my father, and can now breathe more calmly. Since my father’s death, I have been zeroed in on organizing his memorial service and dealing with all the odds and ends that come into play when someone dies. My sister has had some health issues that took her out of action. My mom has been overwhelmed and exhausted by the loss of her companion of 63 years.
My father asked several years ago that I to give the eulogy (it may not be the appropriate term) at his memorial service. I did not know what I was getting into. It is so hard to absorb the death of a loved one, then look back on 89 years of life, parse the feelings that are stirred up, parry the regrets of not taking advantage of all the opportunities for sharing and then write something concise, coherent and meaningful.
Over the weekend and into Tuesday, I worked at a draft fitfully, but could never get myself to preserver beyond a couple of paragraphs. I proved to be more productive while driving on errands because the discipline of driving settled my mind enough to let deeper thoughts rise to the surface. Too bad I couldn’t take notes at the same time.
I was still hacking away at the text at 5:30 am before the memorial service. I finally gave up and got a few hours sleep. I woke up, shoveled the snow from our front steps, and then set out for the church to set up my computer with a slide show of pictures of my dad’s life, and then pick up my mother.
I had one mantra for the day: “Stop the body, pause the mind, breathe, feel; repeat.”
The memorial service went well. The sanctuary was almost full, including several colleagues from work who showed up unexpectedly. I spoke about my father. Others (relatives, pastors, friends) all got a chance to speak as well. It was amazing to hear how my father had touched lives. I was pretty numb for the rest of the afternoon, but it probably came across as being stoic and supportive of my mother.
After the service, cookies and coffee were served as people extended their condolences to my mother, sister and me. Around 4:30, a women’s group from Lakeview Church, where my dad had been pastor, offered the family a dinner. We then packed up and headed home.
I felt exhausted, but after a couple of hours, I recouped some energy and put my computer back together on its corner table. It was like plugging back into the outside world. After an hour of restoration yoga, I went to sleep around midnight and slept through to 9:00. After a leisurely breakfast with my family, I went to work. I need the daily route, the distraction from mourning and the change of scene.
My conclusion at the end of the week: I am glad that I had the luxury of concentrating on bringing closure to my father’s life, but that process has put me in a deep hole. I have so much work piled up that I would need another 10 days off to get me back on track.
My family will be holding a memorial service for my father, Lynn H. Smith, on Wednesday, January 12 at 1:00 pm at the Rockville United Church (355 Linthicum St., Rockville, MD 20852, 301.424.6733). His burial will be in private.
Gifts in my father’s memory may be given to the Church of God Ministries, PO Box 2420, Anderson, IN 46018-2420.