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Enter Mourning: A memoir on death, dementia and coming home

By: Heather Menzies

In the end, palliative care. Pure love and shared presence.

Chapter 9: Safe Passage (excerpt)

….The palliative-care nurse asked if I could step out of the room with her. I didn’t want to leave Mum’s side, but she quietly insisted, explaining once we were in the hall, that she didn’t want Mum to overhear. She then got straight to the point. “Your mother is dying,” she said. Outwardly, nothing changed. I took this in calmly. Inwardly, it was as though I’d been re-positioned against the far wall, hurled there by some unimaginable force. The nurse continued in the same strong though infinitely gentle and slow-paced voice. She said that Mum was in the final stage. “It wouldn’t surprise me if she were gone in 12 hours.” I took this in too, felt it entering me like a soft cannonball. This is it, I thought, and immediately deflected into performance, remaining calm and ready to do the right thing, ignoring the urgent impulse to ask: How can you be so sure?

….Putting the socks on Mum’s feet became a ritual, a medium for taking in what was happening, and understanding it at a level well below thought and rational consciousness. In covering Mum’s feet with the socks, removing them from my sight for all time, I was participating in their removal from this earth. That part of Mum’s existence, that way of her being in the world was gone, just as those shoes bagged up in the clear plastic hospital bag a month ago when she’d fallen and broken her hip had in fact been redundant, no longer part of her life. Some part of me understood this now and, past resisting it, helped smooth the way. …

Eventually her thrashing subsided. The restlessness settled into calm. She surfaced. She never really opened her eyes, except briefly, and just a slit, to see that it was me after all, I think. Though, who knows? Perhaps to see if she was still in the land of the living. She squeezed my hand. I squeezed hers back, feeling the connection charge through me. It wasn’t something tangible, more akin to pure spirit, whatever that means. Yet it was as real as the umbilical chord that had connected me to Mum in her womb.

“I love you,” I said. Her lips moved, smiling slightly. Then she spoke, a mumble but clear enough: “I love you too.”

A nurse or nursing aide stuck her head around the curtain. I asked if she could change Mum’s diapers.

“Is that better?” I asked when she’d left. Another half-smile in response, then, clearly: “Yes.”

That evening, when I wrote of this in my journal, I finished my account of what happened then added: “It strikes me that I am being born again. Or rather, there are two things going on. I feel as though I’m serving almost as a midwife here, soothing Mum’s journey toward death and acting as her trusted navigator. And in making that journey so close to her skin, so close to death, I am being born into a new sense of myself and my own aliveness: on the other side of the fear of death, on the other side of my insecurity, of my fear of living fully.

All Contents Copyright © Heather Menzies