In my last column on the religionandspirituality.com web site, I wrote about saying goodbye to my son as he left home to start college. It stirred something — I received dozens of emails from people who shared the bittersweet experience of watching a child step into adulthood. But just as many wrote about different kinds of goodbyes — closing an office, burying a pet, ending a career, saying goodbye to a house. They talked about the raw pain of saying goodbye to a marriage, a parent, a lover, a spouse, a friend. Endings, it's clear, are the fabric of our lives.
My Goodbye Season continues, too. After I gave my son his blessing, I turned north to Wisconsin, where my mother is dying of dementia. As her brain melts, her body follows. Her muscles don't move anymore, her bones turn ever inward. She rarely wants to eat and has to be reminded to swallow. Soon, Hospice said, her body will forget to make waste and eventually to breathe. Come, they said. Come now, if you want to say goodbye.
And oh, how we want to say goodbye. My brother, Larry, came from Portland. I flew from Florida, and my sister, Mary, and her partner Mary'n drove us all from Minneapolis to Marshfield, Wisc. — a town where there are no more Conners. Except this one tiny woman who doesn't remember she is a Conner or who these souls crowding round her bed might be.
Her focus is a mystery, but there is a hint in her constant echolalia. Whether it's dark or light, she has two things to say: "The only way is up and up and up and up" and "Over the river, over the river, over the river." The first visit was short and frustrating. How do we say goodbye to someone who doesn't even know we're there?
My sister, Mary, solved the problem. The next morning she said, "Before we go to the home, let's get in touch with Mom's higher self and find out what she wants from us." We closed our eyes and Mary suggested we begin by getting in touch with our higher selves. I immediately had an image of myself tubing in a gentle river, letting the current pull me forward. Then, Mary said, visualize Mother's higher self. Well, Mother came barreling into view. Stomach-down on a floating board, she was frantically and relentlessly paddling forward. With her head erect and eyes forward, she came alongside me briefly, tossed me some gifts, and surged away. Mary's voice penetrated this funny scene, "Now, ask Mother what she wants from you." I had to act fast. I called out to Mom's receding figure, and she called back, "Reach the other side."
We opened our eyes and talked about our insights. The other higher selves in the room identified themselves as "joy," "compassion" and "hope." We talked about our experiences of Mom: hard work, loyalty, fidelity, obedience, focus, and devotion to God, country and study. We shared our perceptions of what Mom's higher self wants: to find her own way, to finish her journey. With these thoughts in mind, we headed to the nursing home.
We found Mom sitting in a wheelchair next to the window, swaddled in soft blankets. When Mary introduced herself, Mom said, "I'm so glad you're here, dear." Carefully and slowly, Mary introduced Larry and Mary'n and me. When Mary said, "This is Larry, your son, he came all the way from Portland just to see you," Mother said, "That's so good to know."
We took turns sitting beside her, leaning into her hearing aid, and trying to connect in the brief pauses between "The only way is up and up and up and up," and "It has to be, it has to be, it has to be" and "It's just across the river, just across the river, just across the river." Mary could distract her, but the rest of us couldn't. When it was my turn, I leaned in and said slowly and loudly, "Mom, you're RIGHT. There IS no way but up and up and up and UP." Mom went silent. My brother and sisters stopped talking behind me. Mom turned her blind eyes to me, and sighed. "Yes!" she said, "the only way is up."
We know she loved to pray litanies, so Larry rifled through her prayer books until he found a well-worn one. He said the opening prayer and she became silent. When he said the first request, "Mother of God, have mercy on us," Mother repeated it verbatim in a clear, strong voice. He continued, "St. Michael the Archangel, pray for us." She repeated it perfectly. "Virgin most holy, have mercy on us." Again, crisp and clear. Larry led us in the whole litany and Mother never missed a word. We'd found a way to reach her: repetitive prayer.
After her nap we returned to find her mumbling, "It's just across the river, it's just across the river." Mary closed in and said, "Mom, what's just across the river?" Mom stopped talking, but did not answer. "Is it good?" Mary asked. Mom answered without hesitation and without echolalia, "Yes, it's good, it has to be, it has God right there."
On our last day with Mom, we celebrated her 94th birthday. Her actual birthday is May 26, but we couldn't be with her then, and we weren't even certain she'd be alive, so we decided we had the power to alter the calendar for her. We bought her a lemon meringue pie, stuck four candles in it, and sang to her. She smiled and laughed and even mustered enough air to blow out one candle. When she got her first bite of the pie, she smiled, "Oooo, my favorite!" She ate a huge slice — and no one had to remind her to swallow.
After the pie, I held her hand. Our time was running out. With my brother and sister on each side I said, "Mom, would you like to pray?" "Yes, I would," she said. I decided to pray in a way that honored both of us: my way of direct connection with Spirit and her way of repetition. "Dear God," I said, "here comes Laurene, your precious daughter, a holy woman. She taught us that life is holy, prayer is holy, the church is holy, family is holy, the country is holy, the flag is holy, education is holy, books are holy. ... "
I can't tell you exactly what I said. I think I was in a trance. I went on and on, listing all the things that were holy for her. I'm confident that my mother felt this prayer somewhere deep. Her eyes looked straight ahead but were focused deep inside. Her posture was erect and alert. Her lips moved in unison with mine. Her attention was absolute. I looked over at Larry for help with more holy things, but tears were dripping off his chin. When the prayer finally ended, Mom seemed content, peaceful and ready for sleep. We looked over at her caregiver who'd been doing paperwork behind us. Her mouth was hanging open. She had never seen this Laurene.
I will not be at my mother's bedside when she dies. But I am at peace. I know I said goodbye. I know I gave her what she wanted. I know I witnessed her assumption. Even now, I see her taking one more stroke in the river. She sees the shore. She sees her God. She is at last up and over.
Janet Conner, S.E. (Spiritual Explorer), is the author of the Spiritual Geography heart-healing series and is currently working on a new book, "Writing Down the Soul: How to Activate and Listen to the Extraordinary Voice Within," for Conari Press. The Spiritual Geography books are available through Amazon or Spiritual Geography. Tell Janet about your Goodbye Season and your experiences with written prayer at firstname.lastname@example.org.© copyright 2007 by Janet Conner.