What Death Revealed

It wasn’t an easy surgery, but it was fairly routine. My mother, a veteran of so many surgeries assured me (her eldest daughter) that she’d be fine and up on her feet in no time. So, I flew to the meetings I’d had scheduled for the last six months.

Life didn’t decide to cooperate with my mother’s ideas of ‘up on her feet in no time’, nor did her body. Her surgery may have been routine, but at 81 years old it took longer than expected and complications arose.  

I called my brother at every break in meetings to see how she was doing. Not well, still critical and still in ICU was the standard answer. As a couple of days passed and Mom didn’t significantly improve, I had a lot to think about – especially after I broke down in tears during a meeting. 

I’ve had what I thought was a good relationship with Death. I mean, things die – people die, pets die, plants die, cars die. I may not like it, but Death is as much a part of life as birth. 

I truly thought I was fine with death, and I still think I am. What I realized I wasn’t fine with, however, was losing my mother. That realization truly surprised me. 

To say that I expected to be OK when she died sounds hard-hearted, but she and I haven’t had an easy relationship. There were times in my teens when I prayed for God to liberate me from her. I once daydreamed of her brakes failing as she drove down a mountain or her plane crashing. 

And yes, that sounds awful - but hey, I was a teenager and I was really angry at her. As far as I was concerned, my mother didn’t love me – at least not in the way that I wanted and needed her to – and that hurt. A lot. She didn’t so much torment me as I tormented myself with what I perceived as her neglect. 

Right or wrong, I couldn’t let it go and I resented her for that for years. It made for a distant, angry and tumultuous relationship.

As I grew older (and a bit wiser), I realized my mother wasn’t going to change, and that while I may not always like her, I did love her. I made the choice to accept her exactly as she was, rather than constantly wishing she’d be different or trying to force her to see things my way.  We were really different in ideologies, lifestyles and preferences and I began to choose my battles wisely.  

Eventually, I realized that she did love me in her own way and that, while it wasn’t my way, it was still love. Of sorts. As I accepted that, my outlook on her changed, and as my outlook changed, so did our relationship. I stopped ‘fighting’ who and how she was. As I stopped pushing against her, she stopped pushing back because there was nothing to push against. In the past few years we’d grown closer, and in the months preceding her surgery, we grew closer still.

So, between meetings, a dear friend asked me a question that helped me clarify my situation. To fly or not to fly was the question plaguing me and my friend asked me how I’d feel if my mother died and I hadn’t gone to see her. Huh. First words out of my mouth were that she would never forgive me if I wasn’t there when she died. But the question wasn’t about her, so I felt into it.

One part of me said I’d be fine, since Mom knew I loved her. Another part recognized that it would bug me for a very long time (if not forever) if I missed this opportunity to be with her. I mean, she’s my MOM! So, I changed all my flights and plans and flew to be at her bedside.

By the time I got to Duke Hospital, I was exhausted and wrung out. Seeing Mom pale, weak and with all of the tubes, wires and machines in and around her brought tears to my eyes. I sat on the edge of her bed, “Hi Mom.” 

Then she looked up and saw me, our eyes met – and everything shifted. 

The years of pain, grief and anger fell away, and I found my heart opening completely. The woman that had hurt me for so long looked at me with such love brimming through the tears that it took my breath away. 

For the first time in my life, my mother loved me the way I’d always dreamed a mother would, the way I’d cried for – and I loved her back as she has probably wanted and cried for. Everything else fell away – it didn’t matter and didn’t exist. It was my Mom and I sharing precious moments together, held in that loving heart space.

The moments and hours passed, and my mother lives. I hope she has many more years to share with me, but we’ll see. I’ve been at the hospital daily to be with her and help her – feeding her, adjusting her bed, covering her against the cold room, bringing in food I’ve cooked for her and basically catering to every wish that wasn’t forbidden (and a few that were!). 

Her brush with Death has shown me that holding onto the past is a waste of time; that holding onto resentments robs us of a true present; that holding onto judgments stops us from truly enjoying now; and that all of these prevent us from experiencing that ‘knows no borders’ kind of love.

My mother may not have changed, but I have. 

My mother didn’t have to open, for me to. And, my mother didn’t have to love differently, I did. I was given a gift that night in her hospital room when I feared for her death. It showed me that other people don’t have to change, for me to. 

I can wait until a loved one dies, or I do, and then it’s too late. If I stop holding so tightly to past hurts and judgments, if I let go and become really present right here and now - then true healing becomes possible. The gift is in the present, and nowhere else.