Posts Tagged ‘death’

#1 Daughter: Longevity and Loss


Photo by Felix Adamo

#1 daughter.  Susan. That’s how I signed cards to my parents.  It was just a fun thing because I was the first-born, a way to bring some levity to the same old “Love, Susan.”  Now both my parents are dead and #1 daughter takes on a new meaning because a new word takes its place – the M word.  Matriarch.  #1 in birth order. That word has a forbidding sound.  Kind of like the name Bertha, which always intimidated me.

But let’s back up a bit.  I’m 66.  I feel I may be a tad unusual to have had both my parents so long; Mom living until 87 and Dad until 94.  The last 10 years have been a rocky journey demanding a great deal of attention from us kids as Mom and Dad navigated hospitalizations, and then increasing dementia with Mom, while continuing to live independently.  “Independently” was a misnomer but we enabled them to believe it was so because we knew there were no options: they were not going anywhere or having anyone in.  Dad knew, however.  But he was a master of self-deception, not recognizing what he knew to be true.  Yet even that isn’t true, because on a deeper level he knew what he was doing and chose to ignore it.  He was a master of levels.

Mom died just in time.  She was on the verge of major cognitive changes and neither she nor Dad would have handled them well.  But losing her broke Dad’s heart.  It broke all our hearts, but Dad’s irreparably.  He showed so much courage in tackling life and trying to move forward but the struggle was brutal.  I found myself thinking it was time for him to die and wondering how it would come to pass.

And then he planted a rose bush on the coldest day of the winter.  My sister Janine, who was visiting from Alaska, and I were on an adventure – a day trip to Boron and having a wonderful time.

Janine in Boron

Dad had his own unexpected adventure.  We got a phone call from my housekeeper Connie who had been cleaning Dad’s house too – had we seen her glasses?  She had left them at Dad’s house, we said.  And the next thing we knew Connie was at Home Depot with Dad buying a rose bush.  What?  Janine and I were ecstatic!  Maybe this would be our answer – maybe Connie could take care of Dad and that would give a spark to his life!

Before we could even get to the idea we heard that Connie was too much woman for Dad – too “take charge.”  But planting the rose bush on that very cold day almost did him in, and he told us it was time for him to move to a retirement home.  We were so excited!  We had such high hopes for him to have two or three or who knows? even more good years where he would meet people, have more to do, more to eat.  His new apartment was wonderful and he was so happy and excited.  And he only got eight days and he died.

Photo by Felix Adamo

It breaks my heart.  I was not ready.  None of us were.  It’s been a month and I’m still not ready. We wanted Dad to have more.  That’s what we wanted.  And Dad wanted it for us – he was making the very best of what he had but truly, he hadn’t had a happy day since mom died, and he was ready.  It’s not about us.  He lived a remarkable life and he died a remarkable death and that is the end of his life on earth.

My dad, Edward Reep the artist in his studio in the mid-60s

It’s hard to believe he is gone.  And after 27 years in Bakersfield, there will be no more trips out to the house on Crowningshield Drive.  I won’t be driving out two to three times a week and calling every other day or more.  When the phone rings at 7:00 a.m. I won’t be cursing the fact that I’ve been woken up and it won’t be my dad.  Just like that, the pattern breaks.

And I contemplate a new role.  Matriarch.  Does that mean anything nowadays?  My father took his role as patriarch quite seriously.  I’m not sure he actually did anything but he felt a responsibility.  We aren’t a tribal society and we don’t look to the tribal elder for advice or approval or special dispensation for anything and I am not sure I’d want to be giving it anyhow.  But I am the female head of the family and the oldest family member, male or female.  I’d like to think I acquitted myself well in the role of daughter – not perfectly, but well – and now there’s a new role to play.

What family am I head of?  My own little (or not so little) family?  My extended family – sisters, brother, nieces and nephew?  Their spouses?  Cousins? It’s probably a meaningless contemplation but interesting nonetheless as we think about the structure of family and how families are coming back together as finances shrink.  How the wagons are circling and kids are gathering around the campfire again instead of scattering to the four winds.  Or is that the wild winds and the four corners of the earth?

I guess it will sort itself out, probably by disappearing completely as anything to think about at all.  A meaningless contemplation.  I just won’t be #1 daughter any more because there won’t be any more cards to sign.  My role as a daughter is over.  Now it’s part of history.  It’s an overwhelming thought, that the role of daughter is over.  I don’t want to give it up.

Maybe we’re never ready.  We just move on.  But I’ll be all right.  And as Dad said the night before he died, “I’ll be all right.”  I love you, Dad.

Losing Mom, Part Two: The Final Goodbye


Mom and Dad with me

Note about the photo: My dad was back from World War II, he had built their first house, and the first baby was born – me.   I can hardly imagine the excitement and hope for the future that Mom and Dad had as their lives together began to unwind and reveal the joy, the pain, the adventure, but mostly the love that led them through 68 years of marriage.


I began this 12 days ago.  Mom died on June 17 at 7:00 a.m.  It’s been 24 days since my sister and I have functioned in anywhere approaching a normal pattern.  That’s ok.  We both had 24 days to spare for our mother. We will forever be grateful that Mom’s pain did not last very long, that she was able to go out under her own terms, and that she died comfortably at home.  At least one of us was with her at all times, holding her hand, telling her how much we loved her, what a good mother she’d been, and that it was ok for her to go, we understood.

We had a memorial on Friday, June 24, before Janine went back to Alaska.  It was small and intimate, at my house, and it was a good send-off.  I had made photo boards and I’m going to do some blog posts matching my eulogy to photos – partly because I think it’s interesting to look at old photos, but mainly as a tribute to Mom.

Even though we hadn’t really had mom for years because of her dementia, I still miss her terribly.  Even though she was 87 and deserved to die on her own terms, I miss her.  I’m at Pismo Beach now, alone, hoping to catch up on sleep and quietly contemplate mom’s life.  In all the hubbub, no one has had time to properly mourn her or consider her life.

It’s still perplexing how all of this happened so fast.  We knew, of course, something big would happen soon.  Each day that something didn’t happen was one day closer to the “event:” losing a parent.  I mean, Mom was 87 and Dad is 93.  We knew it was looming.  We’d been blessed by all those years. But then it happened.  So fast.  June 1 was the first time we knew we were in trouble – 17 days.

Mom had been in pain before June 1, but it was perplexing.  Dad would call and say, “Your mother is in terrible pain.  We have to go to the hospital.”  One of us would rush over and Mom would be sitting on the couch laughing or standing at the stove.  So we’d leave only to get another call the next day.  Looking back, she may have had a small fracture that was irritated more and more by certain movements – I don’t know – until it reached critical.

People ask – doctors, officials – when did she fall?  But how would one know unless that person was present?  With elderly people who don’t remember so well, it’s likely that you’d never know when a fall occurred.  Elderly people fall at home, they fall in hospitals, they fall in nursing homes, they fall in supermarkets – they just fall.  Sometimes Mark has gone over to help Mom up from a fall, but not often and not for a while.  The doctor said she may have fallen sometime that we didn’t know about and had a hairline fracture that could have worsened just by leaning hard against something, i.e. a fall that didn’t quite happen.

But now I understand why broken hips and broken pelvises often spell the end for the elderly.  It’s too much for an already frail body to recover from.

Mom, rest in peace.  We knew you and loved what we knew.  Our kids and grandkids – your great grandkids – all knew you and loved you.  You made us all better people just by being you.  You will not be forgotten.  You made a difference.  We will try to continue that difference, learning from you as we contemplate the details of your life and fully understand your tremendous courage.

My Mother is Dying


Karen Patricia Stevens Reep circa 1938

Mom in her garden last year

Begun June 14, 2011

My mother is dying.  It’s so bizarre.  First everything is fine, then there is pain, then a fractured pelvis is diagnosed, and then dying – in the space of two weeks.  Activity is frantic as caregivers are lined up, the house rearranged, and a story line develops that changes three or four times by the end of the day.  Death moves quickly when one has decided to die.

Mom is heavily sedated right now – thank goodness.  We called Hoffman Hospice yesterday since hospice nurses are always amazing, always available, and always knowledgeable.  I knew deep inside that she wouldn’t make it, but mostly, Mom needed pain control and that’s one of many things hospice does well. Part of me thought, if the pain can be controlled…but the other part remembered… she’s not eating.  She doesn’t want to eat.  She doesn’t want to be alive.

Neither my mom nor my dad has ever wanted to live in an incapacitated manner.  When mom was first home from the hospital, she realized she couldn’t move or walk without great difficulty and extreme pain, and she said she can’t live like that, she’s just a big lump, she doesn’t want to live like that.  And I knew she meant it.  Maybe if we could have gotten the pain controlled earlier…but thoughts like that are futile because it was what it was.  A fractured pelvis can take up to a year to completely heal, and months until the severe pain goes away.  Mom wouldn’t be able to do that.  She always said it, and she meant it.

Mom actually asked me how long it would take to heal and I told her the bone can take a long time but the pain should be able to be controlled and might go on for a few months, but not as bad as now.  She said, “Susan, I know I can trust you.”  In retrospect, I realize she was deciding whether to live or die.  She knew that asking Dad was impossible since he’s 93 and has loved her deeply for almost 70 years; she knew asking my sister was impossible since she is so emotionally invested that she’d just be encouraging. Not that I am not emotionally invested, but it’s different. I marvel at Mom’s clarity in this as she’d suffered from dementia for years and couldn’t remember one minute to the next. I’m glad I didn’t know the burden that was placed on me until afterwards.  Burden is perhaps not a good choice of words, because Mom would never have intentionally burdened her children with anything.  I’m glad I was truthful even though I made it a little rosier than it would have been in reality.

Yesterday and today, at least this morning, Mom kept telling my sister and me how much she loves us.  Over and over again.  She’d say, “I love you.  I love you so much.”  Every time someone visited, like Daniel, when he left she said “I love Daniel so much.” She was emphatic, making sure we really understood.  She was saying her goodbyes and I knew it. She repeated to herself over and over, “It’s going to be all right, it’s going to be all right,” by which she meant it was ok to leave us, she was comfortable that Dad would be taken care of and we would be all right.  She was convincing herself that she could safely leave us.  This, too, I understood in retrospect.

This morning she described a beautiful green lawn she was seeing.  She was looking for Grandma Betty, her mother.  She was reaching out with her hands to things invisible to us.

My mother-in-law did that when she was dying, and a dear friend did that when he was dying.  I read about it in a hospice booklet but now that I’ve seen dying people do it three times, I believe it. Dying people reach out to the unseen and recognize people who have passed before them.  Reconnecting.  Being helped over to the other side.

So my mom is dying.  She’s on the hospital bed that was delivered today to her bedroom.  She’s on oxygen, and when that was delivered this morning I said, “Oh, we’re not going to need that.”  How fast things change.  Within hours.

Mom’s been suffering from dementia and her personal hygiene hasn’t been good the last few years.  Now she’s as clean as a baby.  The “bath” nurse came.  To move her to the hospital bed, hospice called the transportation team who knows how to do these things incredibly gently.  Josh, the wonderful equipment guy, brought the bed and oxygen.  Another nurse came and spent hours with us.  And then the “bath” nurse came.  Who would have known?  She very gently bathed mom, washed her hair with real water and real shampoo, carefully put lotion on, and even filed her nails.

Tonight the “tuck in” nurse is coming to make sure everything is set for the night.  Our night caregiver, Katie, will be here and we were all going to sleep at home in our beds.  Now, that’s impossible.  I will – I can hardly hold my head up now.  But my sister is coming back – once it became clear what was happening, no way would she not sleep here.

While this was going on we were in a race to get our sister who lives in Alaska here in time.  She had been planning to come on Saturday, but it all moved so fast and we realized she had to come – now.  She got here by Wednesday afternoon; my husband raced to LAX to pick her up and get her here in time, and although Mom was not responsive when Janine arrived, I know she could hear and was aware that Janine was there.  Janine had all day Thursday with her because Mom died on Friday June 17. (the link is to the obituary).

We have Sharon, someone dropped in our laps from heaven I think.  She took care of a relative of my friend Pat in Utah and was highly recommended and she was available.  How quickly we came to depend on someone who was a stranger just days ago.  And Katie – she’s just 18 but she went from being someone new to a member of the family just like that.

Mom’s respirations are slow now.  Partly from the morphine, but mostly because her body is shutting down.  Looking at her, I just feel an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude that the unbearable pain is gone.  I’m fighting off the sense of loss that is trying to creep in.  I don’t want to feel it or deal with it until I’ve done what needs to be done and can collapse.

To be continued…

#CED2010: Silence and Loss


I wasn’t going to post again this month – CED’s Body Month.  But today changed that.  I’m still at the cabin, leaving tomorrow.  One of the things I like best about being here is the quiet, the silence.  I forgot that I’d written a poem about it when I got here.  I’ll put it in as an introduction to the idea of silence, total and complete, because today I found out someone was taken from our midst, leaving a silence total and complete.


Quiet fills the cabin.

It’s only me.

How much noise can one person make?

The cabin makes its own noises.

Whirs, grumbles and hisses

As the furnace starts up.

The kitchen is culprit too.

Coffee gurgles, toasters spring,

Water runs, disposals crunch and grind.

I suppose I break the cabin’s quiet.

It’s not like Bradbury’s Mars House.

The appliances don’t run on their own.

Quiet’s not the same as silence, though.

Opening the window to the still night

Reveals silence I can feel.

The silence of the night is

Enveloped by the cold.

It sucks it in, dampens it, leaves it there.

So important to hear nothing,

So I open the window, suck up my breath

As the silence consumes me.

Quiet fills the cabin

But silence fills the night.

The quiet cabin nests in the silent night.

After tinkering with this poem late this afternoon I got a shocking message on facebook.  A former  seventh-grade student of mine, one of my favorites (I have so many favorites), died last night, 20 years old, in his third year of college.  The ultimate silence.  I don’t know the cause of death but I suspect it didn’t have to happen.  And now Mike’s gone forever but he’s left the silence behind him.  The silence will rest within his parents as they grapple with the loss of a child.  They’ve seen the worst that life can give them.  Sure, they’ll move forward but that huge silent void will always be there.  In my poem, I wrote about a comforting silence, but there is nothing comforting about the silence left for Mike’s parents to live with.

Dozens of his friends are leaving messages to Mike on his facebook page as if he’s going to read them, and there is uniform shock and disbelief.  One says

“mike i cant believe this man, we were just chillen a few days ago. RIP im sad to see you go homie.”

Another says,

Love you Mike. You’re such a beautiful beautiful person.


i dont even know what to write bud …i can really say that you have left me in shock and that we will all miss you…im glad that i was able to see you before all this…R.I.P love you man


Mike, one of the best friends a guy could have….I’m glad I got to see you before you left, but I would do anything to have you back. I hope you are in a better place and we will all miss you man. RIP

and then quite simply,

rest in peace buddy.

There’s death and then there’s death.  Illness can be understood.  Accidents can be understood.  Even suicide can be understood.  But i don’t have an explanation for Mike’s death and probably never will.  My heart just aches for his parents.

Best of 2009 – What article did I read that blew me away?


Death.  Dying.  If we’re lucky, it happens later rather than sooner.  As a 63-year-old, I watch my parents age and put myself in their shoes.  My children will become me, watching me age and putting themselves in my shoes.  It’s been of sufficient interest? consternation? to me that I wrote an essay about it, Stuck in the Middle.  Today’s question asks, “What article did I read that blew me away?”

Last year, one article captured me.  In fact it just about screamed my name.  Waiting for death, alone and unafraid, by Thomas Curwen, L.A. Times, 2/28/09.  We are all “waiting” for death, but some of us are closer than others.  Perhaps because I’m watching my parents, at 86 and 91, either suffering from Alzheimers or waiting for death, this article resonated.


Edwin Schneidman

It’s about Edwin Shneidman who, at age 90, is at home attended by caretakers around the clock.  Shneidman has spent his entire career with death as co-founder and co-director of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center, chief of the National Institutes of Mental Health’s center for Studies of Suicide Prevention, and professor of thanatology at UCLA. He himself almost died two years ago from high blood pressure. Curwen: He expected everything to go dark, and when they pulled into the bay of the UCLA Medical Center, he started to cry, knowing that the doctors would save him. I understand.

Here are the passages I underlined, so they resonated at the time and still do.  These are the author’s words: Today will be the same as yesterday, the same as tomorrow, every day a waiting and a hoping for a good death, a death without suffering.  This is my father’s life at 91.  He’s tired.  He might have gone by now but for worry about my mother.  This is what life is like.  We want him to go now, both of them, before they succomb to full-time care and the indignities that come with helplessness.

Shneidman says people ask him often what the end is like and he answers: You’re driving down a road in the desert, and the engine suddenly stops, no Pep Boys, no Auto Club to help.  Whether the road continues is of no consequence.  It has ended for you.

He also says, and this statement grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go: No one has to die, he is fond of saying; it will be done for you.  It’s living, however, that takes effort – to weather the sleeplessness and worry, the relinquishing of pride, the dependency upon strangers, the plea for respect and the struggle to remember.

My sisters and I watch my parents, my dad especially because my mom pretty much isn’t processing, struggling with this, and we struggle right along with them. We care about their dignity, respect, and dependency; the struggle to remember feels like a physical struggle and we’re in the ring.  We wrestle with it. We care about our own dignity when we are their ages, and we feel trepidation whenever Mom doesn’t remember.  Which is always.

But Shneidman redeems that struggle when he explains his philosophy of life. Because he believes life isn’t contingent upon a god or upon prayers. There is no heaven, there is no hell. Happiness lies in the here and now and the satisfaction of living a good life without religion or myths to guide you.  He takes nothing away from others’ beliefs.  He just prefers Moby Dick to the Bible.

He just explained my philosophy, especially in the sentence starting with “happiness.” If we’ve fulfilled that, we can only trust those we love to respect us in all the indignities that occur with old age.

And then this poignant, powerful passage.  Poignant especially because when my mother-in-law died several years ago and we were cleaning out her things, I looked at her pile of chipped, broken collectibles – that had so much meaning in her life – and thought, wow, does that sum up a life? It was a sobering thought.  So to the passage: In death, things become mere things – the statue of Venus in the backyard, the gyotaku print in the kitchen, the Melville-inspired shadow boxes – no longer animated by memory, the story of their provenance.  It is as if their atoms loosen and dissipate.

You can find the whole article here.

You can find Shneidman’s obituary here.