We shall find peace. We shall hear angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds. — Anton Chekhov
Last night I could not fall asleep. Earlier in the evening I was watching the original Superman movie with my son and I fell asleep on the couch. I awoke 2 hours later and was screwed. I knew, now 10pm, that I was destined for a long night. I decided to catch up on this season of Homeland and, two hours later, when that was done, I was still wide awake and I searched for something new to watch. I stumbled upon a series on Showtime called Time of Death. It is a documentary series following people at the end of their lives. All of the folks are suffering from terminal illnesses and are within a year of their death. The show documents their final months, weeks, and then days, and, in some cases, captures their actual death. It seemed really morbid to me at first but then, an admitted reality TV junkie, I found myself mesmerized and sucked in because I was so intrigued by the characters and their stories. Some of the patients continue from one episode to the next and you get to know them and their families. Like Maria. A 47-year-old woman with Stage 4 breast cancer, two teenage kids and an adult daughter. She and her family are struggling with accepting her fate and, even though you know where Maria’s story ends, you are rooting for her to find a miracle treatment or a radical change of course. And, naturally, this does not happen.
Watching these people confront the most terrifying yet most certain reality of their lives was, hands down, one of the most powerful things I have ever seen. I am both fascinated and disturbed by the end of life. The older I get, naturally, death becomes more of a reality. As someone who has certainly reached middle age, I spend more time than I would care to admit thinking about my own terminus. I wonder and worry. I think about my children and husband and how they would be impacted by my departure. I feel grateful that I love my life and have no desire to end it any time soon. I use this thinking as a way to be more present and to live with gratitude. But, I’d be lying if I did not admit that I am fearful. And, every day it gets scarier. As my life takes on more dimension, I get less and less comfortable with the idea of it ever ending. And then I start thinking about the people I love. That’s where I have to stop. I simply cannot imagine losing anyone.
Both of my parents died within the last two years – six months apart from each other. And, as I have shared many times, I had no contact with either of them for many years prior to their deaths. With my father, I learned he was nearing death less than a week before he passed and I knew there was nothing I could do but pray for his soul. With my mother, I found out just two weeks after my father died that she was terminally ill. After smoking for nearly 70 years she had lung cancer. My sister, with whom I had also been estranged, contacted me to let me know of her diagnosis and, after careful consideration and a lot of soul-searching, I determined that her fate was not a reason to change mine. I chose not to reconcile with her before she died because I had already gone through the arduous and painful process of mourning her, many years before her soul actually left her body. I struggled through the guilt, anger and absolute torture of knowing my mother was no longer. I knew that I had to separate from her and remove her from my life. When I learned that she was sick, I contemplated reconsidering my relationship with her and determined that it would only prove to ease her soul, not mine. I had already done too much of that in my lifetime. I searched my heart and tried to figure out if I was intended to be selfish or selfless and, given our history, I knew, with completely certainty, that it was time for me to be selfish. I had no regrets. I still have no regrets.
While I do not fear flying nor do I worry about my plane going down, every time I take off (which is quite often these days), I go through a very ritualistic process. As the plane makes it descent into the clouds, I pray. I have been doing this for as long as I can remember and, over the years, my prayers have gotten more intense. What used to be a simple “please keep me safe and keep my family and loved ones safe” is now more complex and detailed. Now that my children are older, I understand that the impact of my death would be much more significant than when they were babies. I think about my boys and how their spirits would be damaged by such a loss. I shudder at the thought of their beautiful, innocent selves being adversely impacted by such a tragedy. More powerful than my own fears about losing my life, I am terrified and, frankly, abhor the thought of my children being damaged in any way as a result of such a horrific turn of events. I think about my husband and how he might try to parent a teen and tween while grieving the loss of his soulmate, his partner for nearly half his life. I take a full personal inventory and think about my closest friends and say prayers for them all. My life literally flashes before my eyes each and every time. It is both a conscious and unconscious exercise because I never have to remind myself to do it and I am very present and aware as these thoughts pass through my mind.
On my last plane trip a week ago, I thought about my mother – something I do not recall ever doing before. I had the oddest feeling as we climbed higher and higher into the clouds. From out of nowhere, I felt blanketed by the idea that she was watching over me. Despite the fact that I do not necessarily believe in heaven and hell and, if I did, I am not sure that I would consider my mother as a candidate for moving up, I did acknowledge the symbolism of ascending into the clouds and moving closer to the “great beyond.” The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that something very positive had happened after she died. And, yet, I struggled with this thinking because I am challenged with the idea of what happens after we die. When I allow myself to entertain the morbid thoughts of my own death, I always imagine myself looking down on my loved ones. I fantasize about the ability to care for them from afar. As I am sure many others do, I believe I will continue to have the ability to protect them and love them even though I no longer have a physical presence to do so. I struggle with the idea of their pain and imagine myself providing supernatural comfort. And, paradoxically, I believe that there is no way this is possible. Death is the end. This fantasy is just my way of easing the blow. This is my way of trying to imagine myself having some type of eternal flame that cannot be extinguished.
I started wondering if, perhaps, my mother was repenting for her misdeeds by serving as a guardian angel of sorts. I felt warmed by the idea that she might finally be able to take care of me, comfort me, love me, support me. I contemplated that maybe, just maybe, her physical ending was met with a spiritual rebirth that provided me with a new architecture to feel embraced by my parent. It made me happy. It gave me solace. I felt peaceful. Perhaps this idea was a product of my continued healing and offered a new mechanism for me to cope with and accept the truth about my mother. It might have been an indication that I am transitioning to a place of forgiveness and finding my peace with her. This may have been a message to myself that I can find a way to believe that she loved me and I can extract the nectar of that and feel her love. By releasing my own anger and hurt and allowing it to drift into the clouds, I am able to retrieve the vitamins and minerals of her soul. I am able to carve out a small space inside me that accepts her for who she was and understands that, no matter how painful her blows might have been, she was still my mother and somewhere down deep she loved me.
And, who knows, maybe she is my guardian angel. That would be fitting.