Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

As the Heart Quiets

“As the Heart Quiets” is a series of snapshots posted on my Facebook page, offering a small real-time window on the days when I tried to catch my breath from a year of parental caretaking, to when I returned to help my mom die in comfort, to when she took her last breath, on October 3, to the little bridge I’m now trying to erect afterward as a way to travel through the pain and sorrow toward new destinations. On the shores ahead, I see so many more stories I want to put into words, but I have some walking yet to do first.

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August 12, 2013

“No decision seems like the right decision” has characterized way too much of the past 12 months. But pretty much a year to the day from when my mom and dad both got seriously sick, and I had to suddenly leave Montreal and its astonishing student/social movement to become their primary caretaker, I’m going to return to San Francisco — one of my beloved homes — for what I keep calling “a break,” starting on August 19 through September. I’m already broken, though, so maybe a better description is “a re-membering,” a piecing together and recollection of self, out of the debris of loss and grief, out of the weight of stress and life/death responsibility. Oh yeah, and the guilt I feel at leaving my mom, who is struggling through her own grief and fears from all the changes of losing her husband, home, independence, health/mobility, and now me.

So ready or not, here I come, Bay Area.

I’ll be arriving like a little baby bird that’s fallen out of nest, with its beak, wing, and spirit broken, in need of being scooped up by some kindhearted folk, put in a cardboard box lined with soft material, carried gently home, and tended gingerly, lovingly, back to life. As for nourishment, I’m not big on worms, so better bets include, but of course aren’t limited to, a healthy mix of sociality, adventure, crushes, play, community, sun and starlight, laughter, meandering walks and late-night conversations, warmth, street art and other culture, political/intellectual stimulation, lightness, pleasant surprises, fantastic coffee and even more fantastic food, genderfuck and fuckcapitalism fun, and the simple joy of uneventful calm amid friends and beauty.

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September 13, 2013

I thought my old companions of this past year-plus, Stress and Sorrow, had hopped a train and were miles away, getting lost in other contingent mayhem, and so giving me a break for a good while. But no, it seems they only went out for a leisurely stroll through the gentrified environs of SF, looking for trouble and a still-cheap burrito. They are now back to pester me, because there’s stress and sorrow enough in this city without their help, and I seem to be an easy target instead — or at least what’s left of my tattered heart feels that way.

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September 14, 2013

Suddenly, unexpectedly, again, I’m flying to Michigan. I’m losing track of all the layers of loss and sadness, but I know for sure that I’m not ready to lose my mom. Not that “readiness” has anything to do with it. I wasn’t ready to leave San Francisco, nor am I ready to be back in the Midwest. I’m usually not superstitious, but my mom got much sicker on Friday the 13th, so any counter magic that can be sent her way for wellness and mine for comfort would be appreciated, abundantly.

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September 22, 2013

Eight days into abruptly being back in mid-Michigan, too much is fading away too quickly, from my computer — which can be replaced — to the leaves — which will renew come spring — to my mom.

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September 25, 2013

My mom recently tucked this favorite photo of herself in her wallet, close to the card indicating that she’s donating her body after death to Michigan State University for use in teaching hundreds of students in anatomy classes. My dad’s there already, helping this fall’s class of 2017. They both always understood “religion” as simply doing good in this world, so it’s fitting that they both chose to continue doing good beyond their lifetimes. In some three years, we’ll sprinkle their ashes, together, on a commons nestled atop the Green Mountains of Vermont. Tonight, only four months after stroking my dad’s forehead as he died so well at Stoneleigh Hospice in Lansing, Michigan, I’m now stroking my mom’s forehead as she moves toward death (in days or hours?) in her assisted-living home of the past year in East Lansing, again with the empathetic aid of the same hospice folks. Deja vu, but so much harder this too-soon second time around, especially after this year that she and I have unexpectedly spent together through sickness, health, joy, discovery, laughter, tenderness, and more poignant moments than I can bear to recall this evening.

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October 2, 2013

One discovers a lot when helping — and helplessly watching — a parent die as well as possible (thanks again, way too soon after my dad, to hospice).

Last night, when my sister Karen and I took a break with longtime friends-as-family in the community living room just down the hall from my mom’s assisted-living apartment, now turned into an in-home hospice where I sleep next to her hospital bed in a cozy recliner I recently helped her pick out, a med-tech ran to tell us: “Your mom is trying to climb out of her bed!” We ran back down the hall to discover her drawing, yet again, on seemingly bottomless reserves of energy and determination — a joy at living every moment — to swing one of her near-useless legs, numbed yet wracked with pain by her terminal cancer, over the edge. She’d awoken, somehow for the umpteenth time, from morphine and haldol coupled with the increasing bodily wind-down of dying. She was gripping on the metal bed railing, too, pulling her weak self up, to no avail, repeating over and over how much she wanted to stand up.

Earlier that day, she’d responded in her now-reed-thin voice to the hospice nurse’s question “What do you fear most now?”: “Never getting out of bed again.” The hospice nurse didn’t contradict her, but instead asked what she needed most on her slower-than-expected journey to death: “Dave.” That’s my dad. Was my dad. Maybe, somewhere out there in the ether of quick-witted ghosts, still is my dad. He was only supposed to last a day in hospice after we gently stopped the oxygen coming into his trach of nine awful months; he hung in there eight days, like a Hanukkah story. My mom, I’m finding each of these draining days counting off the minutes of her life, is just as strong. Like a water buffalo, quipped a friend-as-family here.

Funny, I’d never really seen or understood her strength until this long year-plus of sickness, suffering, dying, death, loss. She gains, time and again, every ounce of hope and brightness, nearly always passing it along to others, precisely by using such “tools” to never give up the fight. She didn’t manage to stand; she can’t anymore, even with aid. But she wasn’t going to die without trying, damn it!

On this perfect October fall day, on a short break from the waiting, watching, caretaking, I am trying to find my own strength to push away the present image of her body and see this one in its place — the outer strength of another time that, even then, was equal match for an inner courage to get her through too many horrific moments in her childhood. I’m honored to have come to know something I overlooked for all the years I’ve known her, even if it’s late in the game of her life, which like my dad, she’s hanging onto way longer than anticipated.

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October 3, 2013

I woke this morning at 6:00 a.m. to my mom’s quieted heart, which slowed to a peaceful stillness around 5:30 a.m. Her last alert moment with me was early afternoon yesterday, when she imperceptibly shook her head “yes,” twice, when I asked her first if she was in pain and second if she was uncomfortable in her current position in bed. I said I’d make both all right, and she lit up as much as she could to gaze into my eyes and smile. When I brought a nurse back a few minutes later to give her painkillers and shift her immobilized, dying body, I told my mom I loved her and how beautiful it was to see her smile. She beamed up at me one last time, then fell into slumber, like some gorgeous red-orange autumn leaf twirling merrily to the warm ground to start the next cycle of life.

My sister Karen and I talked to her newly dead body as it slowly began to head into metaphorical winter. We witnessed hospice and the assisted-living nurses and aides wash her body, with dignity and respect, tears in their eyes too. We followed her body to the EMT vehicle outside, seeing her uncovered face greet the morning sun — on a day when it was supposed to rain. We watched them drive her away, to the anatomy department at Michigan State University (MSU) for the willed body program. The door closing on that vehicle sounded like finality, and we stood silently weeping, with nurses silently weeping by our side too. Then we slumped into a couch in the community living room of my mom’s assisted living home of this dreadful year, numb, tired beyond bone tired. Person after person — med techs, maintenance folks, cooks, other residents — came over to us, breaking into tears. “Your mom brought such sweetness and light to this place.” “She was so full of life, so caring, so full of energy.” “She always made me happy; she always made me laugh.”

And then, a few exhausting hours later, the MSU willed body program called me, to fill out the death certificate info over the phone. I just did the same, for my dad, four short months ago (in the same way I filled out and signed hospice papers for them both, four months apart). The person at MSU told me that many couples donate their bodies, but none ever arrived so close in time. The closest before was a year apart. “That means we’ll be putting your parents in the same classroom,” she explained, hesitating a bit. I think she could hear my heart stop at the romantic bittersweetness of this “happy” coincidence, and she added, “They’ll be reunited again,” like leaves on the warm ground.

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October 13, 2013

I really miss my mom.

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October 14, 2013

“Life is for the living,” my mom’s best friend of 40 years keeps saying, though her face is etched with so many more lines of sorrow than a week and a half ago. Perhaps the best way to honor the newly dead, at least mine, is to tread new paths toward (my) life again while following in the always-detouring footsteps of my folks.
My childhood was filled with road trips, always with a purported destination that nearly always got lost in the process of stopping at other unplanned-for places (historic sites, wooded hikes, abandoned houses, yard sales, country stores & diners, scenic overlooks…). We arrived everywhere hours or days late, or never. Curiosity waylaid the cat, happily.
So at the start of an unplanned road trip for a few days now — before packing up a few small mementos of my parents’ lives and returning, at long-overdue last, home to Brooklyn on October 22 — I had to verve off the highway’s sameness to stop at a state park along the shores of Lake Michigan, and there amble across the expansive of pale-tan sand, with wind-swept sand dunes behind me and sparkling-blue waters in front of me.
I’ll get where I’m going later than anticipated, but that’s pretty much what life is like for the living. One never really knows what’s around the bend; it’s a lesson well learned and recalled, thanks to my overgrown-kid parents: one needs to lean into the joys of the unknown, even if it etches a bit of pain into one’s brow along the way.
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October 16, 2013

Grief, even on those days when it’s soft, like the veil of a misty-gray morning, tends to induce drowsiness, slow-motion, a lack of focus for anything big or what one is supposed to do. Instead, there is a sleepy sort of time to each day, allowing for the tiniest of details, which usually go ignored, to catch one’s senses, to take one’s breath away. Colors seem brighter, contrasts sharper, tones more audible. “Mourning,” bell hooks asserts, if we let it, can “teach us how to rejoice and begin life anew.” Grief stops us in our tracks, perhaps so that we may notice again, and more than that, really begin to start to see.

* * *

If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”

(Photos by Cindy Milstein, from the walls & streets of gentrifying San Francisco to the down-to-earthness of mid-Michigan, along with some “reprints” of old photos from & of my mom)

2 comments on “As the Heart Quiets

  1. Kurt
    November 1, 2013

    I miss my mom too. She died soon after your mother – November 14. This is a wonderful piece. Thank you.

    • cbmilstein
      November 1, 2013

      Thanks for sharing this with me; it must be hard for you (too). My two hospice experiences taught me that the mutualistic, honest, open sharing our joys and sorrows, and the cycle of life that includes death, makes all the difference to feeling like one isn’t alone in this strange journey. It makes the grief bearable and transcendable, which sadly, it feels like it isn’t, now that I’m back in the “real” world.

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This entry was posted on October 16, 2013 by in Dispatches from Life.
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