Yahrzeit: literally, year’s time. Or in the Jewish tradition, the observed anniversary of the death of a parent or close loved one, often marked by the lighting of a candle.
This one-year anniversary of my mom’s death began in darkness, around midnight, when I and her closest friend of 40 years, Mary, my 85-year-old second mom, sat schmoozing in the lobby/community room of the assisted living home that she and my mom shared for a year. Mary still lives here, in a place that’s like family for me, along with her opossum-like cat, Mittens, who likes to play at being a night owl in this lobby. So Mary and I sat visiting, and our talk organically turned to my mom just as October 3 rolled around, followed by sudden bolts of lightning and the flickering of the building’s lights.
Around 2 a.m., I kissed Mary good night, and walked toward one of the after-hours’ exits, down the same hall that my mom lived back in 2013. The door to her room was at the end. I’d walked this hall so many times, back and forth, for nurses and food, emergencies and mutual aid, last year. Now on October 3, 2014, halfway down the hall, I chatted — as I’d often done — with a lone late-night staffer studying to be a medical assistant, then continued to where, last year at this time, my mom had a mere four hours left of breathing body on this earth.
I hadn’t expected to feel anything as I stopped to look at a wreath composed of orange-red-yellow autumn leaves on the door that used to be hers, and now was another woman’s. And if I did anticipate any feelings, I thought it might be some emotion of my own, one of the spectrum of feelings that have coursed through me these long twelve months.
But as I stood there, in half light and half sleepy, I felt her.
I felt that four hours of life left in her, reaching out to me, touching lightly against my heart, like a soft embrace. I felt all the love that she showed me and shared with me, as love anew, between equals at long last, in her last year.
I felt her, much as I don’t believe in those sorts of things.
She surrounded me, as light for her own yahrzeit.
Light, as I’ve found this year of grief and grieving, comes in so many surprising forms, the greatest and most profound of which is transformation, which takes you places you never planned of traveling and never dreamed of going, but find startling gratitude in learning how to navigate through and with them.
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One of those transformations has been the gift of discovering how people can die well, via hospice. The hospice I used for both my parents’ respective deaths in 2013 was Hospice of Lansing, which recently asked me to write its fall fund-raising letter. I share that letter with you below, in honor of my parents, and in hopes that you’ll help me mark the beauty of my mom’s life and death with a gift to the Hospice of Lansing, if you’re so moved — in both my parents’ names (Barb and Dave Milstein), as honor to them and with my gratitude and love. Here’s the link:
And here’s my letter for Hospice of Lansing:
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For 58 years, my parents shared many things, all of them in love.
They both shared a sense of wonder, of joy, and a notion of what it means to live well, to be fully human.
Beginning in August 2012, my parents—Barb and Dave—set off on their most difficult of journeys. My mom’s incurable immune-system cancer came out of remission, and my dad came down with severe West Nile virus.
They then shared what it means to die well, with dignity and quality of life, encircled by good people doing their best to do good for others; they shared the most caring of collaborative communities—Hospice of Lansing.
Hospice of Lansing gifted me the honor of participating in one of the most goodness-infused experiences of my life. I was able to be fully present for my dad’s and then my mom’s comfortable passing, with family, friends, and my new friends at hospice—as their daughter, not their caretaker.
Given that Hospice of Lansing is a nonprofit, I know this gift was made possible by generous monetary donations from people like you.
I’m sharing a small portion of my story in hopes that you will join me in contributing to Hospice of Lansing. Dying well takes people tending cooperatively to each other, with empathy and open hearts.
As the eldest of their 4 children, it unsurprisingly fell to me to share in my parents’ caretaking over the course of 13 months. They entrusted me with the legal and ethical responsibility for making what seemed a series of near-impossible decisions about their lives and deaths. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything; it was one of the most meaningful, transformative ever.
Yet I won’t lie. It was unbelievably stressful.
It was existentially and physically exhausting. I frequently felt alone.
That is, until I discovered Hospice of Lansing and Stoneleigh Residence.
It was a profound relief to be able to speak truthfully about all that I’d been going through and truly be heard; to have my parents’ wishes honored, down to the smallest, sweetest of details; to find compassionate people who know how to gracefully move through the process of death, naturally, while caring for the whole of my family.
By moving my dad to Stoneleigh Residence for his last 8 days, I was able to fulfill his last wish. After 9 months, he was finally freed from life-support equipment to savor nature again at full spring bloom and the taste of food. He was reunited with friends and family, especially my mom.
With hospice’s help, I was also able to meet my mom’s last wishes. She stayed at her assisted-living home of the past year, where her best friend of 40 years lives, too. For 2 weeks, her room became part social space, part “slumber party.”
When my parents each gently breathed their final breaths, me by their side both times, the hospice folks continued to treat them with respect and tenderly sent them on their final journey.
When the time and need comes in your life, I hope, of course, that you’ll turn to Hospice of Lansing and Stoneleigh Residence to discover the best of humanity, the best in letting people die on their own terms and assisting those who live on to grieve well afterward.
Hospice of Lansing gave me so many priceless gifts, so many pleasant memories. I never dreamed that death could be so beautiful.
Please give generously to Hospice of Lansing so that many others—perhaps even you—can continue to share in goodness and love.
Cindy Milstein, writer, daughter-orphan
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For past “Dispatches on Life” related to my parents’ care, dying, and death, and my own grief and grieving, not to mention the love that emerged in this magical, mysterious process, see https://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/category/dispatches-from-life/.
(Photo of Cindy Milstein, on the yahrzeit of my birth, clearly already feeling the intensity of this world, with my mom, Barb and her near ever-present smile.)