Grief is not all the pain it appears to be. Grief as I have come to know it, is also an extraordinary opportunity to experience and see close up the suffering from clinging in its most extreme form. This is my mother’s parting gift to me.
Yesterday, when I arrived, I found her sitting at her usual table in the back of the dining room. Remembering our intense connection from two weeks ago, I expected at least an acknowledgment, a gaze of recognition, a smile. I was met instead with a blank stare. I sat by her side and waited. “Bonjour Maman. C’ est Margot, ta fille.” She looked up, gave me a look, and closed her eyes again. Aides had laid out dinner in front of her, and I was to help her. It took forty five minutes for her to get one serving of the French version of Ensure down. I followed the aides as they wheeled her back to her room, and I kept her company as she laid resting in bed. Giving her kisses, stroking her forehead, reaching out for her shriveled hand did not produce the usual joy in her. Rather, it became clear that she wanted to be left alone. She is withdrawing from the world, I thought, and she is letting me know.
My mother mostly wants to sleep, and sometimes drink a little, that’s all. No more music, no more engagement, no more closeness, no more food. This is in direct contrast to the mother I knew who loved singing so much, and eating well, and being hugged and cajoled. That version of her no longer exists, other than in my memories, thoughts about the past with no relevance to the present conditions. Turning inside, I get in touch with the pulling away and the hanging on from lingering grief. What we call love is first and foremost attachment. The more we feel love, the tighter the bond, and the more difficult it is to let go of the object of our love. My mother is letting me experience what I first learned in words from Ayya Khema. True love is purified from all attachment, and demands that we not burden the loved one with the imposition from our clinging. It also requires that we reconcile with the universal truth of impermanence, that all that is born must die. Last, we must accept the not-self nature of our existence. The only thing that matters at this moment is to give this person who I have been calling my mother, the space to die at her own pace. Anything short of that is due to cause suffering for both she and I.
We tend to make a big deal of death. Watching my mother gently fade away, I am struck by the simple physical nature of end of life, same way I felt when my daughters were born, only in reverse. We are born, we live, we die, that’s all, and with each transition, we are given to a bunch a physical processes, of entering, being in, and leaving the body. At some point, the body gets worn out and starts shutting down. In the case of Alzheimer’s as with my mom, the end phase stretches over many years, giving loved ones a chance to work with grief and clinging not just once, but numerous times. One thing I have learned from this process is the need to appreciate all that is given at any moment. It is so easy focusing on what no longer is, as opposed to what still is. Before my mother lost the ability to speak a month ago, I did not realize how much it mattered to me that she be able to talk and respond still, even within the limited range of her late stage Alzheimer's narrative.
Now, treasuring the times sitting at her side and feeling her spirit, still flickering, and her breath also. I know soon there will be no life left at all.