It doesn't seem possible that it has been five years since Mom's passing on December 2, 2013.
But alas, that much time has passed since Mom earned her wings and found the healing and peace she so longed for in her life. Mom suffered a major stroke in December 2004; and from that point forward she required some form of nursing care, which increased over the years after she was diagnosed with Vascular Dementia. In August 2013 - to the shock of us all - Mom was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. And since her body by that point was too weak for any treatment, she was assigned hospice care as we tried to make life for her as normal as possible. I would often make the drive from my then home in Fayetteville, Georgia to Barnesville to pick her up from the nursing home and take her for a ride through the countryside, eating her favorite pizza or picking up a cup of homemade peach ice cream from Dickey's Peach Farm in Musella. We'd take the back roads listening to The Beatles, and occasionally Mom would sing along, despite her dementia. She still knew who they were; and even more heartwarmingly, she knew who I was, all the way to the end.
This is the story of her last few days, written a few days after her passing. And as you will see, there is a joyous ending through the tears. My hopes for you in sharing this old story is that, even in the darkest of times, there is hope. Joy does come in the morning......
Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning." (Psalm 30:5)
When I visited Mom at Heritage Inn last week, I had originally hoped to take her out for a ride, as was our custom. I knew she was growing more tired and lost a little weight, yet I felt like it was part of a slow decline as opposed to a free fall - a "new normal," as it were. Mom's evening charge nurse, Deborah, had told me as much a week before, mistakenly attributing it to her advancing dementia. We all thought the cancer was progressing slowly, and we were more concerned about her leg wound that had reopened again than anything else.
As soon as I walked into her room however, I knew something wasn't right. Mom was lying asleep in her bed, her head unnaturally tilted to the right. I straightened her up, and she didn't awaken. I shook her lightly, and she opened her eyes for a few seconds, then drifted off again. I just sat there for a minute or two, thinking, "Maybe they have her on new meds. Sometimes they forget to tell me."
I had brought Mom a small pizza. Typically, she perks up instantly at the sight of her favorite food, then proceeds to devour it. Mom did perk up briefly this time, but nodded off again. Flummoxed, I summoned Bridget, the nurse in charge of Mom's care that morning, and asked her what was going on. "She's in decline," she candidly replied. "She's become more and more tired the past four days. I've seen this with cancer patients time and time again. Over time, they get too tired to eat or move."
I replied, "Wait a second here. Wasn't I just told a couple weeks ago that Mom's cancer was progressing slowly?" Bridget replied, "Cancer is unpredictable. It does what it wants, when it wants. I can't put a time frame on how much time Mom has left, because things can deteriorate rapidly."
Another nurse, a young, pretty blonde girl named Sirena, came into the room to bring her lunch and feed her manually. She sat Mom up in her bed, sat the tray of food down with the pizza I brought, and began spoon feeding Mom the pizza. This was the first time I ever saw mom being fed manually, as she would usually grab a spoon (or the pizza slice) and feed herself. Mom would try to eat the pizza, but she had no energy to chew. She had to be awakened a few times as she drifted in and out. She would eat Jello and mashed potatoes, but that was about it. Anything that required her to chew, she would spit out, including the pizza.
Another nurse had told me that Mom wasn't able to turn over in bed any longer, and that she was sleeping more and more. Getting her to drink liquids was a chore, mainly because she wouldn't stay awake long enough to drink them. The consensus of the nurses I spoke to that day all affirmed the same thing - that Mom was growing weaker by the day, and that Mom had arrived in that dreaded state of decline we all feared. But naively, I was thinking in terms of weeks for her to live, not days.
Before I left, I wanted to see how Mom's mental faculties were, so as I continued to chat with Bridget at Mom's bedside, I remarked to her, "She still knows who I am, though, don't you Mom? What's my name?" Mom turned her head towards us, looked up and casually said, "Robert Allan."
(Allan is my middle name. Whenever Mom said "Robert Allan!" during my childhood, I knew I was in trouble.)
I looked at Bridget, smiled and said, "I told ya!"
Mom knew who I was, all the way to the end.
I then hugged Mom as I always do, kissed her on the forehead like always, and told her I loved her. She replied, "I love you too." I then left, promising her I'd be back in a few days.
Little did I know then, but those would be the last words Mom ever spoke to me.
I was returning from my sister's house the day after Thanksgiving when Mom's nurse practitioner Amie Craig called. "I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Mom has really deteriorated in the last 24 hours. I was in shock when I saw her, because it doesn't even look like her. She was completely non-responsive. I tried to awake her, and nothing. You could drop a bomb in the room and she wouldn't know. I mean, she still has a heartbeat, but otherwise, she's gone." She went on to explain Mom had developed a breathing pattern known as Cheyne–Stokes Apnea, where she would go through periods of fast breathing, followed by no breathing at all. It is a fairly common condition for patients near death. I asked Amy how long Mom had, thinking days or weeks, Amy replied, "How about hours? I'd be shocked if she made it through Saturday."
My heart sunk. Amie is always straightforward, never pulling punches (which is how I prefer friends to communicate with me), but her call was worse than a sucker punch to the gut. She then went on to say, "I'm not sure you want to see her like this. I'm telling you, she's pretty much gone." As I was telling a friend the next day, there was a part of me that just wanted to "let it be," to not go back and have my last memory of her being responsive and communicative with me, especially if Mom was as "gone" as Amie had indicated. Yet there was a strong tugging to see her one more time......
After my older brother Tommy visited Mom Saturday (a very bittersweet, emotional time, according to my "brother from another mother" Ron) and my younger brother Dan's phone call later that day from Savannah, the tugging only got stronger. Yet I dreaded going, because of my fear of what I would find when I got there.
Summoning all the strength I had (and asking, pleading to God for more), I made the drive to Barnesville, texting my friend and asking her for prayer (not while driving!), and talking to my sister on the Bluetooth in the Civic (while driving!).
When I arrived, one of Mom's favorite nurses, a diminutive Asian lady named Konika, was standing at the nurses' desk, so I greeted her and asked her to follow me to Mom's room.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when I walked in there.
Mom looked totally different than she did when she was sitting up in bed only a few days earlier. She was laid to the side, her eyes barely open, her stare distant, her mouth agape, her features emaciated. She was a shell. Everything Amie had warned me about was true - except one thing. I held her hand, and I felt it twitch in reaction, as if she was trying to grab it back. Konika nudged her slightly, and her eyes opened wider. "Look who's here to see you, Mama! It's Robert!", Konika exclaimed as she stood to the side while I began whispering to Mom:
"Mom, it's okay to let go. You don't have to hang on anymore. You don't have to suffer anymore. You can be free. We'll all carry you with us wherever we go. We'll always love you. You can see Dad, baby Jennifer, Aunt Charlotte, your parents and you can give them a big hug for me. And give Jesus a big hug, too."
Immediately after I said that, I heard Mom make a tiny noise, barely above a whisper, as though she was trying to speak, and I saw her eyes well up briefly.
She was still there, but barely. She wasn't "gone" as Amie said - at least not to me, or to us kids. She was hanging on for us. And in Mom's typically stubborn fashion, she was still fighting with the tiniest fiber of strength she had left. She didn't want to leave us.
I then told Mom, "A day in Heaven is like a thousand years. It will be like you never left us. We'll carry on. I love you with all my heart."
I looked up at Konika a couple of times while I was in there and kept saying through a cracking voice, "This is the hardest thing I've ever had to do," struggling to keep my composure. I kept stroking Mom's hair, kissing her on the forehead, looking into her eyes and whispering to her, "It's okay. It's okay to let go. We'll carry on." Konika's presence calmed me. I was so glad she was there, otherwise I may not have made it through.
I left the room, then came back and continued to whisper to Mom, finally telling her, "See you tomorrow," not meaning tomorrow in a literal sense, but keeping in line with what I told Mom about Heaven. They don't have a clock there, and God is not bound by time, so for Mom, seeing us again in Heaven would practically be like waiting until the next morning.
After a half hour or so, I had to leave. It was the most heartbreaking thing I've ever encountered, and I couldn't stand to see her that way any more. Yet at the same time, I didn't want to leave. I felt like I was abandoning her in a way. It was the most conflicted I've ever felt. But once I left, there was no way I could go back. I simply didn't have the strength for it. I beat myself up about it on the way home, thinking I could have stayed longer or done more, but that small, still voice of God spoke to me in my thoughts immediately: "Robert, you're not Superman." Unbeknownst to me until later, my brother Dan called her almost immediately after I left and stayed on the phone, talking to her to keep her company, though all Daniel could hear in response was Mom's breathing.
Later in the day, a letter Daniel had written her months ago was found by one of the nurses, unopened and unread. The nurse then read the letter to Mom - all five pages, a contrite letter Dan had written apologizing for not being a better son and confirming his commitment to be there for her as long as she lived. Amie told me later that the nurse who read the letter to Mom noted that she perked upon hearing Dan's letter being read. The change in mom's expression was barely discernible to the nurse, but she could see the difference in Mom's bearing, even as weak as she was. I felt as though God had ordained that miraculous, unexpected moment of ministry to her, a wonderful moment of grace as she drew nearer to her homecoming.
As the day went on, I found myself in constant prayer: "Father, if it is Your will please end her suffering. Please don't let her carry on like this."
Day turned to night, and at 10 PM my phone rang. My heart jumped as soon as it rang, thinking it was the nursing home, but it was brother Dan, checking on me. I also chatted with my Aunt Carol, Mom's sister, as we both tried to keep each others company while we nervously waited for "the call."
I nodded off to sleep, and at 3:01 AM Monday morning, my phone rang. I knew immediately who it was:
"Hi Robert, this is the charge nurse at Heritage Inn, and there's been a change in your Mother's condition. Do you want to come and see her, or would you like us to transfer her to Williams? "Williams" was Williams Funeral Home in Barnesville. I told her just to transfer Mom to Williams. I couldn't stand the thought of seeing Mom dead. She had passed away only minutes before, with nurse Deborah by her side as she slept. Deborah had stayed with Mom the entire evening, and was with her when Mom drew her last breath.
Mom was not alone when she passed over, and my heart warmed at the thought. I had feared she would be found dead, but an angel dressed in a nurses outfit (they all are, aren't they?) stayed with her to see Mom through.
Mom had made it home. She was free. She was no longer suffering. She was no longer trapped in a body that was failing her. She earned her wings that night. She had entered the eternal embrace of Jesus.
"No question, I'm not alone
Somehow I'll find my way home."
~ Jon Anderson
Needless to say, I really didn't sleep after that. I decided instead to design a photo tribute to Mom, and I had found a photo I took earlier in the year at Pretty Place Chapel in upstate South Carolina - an outtake I had never edited. It was exactly what I was looking for. I inserted a photo I took of Mom only a week before her cancer diagnosis, a photo that cracks me up every time I see it because of her sassy, mischievous grin - typical Mom.
While all of this was going on, I felt an unexpected calm come over me, and also - somehow - the presence of Mom as well. Philippians 4:7 talks about a "peace that surpasses all understanding," and in the midst of the whirlwind, I was feeling just that.
I drove down to Heritage Inn in the morning to pick up Mom's belongings, and as much as I expected to be upset to see her bed empty, I wasn't. I was sustained by a Force I couldn't explain, one that had brought Mom to her true home, one that had healed her for eternity, one that made her whole again. Again I felt her unmistakable presence. To be sure, seeing some of Mom's little trinkets got me emotional, yet still there was a joy I felt that I couldn't shake. I just knew Mom was rejoicing with the Lord, and yet somehow, still with me - and her new found freedom set my heart free. I can see her rejoicing even now.
Joy indeed came in the morning.
Amie was there in Mom's room with me as I packed her belongings, and it was then that she told the story of Dan's unread letter. I thanked her and the nurses who were working that day. I have yet to see Deborah, Konika, Bridget, or Sirena to offer my personal thanks, but I hope to soon.
After I left Heritage, I went to make cremation arrangements at Williams Funeral Home.
It was a cloudy, drizzly, gloomy sort of day, yet I decided after I left Williams to visit High Falls State Park anyway to walk the trails and shoot some photos of the falls, and that's when the revelations really began. High Falls is one of my favorite places to visit, as I've had many a pleasant walk-and-talk with Jesus there. While I was shooting, I felt Him revealing things to me - some personal, some about Mom. All the things I mentioned earlier - Mom's freedom from suffering, her freedom from being trapped in a wasting body at a nursing home - only liberated me more. Now Mom was with me, wherever I went. It also made me think semi-humorously, "Hmmm....if I can sense Mom's presence, then that also means I probably need to be on my best behavior."
Well played, God. Well played.
Can you just imagine me doing something stupid (happens more than you think!) with the thought of Mom up there going (in that threatening tone of hers) "Robert Allan!!!" I chuckled at the thought!
The falls themselves were perhaps a little unimpressive compared to prior visits, yet still I hung around the west end of the falls to capture a long range shot as I carried on with God:
The little cascades were still nice though:
I went back to my car, thinking my time there was done, but I decided to go to the east side of the falls, walking down past the barricade to the water's edge, stepping over some dry rocks to get a different perspective on the falls. Then something beautiful happened. The skies above began to break just as the sun was setting, and a variety of blues, purples, and pinks began filling the sky - completely changing the dynamic of my shot from dark and gloomy to bright and colorful:
On the spot, an impromptu praise-and-worship session began for me. God was blessing me immeasurably in the moment and I had to offer due praise. "Jesus, you rock!!" I said out loud, without a care in the world whether someone was nearby. I then looked skyward and said, "Mom, how does it feel to finally see me working?" Mom had never really seen me shoot like this before, but the thought of her presence surrounding me as I shot overjoyed me. I was smiling and giggling at the thought of Mom's liberation day. Her homecoming. Her day of healing.
I'm not going to kid myself and think I won't miss her physical presence - I will, and I desperately miss her hug and the little smooch she always gave me when I would leave her - but knowing she's whole again makes that "missing her" part far more easier to bear. But still, she will never miss a shot I take ever again, for though she is in her new home, somehow, someway she is right here with me.
And she always will be with me, as long as God gives me the opportunity to travel and capture His glory on camera.
Guess I'm not a solitary traveler any more......