I’ve learned many valuable lessons as I’ve attended the deaths of loved ones. It’s hard to place a value on any of them. However, one that I’ll keep close to my heart is the value of the spoken word, even as a person in a coma nears death.
As my mother’s body was shutting down, her limbs looked as though they were rotting, but her heart kept beating. My sister, Beth, and I were at Mom’s side, expecting that at any moment her heart would follow the rest of her organs, and finally she would give up. Mom could then be released from her frail body and do what she had wanted to do for months. She would join Dad, her sisters and her parents in whatever form our spirits take after the death of a worn out body.
Beth and I knew, of course, Mom couldn’t articulate anything at this point. We weren’t even sure about what she could hear. However, studies have shown that hearing is the last thing to go, and that people in comas can hear what is going on around them.
This led to an uncomfortable, if darkly amusing, problem with Mom’s roommate. For over seven years, Mom had been in a private room in a nursing home. Dad had his own room there as well. When it became evident that Dad didn’t have much longer to live, we moved them into a shared room, so Mom could be with Dad during his final weeks and his death.
After Dad died, it was evident that Mom would soon follow. She didn’t even want to move to one of the rooms in the brand new wing of the home (which our family jokingly calls the “Bradley wing,” as we feel that family money paid for it).
Anyway, Mom’s roommate after Dad, whose name was Mavis, had Alzheimer’s disease. Mavis gave us many moments of love, and many moments of worry about her effect on Mom. Mavis decided she loved Mom and had known her all her life. We were grateful for that.
As Mom lay dying, the curtain between the beds was kept drawn. My sister and I sat vigil, only one of us at a time leaving to grab something to eat or drink, bringing some to the one who stayed. The nursing home staff tried to keep Mavis busy, but she needed her bed to sleep and she did need her freedom. And Mom was taking days to die.
Mavis forgot many things, but she didn’t forget that Mom was dying. She would routinely sneak in, poke her head around the curtain and say - ah, shout would be a better word - “Is she dead, yet?” She would then say sadly and quietly, “I loved her so” This routine is more vivid when I can get in character as Mavis at speaking events, but you get the picture.
We would gently tell Mavis, “No, she’s not dead yet,” and try to hustle her out of the room.
Needless to say, this was unsettling. We were aware Mom could likely hear Mavis. However, we also knew Mom had a great sense of humor, before pain and dementia ate her up. We had to hope that, as she lay in limbo during her journey to whatever awaits us when our bodies die, her sense of humor was intact.
On day three, as Beth and I sat and sat and sat, waiting by our mother’s side, we began to talk about Mom’s sisters - our aunts, now long gone. We got out a photo album that I’d kept up in Mom’s room and started looking at pictures.
Beth exclaimed, “Look at Marion! That must have been when she was still singing opera!” I added, “Look at Ethel! The classic gowns she designed would still wow Hollywood!”
As Beth and I got lost in the past, talking about Mom’s sisters, Mom stirred. We looked up, reached to hold her hands, and she let go. To this day, I believe that she was spurred on by the talk of her sisters. Maybe they were encouraging her to pass over to be with them. We both believe Mom heard every word we said. She heard the excitement in our voices, as we reminisced. She knew it was okay to go, and that she would not be forgotten. We hadn’t forgotten our aunts. We certainly wouldn’t forget out mother. She finally felt she could let go.
As for Mavis, when the answer her question about Mom and “Is she dead yet?” was finally, “Yes, Mavis, she is,” Mavis’ only response was a quiet, “I loved her so.”
We all did, Mavis.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.