When I read Grant Flint's story, The Dying of a Mother, I was struck by: its clear, strong voice; its unfiltered honesty; the way in which he takes the reader with him through the process of his mother's passing, and the way in which he is able to find a point of peace and resolution. I invite you to read it once and encourage you to read it at least twice. A second reading reveals elements in a deeper way than a single reading alone can do.
Grant's essay leads me to ask the question: What if Heaven is Here, Now? What a dynamic, mind-bending thought for many of us. Grant had the courage to ask this question and persevere with it until he found his answer. Whatever our beliefs, religious upbringing or spiritual practice, this is a process common to all of us after the loss of a loved one.
The Dying of a Mother
by Grant Flint
What have I left out
What have I forgotten”
—Allen Ginsberg, Kaddish
There’s nothing poetic about cancer close-up. All hospitals smell the same. The silence is the same.
No literature in death. The nurses’ eyes are soft/hard. They talk to the patient, see their relatives, want to see the patient become well, and then the patient dies. That happens weekly. On whatever shift they’re on.
I’ve over-eaten all the junk food I could in the last day. I’ve had all the doughnuts, cokes, potato chips, Pepsis and machine coffees I can stomach. I’m the front man, the pivot man. I call the relatives every night. Then they call other relatives. I try to tell the exact truth about what’s happening.
There just isn't anything romantic or poetic about severe illness. I did better thinking about it when I was 1500 miles away. Up close, it makes me think of the endless dead-lapping of oceans on all the shores of earth. About vast spaces where never a human voice is heard.
My mother dies slowly. Her decline, her loss of physical dignity, the depletion of her savings goes on steadily now, regular as the surf beats on all the beaches of the world.
Tonight, I love my mother. Much of the two days I was with her, I acted like I loved her and wanted to love her, but today as I prepare to leave, I really do love her.
She lies there, weak, heartsick because she found out her spine is ruined by cancer, torn apart, she will never walk again. But she jokes with the nurses and doctors and the preacher who came by. She jokes with me and looks so brave and soon to be alone, my heart goes out to her and I love her as I have always wanted to love people.
I want to love like this all the time, to be a person who is always loving.
When I was ten and my dog was killed, I became careful. I have all the equipment to love people especially well. But something was turned off then and is alone and cold.
That's why, tonight, I am happy.
I love my mother the way people want to be loved.
Back home now. Weeks later.
Life goes on, I laugh at jokes, forget, but in the center my heart is sick.My mother is dying faster now, with accelerating lack of dignity, her days and nights a blur, brief moments of confused wakefulness, time divided into two-hour intervals when nurses come to turn her to her other side.
Last week I traveled 1500 miles to see her one more time. She hardly knows me. I stay one day instead of the planned two days, and in brief moments of lucidity on the phone she begs me to "come over tonight" to see her. Each night, I call her and the nurse puts the phone on her pillow. She drifts, thinks I'm someone else, asks me if I’m married, is my wife pregnant. How old am I now? “57,” I tell her. She doesn’t answer, confused. Then–“37?”
"Come and see me tonight, please!" she pleads.
I cried that last night when I was there with her. We both knew I'd never see her alive again. She was dying fast from the spinal cancer. High on morphine. She’d never had a drink in her life. Or a joint. Now she'd been drunk on morphine for six weeks. In and out. Alert for a few seconds, then confused, then asleep, then confused again.
But as I cried, bending over her bed in the semi-dark room, she was straight, in this world, for the first time in the day and night of my visit. I kissed her on the forehead and cheek. I held her shoulder. She raised her good arm to grasp mine, her hand shaking with palsy.
"Don't cry," she said in a voice almost like she used to have. "This may be...the last time we’re together," she said clearly. "But next time...it will be even more wonderful. Much more wonderful than tonight."
She meant Heaven, and I was ready to forsake my vow not to be falsely religious with her.
Her eyes closed. I thought she had slipped into drugged sleep again, but she said, “This is the small beginning...of a very large ending."
"Yes," I said huskily.
"We’re all connected," she said, eyes open again, "generation to generation. All of us. Everyone."
"Yes. You're right."
"We are here to make things better," she said. Her voice was fading again.
Then she was asleep. I reached up my free hand to push my tears away. The movement awakened her with a jerk.
"You take the backside," she said, eyes intent, "of my red shoes..."
"Yes?" I said.
"The backside, my red shoes. You cut them in two..." Her eyes closed again.
I waited. I straightened up slowly, to ease my back.
"Cut them in two," she said suddenly, "the backside. Make a buffalo."
"Yes, Mama," I said.
"You understand?" she asked intently. Her shaking hand squeezed my arm.
"Yes, Mama, I do." The damn tears started again. I looked hard at her to remember. I knew she would look exactly like that at the funeral.
Finally I eased away, escaped, looked a last time from the doorway. She was asleep, her mouth open, like an old woman caught alive in the poisonous ashes of Pompeii.
In the middle of the night, I woke up in the strange bed and knew I must return to the hospital to see her one more time. But in the morning I was afraid. Then I was trapped halfway home in the airplane, and it was too late.
What can I do? I can't just leave everything here; children, lady friend, job. If I go back now, she will know me only a few seconds a day.
Yet how I long to comfort her! I could hold her arm, kiss her forehead, leave my hand on hers for hours as she fitfully dreams. If only someone there would touch her, hold her. She needs that now as a baby does. A baby dies without touching. My mother will die tonight or tomorrow or two months from now; the touching would not keep her alive, but oh, how I sense she needs that! Her brother, sister, the nurses—they don't know that most important thing. My daughter does know. Of us all, she best loves my mother, knows how to love her.
"I'll be so happy to see Mama and Papa!" my 82-year old mother said last night on the phone. Her voice was happy, carried the excitement of a child talking about a wonderful event, like Christmas morning. "It will be so good to see them! And all my dear friends waiting up there for me."
The pain pills maybe are giving her a little high, but her mind is clear. She lies paralyzed "from tit" (cancer got the other breast years ago) to toes," as she says. Drifting in and out of dreams. Writing poems in her head.
It startled me, her certainty. Like all of us, she fears death. She’s a practical woman, raised on the farm. Life taught her there is nothing after death. But like many of us, she has all her life been eager to accept another version of reality, put upon her by authorities she deems wiser than herself, that—contrary to all evidence and wisdom gained by experience—there is a Heaven. Possibly even a Hell.
She is ready to die, take her chances. Nothing much left here. Heaven is a good long-shot bet.
Hopefully, Heaven will be better than what the holy folks tell us. It could be a place where there is no ego. Where all is right and there is perfect love, and thus perfect bliss, everywhere. There, one loves birds and mountains as much as Mama and Papa. That would be nice for her. I hope she finds her way to that lovely place.
It's raining again, I'm fighting a cold.
I’m a scavenger of my own soul. In times of high import, danger and tragedy, I pour through my tortured remains, searching greedily for universal tidbits, insights, I can pass on, and thus be immortal.
My mother died this morning between 2 and 4 a.m. When the nurses turned her to the other side at 2, she was alive. At 4, they couldn't find a pulse.
I tell everyone, and everyone comforts everyone else with: "At least she didn't suffer." I believe that, want to believe it, and will always believe it after I tell the truth here—no one knows if, in that darkened hospital room, she had a moment of sudden, terrified clarity as she died, cried out. Wanted one last word with us. Decided she didn't want to die.
In the final moment, did she cling stubbornly to life?
I believe, and will always believe, she died in her sleep. In the middle of a gentle dream of childhood.
The last time I talked to her, two nights ago on the phone, she asked about "Waggles," the pup who was always with me fifty years ago.
"Waggles is great!" I said. "We’re all doing real good."
My lady friend has a cold sore and is approaching her period. My daughter just broke up with her boyfriend. My children and I have to get up at 4:30 a.m. tomorrow to fly to Nebraska by way of Denver. At Omaha we rent a car. A total of twelve hours to get from here to there. Then we sleep in my dead mother's apartment, choose flowers for the funeral, meet dozens of known and unknown relatives. I start writing my mother's obituary. I have hemorrhoids and diarrhea from taking too many C-vitamins to prevent getting a cold.
My mother is resting. Early this morning after I heard the news, I couldn't go back to sleep. I’m an unbeliever, but it occurred to me that maybe now my mother knows my thoughts. Half asleep, half-jokingly I said, "Show me a sign if you're still out there."
A few seconds later, the rain came down with fury, a torrential downpour. I grinned, unconvinced, but slightly uneasy. I said, "Well, for an old doubter like me, one sign isn't enough. Show me another if you're there."
Instantly, the rain stopped.
"How about three out of three?" I almost said, but fell asleep, at ease, instead. I decided my mother would feel okay about what was in my mind if she could see in there.
At this precise moment, the sun is half -peering through the clouds. I don't believe, but it's all right. There's no need for my mother to be there. She had and made a fine life, did it all with style. Died with style.
But if you are out there, Mother, and know everything now, you know you and I are pals forever, the best mother/son team there ever will be.
The funeral director was young, 25 or so. He stood straight, had the wiry, tough muscles and handclasp of a man who works out every day. His wife was petite, friendly, pretty. His first name is Troy. He looks you straight in the eye with firm, practical kindness. You would buy anything from him.
They put my mother's wig on wrong. Her lips were wrong. Her mouth was never closed like that. She was always talking or smiling or both. Never drawn and pinched like that. Her hands were wrong. Like wax. In real life, her hands were always warm, flushed with warm blood.
She wasn't there. She was gone and seemed to deliberately emphasize the fact. But her friends and relatives who have seen so many funerals were pleased with what young Troy had done.
The day was snow turning immediately to water, raw changing winds, sun, then no sun, swirling clouds. Troy let my three children and me sit at the grave site on metal chairs. The pallbearers, honorary pall bearers, and a few other hardy souls stood behind us under the flapping canvas canopy. I trembled with the cold wind and the emotion of seeing the casket suspended above the open hole between my father and stepfather's graves.
The lady minister, white scarf around her neck and head, sniffling with a cold, bravely said the final words, dust to dust.
Troy said, "That concludes the graveside ceremony." We got up. My daughter and I touched the flowers on my mother's casket as we moved by. 82 years old, now she would be with my 26-year-old father and my 68-year-old stepfather. Between the brilliant young teacher and the tired old cattle-brand inspector.
Troy made it right. I believe in it all. Nothing was ever done in my life as well as this funeral. When Troy's mother dies, may her funeral be as fine.
Yesterday morning, the day of the funeral, I cried alone while getting dressed. Hid it successfully, I think, from my children. At the service, I held back emotion so hard, I twice made a strange sound, perhaps a dry sob. My daughter's hand came to my shoulder to comfort me, and at once I was calm.
I was a social butterfly at the pre- and post-luncheons at the church. I smiled, laughed, flattered, and charmed 70 relatives and friends I hadn't seen for 40 years. My children were handsome and fresh, nice, perfect, supporting me, giving me strength, making me proud and complete.
The lady minister combined the obituary I wrote with one my stubborn second cousin wrote, and with the tribute a family friend wrote, combined with the minister's observations, it was a miracle of combined beauty that, again, could easily qualify as a miracle, straight from my mother in Heaven.
Everyone, everywhere, was totally right. There was only joy and hope, utter goodness for one day. The most eccentric and naughty of the relatives performed flawlessly.
My mother's body was a perfect statement that she was elsewhere. It was as though she said, "This lump of clay is not me. I have made it perfectly clear for you. Who I am is not that. Look for me elsewhere."
We hurt to leave her, the little town, Nebraska. We want to stay awhile. Our life in California seems wrong now. We don't want to rush back there, adjust to it, and forget the innocence of these past three days.
Most of all, we hurt to leave my mother behind. Yet—even though we believe nothing that the religious folks do—we have my mother alive with us now, more than any religion ever taught.
I have not deliberately made my children into "unbelievers" over the years. Yet, because they like me and think I have lots of moxie, they have copied my attitudes religiously. They more or less do not believe in a personal God, a hereafter, or any other religious trappings. However, at any time, had I demonstrated a love of the Lord, so to speak, they might have eagerly embraced the same idea, since all of us are highly prone to dance to supernatural tunes.
All the more curious then that in these days following the dying of my mother, I, in a very natural way am indulging the urgings of my unconscious, playing with magic thoughts, courting the songs of the unconscious, wallowing clear-eyed with no worry in what I have always distanced. And my children warm to this like puppies before a fireplace. Because I disbelieve, it is safe, innocent, calm for me to play these games. For them, it is more dangerous.
The vastness of the unconscious, its powerful complexity, was opened to me in LSD experiences twenty years ago. I had utter bliss, the ecstasy that saints identified as the heavenly condition. I know what it’s like to be an egoless child of the universe, a part of everything, in everything; a star, atom, bird, all seas, the three-in-one, the thousand-in-one. To be totally clean, total love. To be in Heaven.
Accepting the power and majesty of the unconscious, as others accept the power and majesty of religion—we experience the same source, one with open eyes, the other with faith—knowing all, comfortable, calm with the knowing, yet I enjoy the gentle humor of thinking my newly dead mother did not end with the dull, wooden lump in the casket.
It’s untrue, yet I delight, gently—my children watching, eyes warm—that my mother is softly telling us through the weather—a natural way—that she is there, watching, loving, understanding. I point out to my children with mischievous joy that on the evening after the funeral, we had an electric storm, wondrous thunder and lightning, a show my mother had promised her grandchildren when we visited Nebraska last summer, but, alive, she couldn't deliver. Soft snow fell gently as the sun shone on the day of the funeral. Her youngest grandson had never seen snow before.
As I waited in the supermarket checkout line last night, my mother entered my soul. I blossomed warm immediately, filled full of gentle, good power, as though I were twice as strong, as though I had now a gentle, powerful ally, and everything would be warm and easy, splendid forever more.
I know my unconscious has created this. I accept it as a gift, glory in it. The gods, the hereafter, all the magic of the universe is here, in the unconscious.
With easy joy, gratitude, I accept the mother gift my unconscious has now given me. Heaven, my mother and me. One.
The Dying of a Mother, copyright Grant Flint, all rights reserved.
Photos by Ysabel de la Rosa, all rights reserved.
Grant Flint is 83. He writes novels, short stories, poems, and has a new e-book available on Amazon, titled, Waggles, the story of a boy and his dog surviving The Great Depression on a small Nebraska farm. Grant wrote this story, "The Dying of a Mother," to comfort a dear friend whose mother had just died.