Last year at this time my Mother crossed the veil.
Today has been marked by that day leading to her death, which is somewhat conflated with the days that preceded it, as the week itself was a kind of trance.
Today is a brand-new day. Exceptional and not so, in so many big and small ways.
In the morning, I joined community members in the court house to support other community members who confronted nazism in 2017. My head is spinning as I integrate the experience, but my heart has grown. Midday I bought flowers and a small wreath to decorate my mother’s grave. In the late afternoon, I enjoyed an African dance workout, where a half dozen drummers laid the rhythm and I struggled to find mine. In the evening, I observed some excellent art exhibits in the galleries, heard sacred singing, and spent time with friends and family. When I got home I fell into a deep sleep on the couch and woke shortly before the exact time of my mother’s passing.
So once again I am in a place of no-time.
Many, if not most of us, experience these anniversaries of a loved one’s passing. Perhaps we were there with them, if not physically, then in so many emotional ways, positive and negative.
My mother is gone. She passed one year ago on Feb 3, shortly after 1am. She wanted to wait until the 3rd of the month because that is when her social security check drops into her bank account. This is a small thing we giggle about.
My mother became non-verbal about four days before she passed. I had spent long stretches of time at the Hospice House for two months, but in this last week, I kept vigil in that padded realm of whispers. It was safe in there, and warm, and so very beautiful. And there was the daily embrace of exceptional nurses, and chaplains, and social workers, and aids. They were a supportive family for a short period of time.
That's not to say there weren't less gentle hands in the mix. Once my mother said, “If you are going to die in hospice, don’t die during the night shift.” But overall, my mother couldn't have passed in better care. It's where she wanted to be. And I am deeply grateful.
On the day of Feb 2, 2017, she lay in stillness, with mildly labored breathing. I remained at her side, studying her, caressing her at times, but my relationship with my mother was never one of much physical affection. I held space with her, which is what she wanted most from me––being there. I probably ate lunch in the hospice dining room, where food was sometimes shared with other families and the workers.
This was important to my mom––that we share food. The week before she passed she insisted we buy eight rotisserie chickens for the hospice staff. We fed the whole house and its patients for days with that meal. Over the holidays, she contributed several Panettone Cakes. On February 2nd, I may have contributed some Greek delicacies: Grape Leaves and Hummus and Teropita. The staff appreciated my mother’s generosity with food, and in turn mine, which was a theme of our lives, really.
On February 2nd, the nurses thought my mother had a couple of days yet. But I kept watch into the night. My friend Megan came by to keep me company, the only friend who had stepped into my mother’s death chamber. She held space with me there for some time, and then we walked the three blocks to the Tin Whistle pub, where I enjoyed a stiff drink, and the sense of being alive. It was cold and cozy and surreal.
When I returned to the hospice house, the night nurse told me she felt certain my mother would make it to morning. I was trying to decide whether to stay or go home to sleep in my own bed. As I was considering my options, my mother moved for the first time in hours, days really, stretching her arms in a downward struggle that implied discomfort. She was clearly distressed, reaching. I asked a nurse if she could turn her, or try to troubleshoot her discomfort, but the nurse said they had just attended to her, and that she was fine. I decided in that moment to stay the night, prompting the nurse to come in and adjust her, and up her morphine. My mother had refused the morphine until the very end. On this day, her dose was high.
A lot of people have exceptional stories of a loved ones passing. A last word. A moment of sublime contact. A very strong sign. Some people crawl into to bed with their loved one and hold them. But I sat by my mother’s side in an easy chair watching her intermittently while watching late night tv. I assumed we had a morning ahead of us, perhaps a day. Shortly after Seth Meyers’ sketch, A closer look, which lambasts Trump with comedic investigative journalism––something my mother loved––I dozed off a bit.
I woke to the nurse saying, “Zoe, she is gone.”
Just like that. As I fell into a sleep beside her, she took her final breath. Seamless. No drama.
The moment of finding her gone was a terrible one. No poetic words can really describe that sensation of sitting beside my mother’s empty body, turning skeletal before my very eyes. It was entirely expected, yet not. Wasn’t she going to make it until morning? Weren’t there yet more signs we were waiting for? The nurses were apologetic, saying they truly thought she had longer. But the moment had come and gone like a leaf falling. She had drifted away and settled into a place I can hardly imagine, that I have no strong spiritual or religious or cultural preconceptions of. A dark and empty space, that I can illustrate with light and liberation and a great winged flight.
The funeral home attendants wheeled the husk of my mother’s diminished body away under a bright red blanket. I packed all her things, all the tidy clothes she brought to hospice but never wore, her cologne, her under garments, her big thick robe stained with food and medicine, her bible, and Greek Orthodox icons. I packed them carefully with my tears, and loaded them into the car.
I drove away from death and into life under the great star of memory, which sheds an illuminating light on the relationship I had, and continue to have, with my mother.
RIP Tatiana Efthyvoulou 9.27.31 – 2.3.17