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Monday, September 05, 2005

MY MOM'S FINAL DAYS: My mother, born Marjory Schoonover on June 30, 1927 — known as Marmie from the time she was 2-years-old — died in Naples, Florida, last week after a short, heroic struggle with lung and bronchial cancer. My three brothers and I believed the cancer was slow growing. In just a few days we learned that the cancer had become extremely aggressive and that Mom's condition was "grave." A week earlier Mom called my oldest brother Jeff to tell him the doctor had prescribed oxygen; could he come to Florida for a few days to help her learn how to use one of those mobile breathing units? He had some vacation time saved up and was glad to be of help. Mom was diagnosed with emphysema two years ago, and breathing was becoming harder by the week. The more recent cancer diagnosis seemed not to perturb her. "They say it's slow growing, but no matter what I have no intention of doing chemotherapy or radiation because I've seen too many of my friends get sicker from the treatment." Arriving in Florida to help Mom figure out how to use oxygen, Jeff watched her condition grow worse daily. In a two day period Jeff went from telling his three brothers that her doctor thought she might have three months to live, to urging all of us to get to Florida as soon as possible because her condition was "extremely serious." Mom died 48 hours after I walked off my plane in Florida. Jeff, Tom, George and I were incredibly grateful that she was strong enough and clear enough to see her sons gather together in the same room for the first time in many years. She rallied, she felt loved, the color returned to her face; but still she was dying. We moved her from hospital to hospice Tuesday evening, and the vigil began. Mom's older brother George arrived with his wife, and again Mom's face again brightened and her vitality rose — but only for a few hours. By Thursday morning she had begun to sleep nearly full time. I was with her the entire day: cooling her brow with compresses, holding her hand, speaking words of quiet encouragement, letting Mom know her sons were all "OK" and we understood that she needed to leave us and we would all be alright. George stepped out of the room to answer his phone, and so, alone, I watched Mom draw her last breath at 9:37 pm. I closed her eye lids and said goodbye. No experience in my entire life compares in terms of depth, terrible beauty, starkness, and spirit. George returned a few minutes after Mom's death and we sat with her before we finally told the hospice staff she was gone. They prepared her body in a beautiful way. Yet something was missing. Marmie was an elegant, stylish, beautiful woman. I went to her purse and got her makeup kit. I applied lipstick and face powder. What an incredible experience. If her spirit was still near, I know she was delighted by the gesture. The other thing that pleased her this year was my essay Leaving the Left. She was happy, if somewhat incredulous, that Keith had become a "Republican." (Actually I'm a registered independent, but to mom's eye people with common sense are Republicans, at least not liberal Democrats.) Mom's death came at a time when most of her Naples friends were away for the hot, humid summer. So we decided to postpone our celebration of her life until November, when we'll all return to Florida. It's a cliché but none the less true: It was good that Mom's death wasn't agonizing and protracted. She appeared to be comfortable to the very end. Hospice is an incredible phenomenon. We're all so deeply grateful for their marvelous care and commitment. I plan to take some additional time away from blogging, to reflect on Mom's passing and to consider anew the inexplicable mystery that human beings come into this world at all, remaining a short time and passing on to whatever may wait. The great physicist Erwin Schrodinger expressed it thus:
"What is it that has called you so suddenly out of nothingness to enjoy for a brief while a spectacle which remains quite indifferent to you? The conditions for your existence are as old as the rocks. For thousands of years men have striven and suffered and begotten and women have brought forth in pain. A hundred years ago, perhaps, another man — or woman — sat on this spot; like you he gazed with awe and yearning in his heart at the dying of the glaciers. Like you he was begotten of man and born of woman. He felt pain and brief joy as you do. Was he someone else? Was it not you yourself? What is this Self of yours?"