Archive for the ‘elder care’ Category

My sweet mama has died

July 20, 2016

July 20, 2016

My sweet mama died around 9 a.m this morning. With the guidance of the hospice nurse, Carol, we undressed, cleaned, and rubbed lotion all over her thin, limp, lifeless body. We picked out one of her favorite summer dresses, bright yellow with flowers, put fresh clean flowery sheets on her bed, even a fresh Depends on her bottom, combed her hair, and arranged her as pleasant and lifelike in her bed as possible. We cried and laughed the whole time—the whole atmosphere in her bedroom begs for comic (cosmic) relief.

Her death, like life, was far from ideal but the hospice nurse assured us it was a very good death—a role model death for the rest of us. Another day I might dive into the differences of opinion between my youngest sister and I regarding the easing of her last hours on earth, but for now I let those differences be. I’m grateful to both of my sisters for all their help, for many years now, assuring that our parents die at home, in their own bed, with their Dutch-Indonesian eating habits and all their lifelong idiosyncrasies respected.

I’m still a bit shell shocked from it all . . . so intense to step back into the stream of life without a part of me back in the bed with my mother. She was so brave—showing me what to do and also what I don’t want to do, when my own time of departure is at hand.

We’ll keep my mom in her bed till 9 p.m. tonight. Then come the funeral folks to take her to be cremated . . . I’ll come back tonight to witness this last step . . . Hospice recommended we don’t wait till tomorrow, due to the warm temperature.

When I left the house, my father was eating pancakes in the kitchen, and three of my mom’s granddaughters were sitting by her bed, seeing death, possibly seeing a corpse for the first time. Tonight, I’ll massage my dad’s feet as usual, and get a sense of his state of mind now that his wife of 68 years  has gone to her heavenly home, as he describes it . . .

I feel so relieved that my mother’s days of  lingering in bed, growing weaker, the not knowing how she was feeling as she waved her skeletal arms in the air, are over . . .  I’m glad that her end-of-life wondering and confusion over dropping the body has come to an end.

Photo: My mother in Den Haage, Holland, when she was still known by her maiden name, Maria Schreiner Vermeer.


Marriage to my father, Rene Ferry Diets, August 20, 1948


Nine months later, with me, Susanna Francina Diets, born May 24, 1949





How Close to Death is My Mother?

July 19, 2016


July 18, 2016
I can tell that I’m totally losing it. I was on the phone with a friend, describing how close to death my mother is, and I heard myself say, “It’s different for my sister. I think she’s counting on seeing my mother in the afterlife, so it’s not such a big deal to her.”
I honestly don’t know what to believe. I only know that I want to go sleep in my mother’s bed so that I can hang on to her nightgown and go with her if she flies away.
10857245_10153067402699703_7603214433623327342_oMy dad says he’s going to hang on till my mom goes. “She’s already gone,” he says, “but I’ll wait till she dies. Then I’ll follow her.”
This afternoon I noticed another change in my mother. She wants me to put my face up close so she can feel my hair and skin with her bony hands. When she runs her fingers through my hair, I can feel the death grip in her hands.
She’s also moving her arms and hands slowly back and forth through the air, stretching her hands wide open and then closing her fingers, as if feeling the ability to move them for the last time.
My mom was thrilled when her red-headed granddaughter, Kelsey, came to visit. She spent many minutes playing with Kelsey’s long red hair. Maybe this wanting to touch our hair and faces is her way of saying goodbye.
My dad is so enthusiastic about my foot massages. He thinks I should massage elderly people’s feet for a living. “You should get paid a lot to do this, Suzan. Most people neglect their feet.” We discuss how cruel it is that so many people never get a foot massage—or any kind of massage. Since the end is now so near, on this day I give him two deep foot massages.
During the first massage, early in the afternoon, I notice that his feet and lower legs are ice-cold, in spite of wearing thick socks under the covers. By the time I finish, his feet radiate heat!
The second time, in the late evening, I notice that his feet are still warm. Good sign!
I can tell that my foot massages are getting better and better. My dad has fabulous, strong, sturdy Indonesian feet. We agree that his feet are the best part of his body. As I massage the ball of the foot, the arches, the heels, in between the toes, he reminisces how many miles his feet have travelled. And he remembers how the Japanese tried to break him in prison camp by making him carry heavy oxygen tanks. “They tried to break my back, Suzan, but they didn’t break me. I grew stronger . . . ”
Just when I feel too tired to do anymore, he sits upright in his adjustable hospital bed and asks for a back rub. How can I possibly refuse?
My sister and her husband, who moved in with my parents a few months ago, are still out on their nightly run. So I take a short nap in my mother’s bed. Then, when I see her moving her hands in the air again, I sit up and meet her hands with mine—like we’re playing a game. I tell her, “Just think mom, right now millions of people are dying and millions are being born . . . ” I don’t know if that’s the right thing to say at a moment like this—but this is all beyond words anyway.

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Photo: My daughter, granddaughter, and mother, 2015.

Once an elderly person stays in bed to die, how long does it take?

July 19, 2016


July 17, 2016
This morning I Googled, “once an elderly person stays in bed to die, how long does it take?” The article below describes what I’m seeing my mother going through and gives a response to many of my concerns, such as dehydration.
Most days my 95-year-old mother is peaceful, looking more and more ethereal and angelic with her white hair spread out on her pillow like a halo. But early this morning my youngest sister reported again that last night my mother was restless, shouting, removing the covers, though we do not feel that she is in pain. My sister tried giving her a small amount of medication (as recommended by Hospice) to calm her —but she can hardly swallow water . . . This death feels like a long gestation . . . We don’t want to rush death but neither do we want to prolong any suffering.
From my experience some years ago helping an elder friend who consciously refused both food and water and who said she was “comfortable” and was totally lucid without any sustenance except one cup of camomile tea around the midway point, I have some idea how long my mother’s dying process might take.
I can feel my mother’s pulse, the blood flowing . . . the body has a will, a life of its own. My mother often stares down at her skeletal arms and hands, as if wondering, “How did this happen?” As if her body is totally foreign to her now.
My long ago elder friend who refused food and water was surprised to find herself still alive as she approached the two-week point. Hours before her death, I helped her shower. “The water feels so good,” she said, but I never saw her drink it. The day she died I read her a favorite story . . . She was in good spirits and tranquil when her body finally gave up the ghost in the early morning hours of the seventeenth day . . .

The story of my friend’s conscious death: Winter Solstice Liberation

Recommended Reading:
Caring for the Dying: End-of-Life Care
Comfort Care Choices – Information on Palliative Care

“Imagine what this world would be like if there was no death.”

July 14, 2016

July 11, 2016

“Soon it will be your turn,” says my old dad. “Imagine what this world would be like if there was no death.”
I don’t know why merciful death does not come for my parents. They are truly scary looking now. My dad looks at me from behind his brown skinned skull—his eyes so deep in their sockets, like he’s already beyond the grave. It pains me to see him like this. He’s strong enough to get in and out of his bed and walk down the short hallway to my mother’s bed—always dragging the oxygen tubes along with him.
Tonight my mother has a death grip on both of my hands, every once in a while shouting as if in labor, “Help me . . . help me.”
“We are here, mom,” I try to assure her. I have plenty of time to examine her. Her arms are so thin–like you could snap the bones in half. Tonight I really see just how fragile her bones have gotten.
My old parents—two skeletons with skin hanging off their bones. Yet their life force continues.
I pray my mom is passing in the night, as I write this. My dad is relaxed, waiting for death. He’s gotten used to it. These past weeks, he’s been virtually pain free, still taking himself to the bathroom, totally coherent, though he repeats himself more and more.
But my mom was tense and stiff tonight—like she didn’t know what was happening, like she was scared. She stares out from her bed to the objects in her room. I tell her where she is, that we are with her, in my feeble efforts to assure her that she is safe.
She’s aware that she’s dying, yet she’s not aware. When I tell her that she’s 95 years old now and that she’ll live on in her grandchildren and great grandchildren, she glances down at me—almost with a look of anger and disbelief. It feels lame to tell her that she’s going to the spirit world now, somewhere beautiful.
None of it makes sense, yet we spend our whole life denying and grappling with it.
My dad tells me that my mom will be saved by proxy—by virtue of being married to him. When he seats himself on the bed beside my mother’s head and swings his bony stick legs on top of the cover, my mother screams. I don’t know if it’s coincidence but it seems like she’s so sensitive that if we brush against her it’s like an electric shock—our proximity gives her a jolt.
Oh, my poor, sweet mother. I tell her once more how much we love her. Her bony grip is so strong—she’s hanging on. Her voice is still strong. Her eyesight and hearing are perfect but she’s had only a few sips of liquid for almost two weeks. She doesn’t want to drink tonight and my dad orders me not to try to give her water. “She might choke Suzan. Don’t do anything . . . ”
My mom is confused. “What’s happening?” she asks, again. She lifts up the covers and stares down at her body, now living on itself. Every once in awhile she winces. I don’t know how much she comprehends the magnitude, the finality of what’s really going on— this unfathomable final wrestling of her spirit out of her flesh.
I look around at all the pictures of her life, on the wall near the bed and on the dresser. My parents’ wedding pictures—she looks so beautiful in a long lace dress, one that I still remember hanging in the closet as I was growing up, her wavy black hair combed neatly back into a flowery headband. She’s holding a bouquet, my dad standing so proud next to her, in his perfectly pressed new suit, so handsome, recovered from his years in the prison camp, both of them looking into the future, their roles defined.
“We are one flesh,” my father tells my mother. “We are united for eternity. . . If you go first, I will soon follow. A few days later or in a few weeks . . . in the span of eternity, it doesn’t matter. I will follow you and we will be together in our heavenly home.”
My dad can relax in the assurance that his heavenly father is waiting for him. That He has prepared a place for him. He tells me again that he’s ready to go—that he’s not afraid of death. That sometimes in the night, when he cannot sleep, he prays for his heavenly father to take him but that He tells him, “Not yet, son. Not yet . . . ”
I came home tonight beyond tired, falling asleep with all the lights on. I have all these books on death—at least thirty—inherited over the years from when I did elder care. I don’t know how I did that—sometimes twelve-hours overnight and even three-day shifts. But now sitting in a hot room in the flow of death exhausts me . . .


What a strange, transient, ever-changing dream this life is

July 10, 2016

Note: Click here for current writing yoga memoir, Virtually Attached: Full Moon Musings on Romantic Relationships, Part One to Six. (Part Seven coming July 10, 2016)

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July 8, 2016
What a strange, transient, ever-changing dream this life is. Tonight, when I went to check on my elderly parents, I found my dad sitting on my mother’s bed for the first time in many months. Until recently, they shared the same bed for 68 years. They were holding hands, my mom under the covers, in her white undershirt, my dad in his old flannel pajamas, with the tubes to the oxygen tank in his nose . . . two frail, skeletal elders, on the brink of death.
At first I hesitated to disturb their communion but they were happy to see me. My mom, who fades in and out of the present, said in a cheerful voice, “Wat gezellig. allemaal bei alkaar, ” (What a pleasure, all of us together.) She was so happy that her husband had come to see her, she kept kissing his hand.
As soon as I sat on the bed beside my dad, he indicated he wanted me to massage his back while he sat upright. I could feel every rib, every bone in his back. These past few months I’ve written many times that I don’t think he can get any thinner, yet now even his bones feel bonier. The same with my mother, who now hasn’t eaten in over a week.
The other day she looked me over and said, “Jei bent zo lekker vet, maar Paula is zo aakelek dun.” (You are so nice and fat but Paula is so painfully thin.)
My dad sat still, holding my mother’s hand, while my strong hands kneaded his shoulders. My mother, still speaking Dutch, said she wanted to go for a walk on the beach tomorrow, a long walk along the ocean, a place she called “de hoek van Holland.” She described children playing —it saddens my dad that her mind is gone, that she goes on and on saying things that make little sense to him. Every once in a while her far away mind comes back to the present, to tell me for the thousandth time how messy my hair is, how I must comb it to the side, and how important it is to look “netjles” (neat).
These last several months, not knowing whether one or both of my parents will slip away before my next visit, I’ve fallen into a routine. First, I fortify myself by wandering the river bottom with my dogs and granddaughter, Maggie, whose chubby seventeen-month-old legs are now sturdy enough to run up and down small hills.
When she falls or one of the exuberant dogs flying past her cause her to lose her footing, she may cry for a moment, but then she picks herself up, brushes the dirt off her legs, and goes back to the pure joyousness of being in a brand new young body.
Maggie and I are so perfectly matched—I pretend I’m the shaman- prankster grandmother—she’s my little apprentice. She calls me “mam” —same as my daughter does. We wander the dirt road or rocky riverbed with no agenda. If Maggie plops herself on the dusty ground to play with sticks and pebbles, I sit or squat nearby, drinking in this fleeting moment. We sing silly songs, we dance, whoop, and mimic animals (her favorite is when I pant like a dog, my tongue hanging out . . . ) After we whoop it up, we sink into silence, into bliss together. We listen for the subtle sounds of nature. Then, after I return Maggie to her mother’s breast (the matrix), I’m fortified to massage my dad and amuse my mother . . .


Winter Solstice Liberation: Mahasamadhi, the Last Asana

January 18, 2015


December, 1987
In the end—and it will end—your life will seem to have sped by like a fleeting dream.
—Doris “Granny D” Haddock
(Author’s note: Doris Haddock was a political activist, who, between the ages of 88 and 90, starting on January 1, 1999, and culminating on February 29, 2000, walked over 3,200 miles  across the  United States to advocate for campaign finance reform.)
It took seventeen days without food, and almost no water, for my friend Ruth to leave her body. She died on the morning of the Winter Solstice. That was the choice she made, rather than risk having another stroke and ending up in a nursing home.
Day One 
The Winter Solstice is upon us. It was at this time of year, many years ago, that  I rode my bicycle over to Eucalyptus Street to see my old friend Ruth. It was a crisp, sunny day after a long rain, and I was not really in the mood to be stuck indoors, but Ruth had called to say she had something important to tell me.
The moment I stepped inside, I could sense that something unusual was up. Shirley, the next-door neighbor who checked on Ruth twice a day, was in the kitchen dumping oatmeal into the garbage disposal. She didn’t waste any words telling me what was going on. 
“Ruth says she’s going to starve herself to death. But I’ll save these oranges just in case she changes her mind.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“She messed all over herself again this morning. It’s the third time this week. After I cleaned everything up, she got back into bed, and now she says she’s not going to eat or drink another thing.
“I think she had another stroke,” Shirley went on. “I’m not sure. She’s having memory lapses, but I know she’s serious about this. And she says if she waits much longer she might not have enough sense to make this decision.”
My mind flashed back to the many times Ruth and I had talked about death and ways of dying. But even last month she had—except for her fading eyesight—appeared so alert and vital. It was a challenge to keep up with her long, strong legs when I accompanied her on her daily walk to the top of Signal Street. We had gossiped like two teenagers about the lighter side of my love life. Her advice to me had been, “Forget about sex and get on with your life. You’ll feel so free!”
I could barely comprehend the gravity of what Shirley was saying. “The problem is,” she added, “she tries starving herself every time she feels like she can’t take care of herself anymore. This is the third or fourth time she’s threatened to do this.”
“She’s never told me this. How long does she go without food?”
“About three or four days, and then she feels better and starts eating again. But this time I have a feeling she’ll go through with it.”
Ruth had always done things her own way. Most of her friends would have checked into a nursing home by now, but I knew that Ruth would never give up her independence. Unmarried and with no children, she had supported herself as a PE teacher before retiring in Ojai. A Theosophist and lifelong student of esoteric and Eastern thought, she relished her autonomy and privacy.
I walked into Ruth’s bedroom. Her head was perfectly centered on the pillow, and the covers were pulled up to her chin.
“Hi, Ruth. It’s me, Suza.”
“Has Shirley told you about the trouble I’m making?”
“She didn’t put it like that.”
“You know how I feel. I want you to make everybody else understand. I don’t want to live like this!”
I bent down to give her a hug, but she pushed me away. “I want you to help make the others understand. Tell them to leave me alone!”
Ruth was dead serious, and her courage was contagious. “Okay, Ruth. I’ll help you, I promise.”
Coaxing someone as strong-willed as Ruth to eat was out of the question, and I’m not a fan of force-feeding. There were no nearby relatives to help out. Plus, after years of giving end-of-life care, I saw what was ahead. I didn’t want to sentence myself or Ruth to endless days of catheter draining, adult diaper changing, and the spoon-feeding of someone who might eventually no longer recognize me.
The last person I had taken care of, Ada, had been a close friend of Ruth. We had both known Ada when she was still a vibrant, artistic person. But at some point in her late eighties we began to see her slowly deteriorate. Ada didn’t want to live in a nursing home, and she hired me to care for her at home. The day came when her body was nothing more than a bag of bones. She didn’t want to eat. It hurt to breathe. She wanted to die in her own bed. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the energy or mental capacity to resist when well-meaning relatives checked her into the hospital. There, she was somewhat revived. From there, she was transferred to a nursing home where she spent three years strapped into a wheelchair before the end. Ruth and I both visited her regularly, but she no longer knew who she was or where she was.
While visiting Ada, I had seen dying people force-fed chunks of steak and potatoes. Ruth was still sane enough to know that, in a nursing home, the social norms of dying would be imposed on her. It would be almost impossible for her to choose her own way of death.
As if reading my thoughts, Ruth repeated, “Be sure, be darned sure, that everybody knows exactly how I feel.” As if to emphasize her point, she took out her dentures and plopped them into the glass of water on her nightstand. “I won’t be needing these.”
Her face shrank. Without the dentures she looked much older, but it didn’t matter to her how she looked anymore.
“Can you still understand what I’m saying without my teeth in?”
“Yes, it’s just fine,” I replied. “Please just take it day by day. Do what you feel like doing.”
“Ha!” she interrupted. “If I do what I feel like doing, I’ll eat like a glutton.”
Not knowing what else to do, I sat quietly by her bed. Ruth’s room, where she had slept for more than twenty years, felt warm, pleasant, and familiar. There were no offensive smells of  urine and other people’s poop. After a while, I absorbed what Ruth intended to do and it started to feel natural. I recovered from the shock of it all. I held her hand, and it felt like holding the hand of a sick person that you want to encourage to recover. Only we both understood that this would be a different kind of recovery. Our hands were warm and relaxed. We had begun the process of letting go.


Day Four
Three days had gone by before I’d had time to visit Ruth again. She was already so thin from a lifetime of careful vegetarian living, and her spirit so stoic and serene, that I entertained the romantic notion that she would take pleasant leave of her body in just a few days. I envisioned myself holding her hand, just like in the movies. She would give me one last smile, then exhale and enter the great beyond.
When I arrived, a well-fed, oblivious attendant was sitting guard in the living room, engrossed in the TV and a pile of knitting. Shirley had posted a sign on the refrigerator saying, “Ms. Doak does not wish to be disturbed. Do not offer food or water. Only if she asks for it.”
Ruth was flat on her back in exactly the same position, the white sheets pulled tightly up to her chin. Her eyes were closed, but I could tell she wasn’t asleep.
“Ruth, it’s me, Suza.”
“Oh, good, I’m glad you’ve come.”
She opened her eyes and pulled down the covers. Already her face and arms were visibly thinner. We chatted about everything under the sun, just like old times. Eventually the subject came around to her “fast.” I circled her wrist with my thumb and index finger. “Ruth, you’re definitely thinner.”
“Are you comfortable?”
“I’m very comfortable.”
Her sole request was that I wipe the dried skin from her parched lips. The water by her bedside stood untouched.
“Well, what do you think of my little project?” she asked, flashing a toothless grin.
“You mean dying?”
What could I say? That she was brave, sensible, courageous? Crazy?
“Ruth, have you read about other people who’ve done this?”
We discussed certain Zen monks and other people who reportedly refuse all food, water, and medical attention when they feel ready to leave this world. “Most people don’t realize they have that option,” I commented. “Some spiritual teachers gather their family and disciples around them and just leave. Some even predict their exact moment of departure.”
Neither of us had the faintest idea how long the process would take. “Just make sure those attendants Shirley has hired know not to feed me,” Ruth instructed.
I looked at the calendar and counted 18 more days till Christmas. I promised Ruth that I would take time off from work so that I could be with her full-time the whole week before Christmas. Yet, even as I promised this, I doubted that she would survive until then. I also assured her that in a few more days I’d start spending the night and that she could call me at any time.
“This is a good time of year to die,” she said softly. “It’s winter. I’m glad we’ll be together for Christmas. Christmas would be a good day to die.”
“What if you change your mind?”
She shook her grey head and looked at me like I was five years old. “Why would I change my mind? Why would I want to live like this?”
Day Five
I visited Ruth again on her fifth day without food or water. The scene was exactly the same. She was perfectly still in her bed, with the covers pulled up to her chin. Shirley was changing the sheets as often as necessary, and helping her to shower before putting a clean T-shirt and diaper on her. The room was immaculate, with freshly cut roses on the dresser.
Ruth consistently assured us that she was very comfortable and there was nothing she wanted. She had called up the few friends that would understand and told them goodbye. She was leaving it up to Shirley to deal with the few out-of-state relatives who hadn’t visited her in years.
“What shall we talk about, Ruth?” I asked.
“It’s such a long wait . . . Reading would help pass the time. Could you read to me from Kim?”
As I read, she occasionally interrupted to correct my pronunciation. It was during this hour that she lost her voice. By the time I left, she could barely whisper her request to have the dried skin wiped from her lips.
The warm winter sunlight felt good as I headed for home. It was a relief to step out of Ruth’s house and back into the stream of life. This was only the fifth day, and already I was weary of my friend’s dying process.
Day Seven
 A whole week had gone by. As I entered her room, Ruth lay motionless like an empty shell. I took her bony hand. “How do you feel, Ruth?” I asked.
For several minutes there was silence, and I thought she hadn’t heard me. Then, with great effort, she whispered, “I’ve looked forward to this for years.” I sat on her bed with my eyes closed and allowed myself to relax.
Shirley interrupted our reverie. I offered to take Ruth to the shower while Shirley changed the sheets. Ruth clutched my arms and strained to a sitting position. It took a while for her to swing her legs over the side of the bed. I helped her remove her T-shirt and diaper, trying not to stare at her emaciated body.
“These disposable diapers are great,” she whispered as she grasped the portable potty at her bedside to raise herself to an upright position. I put my arm around her and supported her down the hallway to the bathroom.
While Ruth lathered her lower body, I washed her hair and armpits. She liked the water full blast, and very hot. “Oh, the water feels so good. It feels so good to be clean . . .” It occurred to me that perhaps she’d been drinking water in the shower all this time, and that was why she hadn’t yet died of thirst. But I never saw her swallow a single drop. I dried her with her favorite pink towel and eased her skeleton back into a clean T-shirt and diapers.
The shower had completely exhausted her. She thanked Shirley for the crisp feel of the clean sheets. Even with my ear right up to her lips, I could barely hear her.
“I’m so lucky to have friends like you.” She asked us to pull the covers right up to her chin, then added, “You can leave any time you want.”
We kissed several times. “Goodbye, Ruth. I love you very much.”
“And I love you.”
Days Eight and Nine
I returned late the next night and slept in Ruth’s living room. When I checked her in the morning, she was in an unusually happy mood. Perhaps she felt that her “little project” was nearly over. Yet I still had doubts that she could see it through to the end. I worried about her becoming disoriented. In a moment of weakness and hunger, she might ask an attendant for breakfast.
“What day is it now?” she whispered.
“It’s Friday.”
She looked puzzled. “It’s Friday morning,” I repeated. “It’s the beginning of your eighth day without food.”
It seemed to take her a few minutes to understand, or was she finally feeling the full impact of her intent? “Oh, the waiting takes such a long time . . . I can live a long time without fat on my body . . .” she finally whispered.
I took a deep breath. “How much longer do you think it will take till you’re dead?”
“I don’t know. I try not to think about it. If I say four more days I might be wrong and still find myself here talking to you!”
Shirley rarely hired strangers for the night vigil, but several different women “babysat” during daytime hours when she or I couldn’t be there. The note forbidding any food or drinks remained posted on the refrigerator. Since Ruth slept most of the time, I don’t think any of the attendants actually realized she was starving herself to death.
On Friday night my boyfriend, Paul, came over. Ruth’s emaciated form didn’t faze him. Ruth was pleased to see him, and motioned for him to put his ear by her lips.
“Aren’t you a chiropractor?” she whispered.
“Yes,” he replied, unsuspecting.
“Well, then,” she responded with a naughty look, “isn’t there something you can do to my neck to hurry things along?”
“I can’t do that!”
“Sure you can! I won’t tell!”
“That’s easy for you to say! You’ll be free and happy. I’ll be in jail!”
Days Ten and Eleven
I always knew Ruth had the option of changing her mind. Yet I was shocked when she confided on the tenth morning, “Shirley and I talked about my fast again yesterday. Tomorrow I’m going to make a decision.” Then she added wearily, “I’ve come this far. Maybe I can see it through . . .”
Part of me resented that I might be going through this whole ordeal for nothing. Not that I wanted her to die, but if she began eating, and then changed her mind about living a month from now, I knew that Shirley and I would have a hard time finding the patience to help her again.
When I returned the next day, the look on Shirley’s face startled me. She informed me that the night nurse had never told the daytime attendant that Ruth didn’t want any phone calls. Two out-of-state relatives had called, and had begged Ruth to “eat a little something—sip some tea and try to hang on till Christmas so we can see you.”
Shirley was furious. She had consulted Ruth’s lawyer, who said that as long as Ruth was of sound mind she had the right to stop eating. “These relatives haven’t visited her in years!” she fumed. “I told them that if they talk Ruth into eating, we’ll put her in a rest home and they can just come and get her and take care of her themselves!”
Following the call, Ruth had drunk half a cup of chamomile tea. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. That night, her urine smelled of strong chamomile tea, and she expelled foul-smelling gas into the toilet. When I thought she was finished, I half-carried her back to bed. As we sat talking, I could hear her insides rumble. That should have warned me to grab a diaper.
Suddenly she whispered, “I think I have to go!” I pulled back the covers and frantically grabbed bunches of paper towels to clean her. Then I opened every door and window to air out the house. As I washed her and changed the bedding, I thought, “If Ruth keeps on living, someone else will have to do this job on a regular basis.”
Just as I was about to put another diaper on her, it started again. I grabbed more towels and buried everything, sheets and all, in a double garbage bag. Cleaning her up the second time, I felt more convinced than ever that Shirley and I should encourage her to see this through to the end.
Day Twelve
Ruth’s mind is definitely still intact. On the twelfth day she whispers, “Have you heard about the commotion my fast caused on Sunday?”
“Yes, I did!”
“Well, everything is all right now. At first my niece didn’t understand, but now there’s peace in the family.”
That answered my next question. Ruth had taken in nothing but half a cup of chamomile tea in twelve days. Her withered face was serene as she whispered, “I’m so glad everyone understands.”
There was a full moon that night. We held hands for a long time. Again, there was that feeling of letting go—a long unspoken goodbye. Late that night, with the full moon shining on her shrunken face, she whispered clearly, “I feel the change is coming.”
About midnight she asked, “What day is it now?”
“It’s Tuesday . . . it’s been twelve days.”
“That’s a long time. I think it’s coming soon.”
I prayed that she would die this night.
Day Thirteen
I was feeling utterly naïve. I told myself to stop anticipating that Ruth was going to die soon. This morning both her regular doctor and her osteopath were coming to see her. They had both known Ruth for years, and Shirley and I had great hope that they could give us some idea as to how much longer she would live.
“How’d you sleep, Ruth?” I asked.
“I sleep the sleep of the dead.” She laughed at her own joke, and appeared incredibly alert.
The osteopath, a tall, solemn-looking fellow, arrived first. I assumed that Shirley had informed him of Ruth’s condition. After the long days of silence, his loud voice seemed to echo in the room. Maybe he thought she was hard of hearing.
“How’s your appetite, Ruth?”
You stupid fool, I thought. He’s probably asked that same question for the last ten years.
I took him aside. “Hasn’t Shirley told you that Ruth hasn’t eaten for two weeks?”
He shrugged and automatically continued his exam. He listened to her heart, took her blood pressure, and pronounced that everything was normal. I felt relieved when he finally took her hand and sat briefly by her bedside.
The doctor’s presence felt somewhat like the long-awaited arrival of the midwife at a home birth. “How much longer do you think Ruth will last?” I asked.
“It’s impossible to say. All her vital signs are normal. It could be tonight or it could be a long time still.”
The MD arrived just as the DO was leaving. He was well acquainted with Ruth’s philosophy and, in prior discussions concerning death, had agreed never to do anything to prolong her life against her wishes. His main concern was that she be kept comfortable. “I won’t order any life-saving measures,” he assured me. “Ruth and I discussed this a long time ago. If you have any problems with friends or relatives, have them speak to me. Our aim is to keep her comfortable. Give her chipped ice or water if she wants it.”
He, too, checked her vital signs and confirmed that there was nothing unusual.
“Do you want water?” he asked her.
“Do you feel hungry?”
“Are you comfortable?”
“Yes. Very comfortable.”
Shirley was in the kitchen baking Christmas cookies. It didn’t seem quite right to be baking goodies with someone starving to death in the next room! I worried that the sweet, spicy aromas would arouse Ruth’s appetite.
A neighbor knocked on the door and asked if she could visit. She’d heard that Ruth was ill and might be dying. I went into the bedroom and asked Ruth if Mrs. Perry could come in.
She motioned for me to wipe her lips, which are now completely shrunken inside her mouth. “Tell her she can come in.”
Like the doctor, this neighbor assumed that Ruth was hard of hearing. As soon as she shouted, “I came to say goodbye,” I regretted allowing her to invade Ruth’s sanctuary. But Ruth whispered back, with all the spunk she could muster, “I may be here a long time yet!”
The neighbor burst into sobs. “You’ve known happier times, haven’t you?”
Mortified, I pulled her aside and told her not to say things like that. No wonder Ruth didn’t want visitors! I escorted Mrs. Perry back into the kitchen and left it up to Shirley to get rid of her.
Closing my eyes, I waited for the room to feel peaceful again. “Ruth, I think we’d better post a sign over your bed that says I CAN HEAR YOU PERFECTLY. I AM NOT DEAF.”
“They mean well.”
Day Fourteen
Like a midwife checking on a laboring mother long overdue, I peeked in on Ruth briefly the evening of the fourteenth day. She lay so still, and the spark of life in her dehydrated body seemed so faint that I placed my face close to hers to be sure she was still breathing. She was deep asleep, and I left the room without disturbing her.
A new attendant was watching TV. “How has Ruth been today?” I asked.
“Oh, she just sleeps all the time. She never wants to eat.”
None of the attendants seemed to notice how close to death Ruth was.
When I returned later that night, Ruth was still sleeping. I really believed that tonight she would die. The house was deathly still, and for the first time I started to get the creeps. Shirley had decorated a Christmas tree, but even the blinking lights failed to dispel my sense of foreboding.
When it was close to midnight, Ruth woke briefly. I reassured her that I was spending the night. She clutched my hand and then sank back into her deathlike state. But sleep eluded me. I could hear Ruth fidgeting.
At around 2 a.m., she struggled to get out of bed to use the potty chair. I lifted her skeleton into an upright position. She moved so slowly, I feared she would collapse. She slumped over on the potty, but insisted on waiting there until a bit of urine finally dribbled out. I couldn’t comprehend how her kidneys continued to function.
Now I was really getting the creeps. Ruth’s eyes were glassy and unfocused. Her body continued to endure, but her spirit seemed to be ebbing in and out. It was 3 a.m. before I got her bones settled back under the sheets. Finally I, too, lost consciousness.
Day Fifteen
Christmas was only six days away. We had all grown weary of waiting for Ruth to die—especially Ruth herself. Her body was unusually restless this night, and I wished we’d rented a hospital bed with rails. Instead, we barricaded her into the bed with six chairs.
Again at midnight, she began to fidget as if her spirit were fighting to fly out of her body. I checked on her frequently. Fear gripped me. Why couldn’t her flesh release her spirit? Why couldn’t she relax and let go?
The house felt cold and eerie, and was filled with a foul, musty odor. We had invited death, but my instinct was to let life flow into the house. I opened all the windows and let the fresh air in. Ruth didn’t care how cold it was. I buried my own body deeper under the blankets.
At almost the exact moment as the previous night, I heard her struggling to get out of bed. The sight of her skin dangling off her bones was unnerving. She no longer had the strength to sit upright, and doubled over on the potty chair.
As I helped her to lie down, I prayed over and over, “Release this woman from her body.” But Ruth’s body continued its inherent task of surviving. Even her hair and nails were continuing to grow. Her heart continued its ceaseless repetitions—the senseless task of pumping life force through her dying body. I felt that the time had come to give Ruth a merciful injection, but had no idea what that would be or how to get it.
I couldn’t understand why she didn’t just die in her sleep. Was there something worrying her, something unsaid? Several times I asked her, “Is there anything else you want to tell me?” She always shook her head, murmuring, “No. No. No.” She seemed as perplexed to find herself still living as I was.
Day Sixteen
It had now been sixteen days. On this night I was so exhausted that I napped at home before going over for the night shift. Shirley had called earlier to say she had to leave by 9:00 p.m. When I woke up it was already past 9:00, and by the time Paul drove me over I was half an hour late and still half asleep.
As I walked in the door, I tried to assure myself that Ruth was asleep as usual and probably hadn’t even noticed that no one had been at home with her. When I entered her room, her bed was empty. My mind went blank. In panic, I quickly searched the bathroom. Had my worst fears of someone “rescuing” Ruth and rushing her to the emergency room come true? As I yelled for Paul, I saw that Ruth had fallen off the far side of her bed and was hanging face down, half-on-half-off the floor. She was tangled up in her bedding and it looked as if she had bumped her forehead on the nightstand.
Shaken, we maneuvered her back onto the mattress. Paul checked her pulse. Ruth was still in this world. I placed a cold compress on her head while Paul rearranged the covers. We had no way of knowing whether she’d fallen just after Shirley left or soon before we’d arrived. She could have been hanging off the bed like that for more than half an hour!
Ruth began to fidget in a state of frustrated agitation. She coughed and spat, then motioned frantically for a Kleenex. She spat up globs of mucous several times, being very careful to spit only in the Kleenex and not make any mess. I didn’t know if she was coughing and spitting because she had been lying face down or if this was the death rattle I had heard about. Then she wet her diaper. I thought, If she’s dying, why change it? Why disturb her? But, being uncertain, I asked her to lift her bottom while I arrange a new diaper underneath. She seemed to understand everything. I hoped she wasn’t angry that no one was here when she fell out of bed.
She remained restless. I felt how sick and tired she was of still being alive, and cursed myself for not getting rails as we made another barricade of chairs around her bed. We had to keep moving her back to the center of the bed. Later on I realized that we were witnessing the final moments of her spirit wrestling with her body for release.
Then Paul took charge. Like a labor coach, he held her hand. “Let go,” he whispered. “Let go.”
Ruth pursed her lips and motioned for the Vaseline. I asked if she wanted me to clean her mouth with a wet cloth. She shook her head vigorously. Absolutely not. For the last time, I wiped her lips. I had done all I could. Once more I said goodbye, and then left her alone with Paul. I could hear him softly talking: “Be at peace, Ruth. You’re going somewhere
beautiful . . .”
Later he told me that she had stared intently at him for a long time. She had squeezed his hand as much as she had strength to and then turned her head away. He’d had the strong impression that she wanted him to leave, that she wanted to die alone.
Winter Solstice Liberation: The Last Asana, Mahasamadhi*
When I woke up it was Sunday at 4 a.m., the morning of the Winter Solstice. Ruth must be dead, I thought. But then I had thought that so many times before. I examined her closely in the dim light of her night light. Still unsure, I woke up Paul. He turned on the overhead light. Ruth’s head was perfectly centered on the pillow. Already she was turning yellow. Paul checked her pulse. He closed her eyes and covered her face with the sheet. Ruth was gone. This time she was really dead.
I called Shirley. Upon hearing the news, she told me that Ruth had been unusually alert and talkative the previous afternoon, and that they’d had a wonderful, warm final visit.
Ruth’s doctor arrived to sign the death certificate. [When did Paul leave?] An ambulance arrived to take the body to be cremated. Ruth hadn’t wanted a funeral.
I walked up Signal Street in time to see the sun rising above the snowcapped Topa Topas. It was an incredible relief to be alive and out in the open air.
Now, years later, I think about everything that I experienced in helping Ruth to leave her body while awake, aware, and alert. I close my eyes and clearly see Ruth’s image. I can still see her striding vigorously up North Signal Street with her long, strong, independent legs, a smile on her face. Looking back, I see that spiritually I was just a child. I didn’t fully grasp the great gift Ruth was giving me by asking me to be her guardian through her last days on Earth.
* * *
I don’t know if I believe this, but I’m open to the possibility. [This shouldn’t be in italics, but I can’t get it out.]
Mahasamadhi (the great and final Samadhi) is the act of consciously and intentionally leaving one’s body at the time of death. [1][2] A realized yogi (male) or yogini (female) who has attained the state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi (enlightenment) will, at an appropriate time, consciously exit from the body and cease to live. This is known as Mahasamadhi. Each one prepares for and enters Mahasamadhi in a unique fashion.
* * *
Adapted from Suza’s forthcoming memoir, Ojai Stories. A version of this story appears in the book,Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything, a collection of stories by Phil Bolsta. Foreword by Caroline Myss. Atria Books, 2008.

Savasana–the Death Pose

August 20, 2014

August 8, 2014

If someone asked me about the defining moment of my training to be a yoga teacher, I would probably say it was those moments spent observing people during the dying process—both at home and in various end-of-life care settings.

So far this morning, my yoga practice has mainly been to lie still in Savasana, the Corpse Pose. “Shava” or “Sava” means corpse. In the book Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language, author Swami Sivananda Radha cut to the chase and called Savasana the death pose. She said that, if we don’t want to be a living corpse, then the purpose of life has to be established: “If you want to be an active participant in your life and not a parasite, then the dynamic interdependence between life and death has to be recognized, and the two have to meet in directed and concentrated interaction.”


I don’t usually do Savasana first thing in the morning, but I woke up feeling tired and out of sorts. My usual quick cure for feeling overwhelmed is to hang upside down in my wall ropes, lie back over my extra-high backbender, or relax on a bolster in the Goddess Pose (Supported Bound Angle Pose). Or take a walk with my dogs. Or go back to bed! But this morning the peace and quiet of Savasana called me. I did just enough Downward Facing Dog Pose, gentle twists, and leg stretches to get the kinks out of my body so that I could lie still without fidgeting.

In Savasana, the body lies perfectly aligned on the floor, face-up and completely relaxed. The mind is alert and aware, observing the river of the breath and consciously feeling the bones—the skeletal frame of the body—lying heavy on the floor and the muscles letting go. The eyes are closed, sinking in their sockets; the gaze is inward; the tongue and jaw are loose; the arms rest at the sides of the body, palms up; the extended legs lie slightly apart. The body remains as motionless as a corpse.

Savasana gives us the experience of symbolic death—death to everything we identify with—and allows us to satisfy, while still alive, the deep need to be reborn fresh and new.

In the deeper levels of Savasana, we feel the body as a shell—the temple of the spirit, or whatever words resonate to that effect—as we experience the pleasant feeling of letting go. As the mind follows the peaceful flow of the breath, its usual busy activity slowly subsides. The senses gradually withdraw and become still. Our earthly concerns are, at least for the moment, put to rest.

As B.K.S. Iyengar states, “The best sign of a good Savasana is a feeling of deep peace and pure bliss. Savasana is a watchful surrendering of the ego. Forgetting oneself, one discovers oneself.”

To this I humbly add: Another sign of a good Savasana is that one feels one’s sense of humor returning.

And that is why I practiced Savasana so early this morning. 8170003

* * *
A note about the photo:
A bolster or folded cotton blanket under the legs, a ten-pound sandbag (or other weight) across the pelvis, and an eye pillow to quiet the movement of the eyes help the body to relax.

Photo Credit: Ruth Miller

This photo is from my book, Yoga and the Wisdom of Menopause. The model is my longtime student, Catherine Meek.
— in Ojai, CA

The irony and absurdity of life never ends, does it?

May 15, 2014

s3The irony and absurdity of life never ends, does it? On Tuesday mornings its my turn to help my mom clean her teeth, eat breakfast (fresh fruit like cut-up papaya or sliced oranges, and later something more substantial like an egg on toast prepared the Dutch way, slathered in organic raw butter; my vegan sensibilities are foreign to her), rinse her mouth after breakfast, and get her out of her comfy pajamas into some fresh underwear, including mandatory undershirt, and also blouse and pants or a favorite dress.
When I question the need for an undershirt on a hot day, she always says, “Ik voel me naakt als ik niets onder me jurk draag,” meaning, “I feel naked without an undershirt or slip under my dress.”
The whole shebang takes about two hours and includes a pleasant interlude of our listening to her favorite classical music station while I sit on the floor stretching in various seated forward bends and hip openers.
s6I noticed this morning that my mother has finally given up on telling me that “sitting like that is not lady like.” While I’m attending to my mom, my old dad is usually outside basking in the early morning sun. I can spy on him through the kitchen window, which gives me ample time to cover my tracks should he rise from his lounge chair and come inside to monitor if I’m using the right cup or the right spoon.
sMost of the time, when my daughterly duties are done I slip away unnoticed. But this morning my dad was sitting inside in my mom’s easy chair by the window, looking out at the mountains. I could feel he was ready to give me some parting words of wisdom before I flew out the door.”Suzan, you are at an age where you should be taking it easy. You should be sitting around with your legs up on a stool and not have all kinds of worries. Isn’t there some man who would like to be your husband? You shouldn’t give up on men . . .”When I laughingly reply that “I’ve chosen the lesser of two evils,” my mom gets it right away, and starts chuckling.”Dad,” I say, “don’t you know by now there’s no such thing as a free lunch? If I was married I might still have to work plus then I’d have to make dinner . . . ”

“Ah, no,” he shrugs and waves his arms to emphasize his point, “you’ve got to choose the right one. You just never picked the right one. I know you, Suzan, you picked the wrong ones . . . don’t give up on men, Suzan, don’t give up . . . ”

We’ve had this absurd conversation a hundred times, but I take the bait, mainly to make my mom laugh.

“If I married the right one I’d have to go with him on cruises, or travel to foreign countries, or dress up and accompany him to dinner parties . . . and later I might have to take care of him.”

My mom finds the turn of the conversation hilarious and gets increasingly animated as my dad and I banter back and forth.

I kiss them both good bye but before I leave I check their mailbox. Inside is a single envelope with a red line above the address box proclaiming:

“Your Guide to a 2014 Medical Product Benefit.”

Being that my parents are both so old now, I take the liberty of screening their mail.

The letter says: With confirmed eligibility, dispatch cutting-edge ED treatment
PRIORITY ID: 62056-01890
ATTENTION: We are trying to reach you regarding a safe-highly effective erectile dysfunction therapy covered by Medicare and private insurance. If you suffer from ED, then you may be entitled to a proven product . . . It is the ONLY proven therapy therapy to bring back natural functioning . . . However, your reply is needed within 14 days to ensure availability.
Dr. D. Marshall Levy
CEOFounder, CarePoint Medical.

What kind of shameless charlatan world is this?

Is this all we have to look forward to?

Maybe I wouldn’t mind being married to another writer who doesn’t mind if I ignore him when I walk in the door and run to my writing room . . .

Yesterday one of my students left two presents on the seat of my car: a sampler of four cans of Zhena‘s Gypsy Tea– Chocolate Chai, Coconut Chai, Caramel Chai, and Hazelnut Chai. And a book aptly titled, The Merry Recluse, by Caroline Knapp.

I’m thinking to myself, “I wouldn’t mind marrying a very merry recluse!”


Photo Credit: Cathy Snyder

  — in Ojai, CA.s4

“If there was something wrong with my mind, don’t you think I’d be the first to know it?”

April 19, 2014

I woke up at 2 a.m. thinking about a friend who, like millions of other elders, was forcibly removed from her home and placed in a long-term-care facility.

In the weeks before she was whisked away, I tried to warn her that she was getting forgetful, even delusional, and that if she didn’t move herself out of her two-story apartment with the worrisome stairs in favor of a safer living situation, someone else would likely step in and do it for her.

She looked at me like I was crazy and, with all the authority of her 94 years, flat-out told me, “If there were something wrong with my mind, don’t you think I’d be the first to know it?”

She had no recollection of falling and landing in the hospital for five days. When I went to pick her up, she thought she was checking out of a hotel.

She saw my spending the night at her house as an invasion of her privacy.

The night that it hit her that she had lost control of her bladder and had to wear “diaper pants,” she screamed and asked me to shoot her.

But, by the light of day, the agonizing nighttime scenes were forgotten. She was immaculately groomed, drove herself everywhere, and could carry on the most interesting and astute conversations. Anyone casually stopping by would be impressed by her pleasant apartment, her yoga practice, her ongoing art projects, and her ability to take care of her own daily needs.

Like so many other fiercely independent creative elders whom I’ve assisted over the years, she found the possibility that someone could actually force her out of her home to be unthinkable.

Yet it happened.

Yesterday it was my turn to help my mom with her ADLs (Activities of Daily Living). Were it not for my dad’s presence in the home, and the care of all three of her daughters and her four granddaughters, my 93-year- old mother would require 24-hour care, either at home or in an institution.

A few days ago, in spite of our concerted efforts to keep walkers strategically placed in the front and back of the house, my mom again slipped and fell. My dad, unable to help her get back up, walked over to summon one of the neighbors, who picked up my light weight, skeletal mother and carried her to bed.

My mom’s eyesight and hearing is perfect. She still plays the piano beautifully, with vigor and enthusiasm, and speaks six languages. She catches all my jokes and is quick to poke fun at life. But her memory is slipping day by day. Yesterday she wondered who my parents were.

My dad is losing his eyesight. He can no longer read or write. In his own way, he’s doing a life review, dictating letters and making phone calls to relatives and old acquaintances while he still can. Yesterday he asked me to track down the phone number of a friend he worked with fifty years ago, someone he has not spoken to in many years.

I found the number and dialed it. As luck would have it, the man he was seeking answered the phone.

After identifying himself, my dad didn’t mince words but cut right to the chase. “I’m about to die, and I want to set the record straight.” He then launched into a story concerning an incident that happened at work that evidently had been smoldering on his conscience for all those years.

Much to my dad’s astonishment, the former colleague on the other end of the line claimed to have no recollection of what he was talking about. Undaunted, my dad described several more times what, in his mind, had taken place so long ago, and told his friend why, now that he’s about to die, he was making it his final mission to correct this mistake.

From my perspective as I overheard the conversation, it was nothing that a man in his final days needed to worry about. No criminal activity had taken place. But in my dad’s mind it was “important to set the record straight.”

From what I gathered, his friend still maintained that he didn’t remember the incident, which confounded my dad to no end.

“But you were there. Surely you remember!”

After more bantering back and forth, whatever this colleague said on the other end of the line seemed to be easing my dad’s mind. Toward the end of the conversation, he was laughing and enjoying the camaraderie of reconnecting with a friend from the past. But right after they hung up he turned to me and said, “Suzan, can you imagine such a thing! He was there, he gave the orders, but he doesn’t remember anything about it!”

“There’s one thing I want you to know, Suzan,” he went on, as if for the first time. “I believe in the day of judgement. One day you will stand alone in front of your maker. When I stand before my maker, I want to have a clean slate . . . Every day I commune with my heavenly father . . . ”

I’m happy for my dad that he has found peace.

On page 17 of the book “Veteran’s Stories of Ventura County,” there are two photographs of my Dutch Indonesian father as a teenager newly inducted in the Royal Dutch Navy. These photos were taken before he was a prisoner of war and saw the atomic bomb annihilate Nagasaki. In these two photos, his face looks just like mine when I was his age. He’s happy-go-lucky, smiling with youthful optimism, unaware of the horrors to come.

I respect how the God of his faith has helped him to bear the shock of war and burden of life. In my youth we argued . . . now I understand.

As for me, the longer I live, the more I see that the human mind is capable of inventing the most astonishing beliefs. And we all tend to assume, just like my elderly friend: “If there was something wrong with my mind, don’t you think I’d be the first to know it?” — in Ojai, CA.


Do Not Resuscitate!

April 1, 2014

March 30, 2014, Ojai, California

Well, I did my daughterly duty, my dharma, my karma yoga or whatever cosmic spin you want to put on it. A week has flown by since I last saw my old parents. When I arrived, early this evening, my mother was sitting as usual in the living room, in her favorite easy chair by the window, with the view of the orange orchards and majestic mountains. I could tell that my middle sister had been here earlier; my mom’s hair was in a neat ponytail, she had on a nice flowery purple dress and matching jacket, and she wore a strand of pearls around her neck. When I tapped on the window to announce my arrival, she looked at me in happy surprise. I’m always grateful that she still knows who I am.
It took my mom five minutes to unlatch the screen door, but I told her to take her time. The first time she couldn’t manage to lift the latch, I got impatient and went around to the back door, which is double- or triple-locked and almost impossible for me to open. But now I realize that opening the screen door is a life skill I don’t want her to lose, so I wait patiently.My dad was already in bed, only getting up once in a while to empty his bladder. He has now lived with the diagnosis of prostate cancer for about five years. And, just like when I was a child, with my dad asleep in the bedroom so that I don’t have to tiptoe around his La-Z-Boy recliner in the living room, where he often falls asleep, I breathe a sigh of relief. My mom and I can laugh loudly and cut loose.
My parents’ private, at-home nursing home is plastered with notes written by my middle sister, the bossy, responsible one who worked in institutions. These notes are printed in giant letters with a black Sharpie pen, and can be viewed above every sink, on the cupboard doors, on the fridge, on every wall, above the washing machine, on the dressers, night stands, and, of course, all around the telephone:
Eye drops
Put phone in charger. (With a drawing of the phone in its charger)

Change Mom’s piano books. (Otherwise she plays the same songs over and over.)


Take care of Mom’s dental and bodily hygiene responsibly.


Clean teeth. Soak dentures.


Check meds–trade out empties.


Give Mom greens and protein and carrot juice after her walk.


Keep a walker in the front room and in back of the house.


Wash Mom’s shoes. Soak Mom’s feet.


Reminder: Read the article on Dementia: How to Encourage Healthy Eating.

Even with all our encouragement, my parents eat so little. Which I think is nature’s way of dropping the body. When she hands me her dentures, I can perfectly see the bony skeleton of my mom’s hand.

The most important sign of all hangs in the hallway, near their bedroom: DO NOT RESUSCITATE. The physician-signed DNR form hangs in a protective plastic sleeve in a spot where it will not be missed by emergency responders.

My dad likes to remind me, “Suzan, we are on our way out. Your mother and I live in our own peaceful cocoon. Like in a satellite floating above the Earth. Your mother and I enjoy each day, but we are not of this world . . .”

While my dad sleeps and my mom listens to her favorite classical music station, I rummage around in the kitchen in search of some vegan food. My parents’ fridge is always stocked with the Dutch staples of my childhood: three or more kinds of whole-grain bread, various cheeses, raw butter, and two gallons of organic milk. For a second the death grip of old habits tempts me to throw in the towel and make a greasy grilled cheese sandwich, but then I spot a package of organic tempeh–my dad’s Indonesian staple–and soon I’m sitting by my mom eating a hot tempeh sandwich.

It’s all so unreal. We arrive on Planet Earth, not knowing from whence we come . . . We depart Planet Earth, some of us certain of where we’re going, others not so sure. We appear . . . we disappear . . . I don’t know anything, but I feel the Great Mystery, and the bliss of not knowing. And I feel the cold that has descended on my little cabin at the top of North Signal as I type this.

Namaste. The divine in me recognizes the spark of divinity in you.



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