It had been a long few days, and fortunately it was just a few days. Joan, my mother, had been battling cancer for the past two and a half years and had elected to bring hospice into her home just five days prior. An intensely spiritual woman, my mother was not afraid of dying and she lived and loved fully. She never once complained about her illness and often commented during those years that it was the happiest time in her life. She was able to experience, and truly take in, the authenticity and kindness of so many people who cared about her.
It seemed that once she had made her decision, her body responded almost immediately with pain. As I saw it, my father, Michael – as her caregiver – was faced with the task of transitioning from caring for my mother toward a state of healing to taking measures to alleviate her discomfort until she passed away, all the while facing his own fears and grief about losing his partner and love of fifty years. New medications, new approaches of care and a whole new team of professionals were introduced into the picture. The new reality was like a tidal wave of activity and emotion, and I know I felt like I was in a small rowboat. I can only imagine how my father felt.
Dad is a former career military officer and submarine captain and he’d say he was running Mom’s treatment like he ran a sub. He wanted to know everything about the illness, the treatment, my mother’s symptoms and how to address them, the doctors’ plans, medication side effects, appropriate diet and on and on. “I want to know every dial, every meter, and if something is wrong, I want to know why and I want it fixed,” he’d say. Her oncologist used to joke that he had to study his medical text books before my mother’s appointments because my father always asked so many questions!
True to form, my father had come up with a new plan for the new reality. Plans are great, and in this instance they gave us a brief illusion of control over an untenable situation. My three brothers, Patrick, Timothy and Robert, had arrived throughout the prior evening and this morning. According to plan, and desire, we had all taken turns sitting with my mother. She was now unconscious, but finally, hopefully comfortable. The day before had been really tough, and I will never, ever again hesitate to call a hospice nurse to the house.
It was now the afternoon and we were all sitting around my mother’s bed. My father started to go over The Plan for the evening. It was then that my mother’s breathing started to change – she had other plans.
There is an interesting symbol, of sorts, that appears at times of death or near death in my family. It’s the cardinal. A cardinal used to sit in a bush outside my grandmother’s window during her final days. My brother was going through the worst stages of his cancer treatment and he too would see a cardinal in the tree outside his bedroom. We take great comfort in this little bird and see it as a sign of renewal and life after life. The fact that we are Catholic and the cardinal is a high priest in our faith is an irony that is not lost on us either!
When my father saw that my mother’s breathing had changed, he asked us all to hold hands and pray. Robert held Mom’s hand and mine, I held Tim’s hand, Tim Dad’s, Dad’s Pat’s and Pat’s Mom’s. Dad led us in the “Our Father.” At some point mid-prayer, Tim pulled his hand away from mine and punched me on the shoulder. I turned to scowl at him, intending to hit him back – like the pre-teens in church we tend to revert back to – and he nodded his head toward the window. We all looked out and there were no less than three cardinals sitting in the tree outside. We turned to stare at each other in utter amazement while we finished the prayer. My father continued on and we prayed the “Hail Mary”. And as we finished the final line, “now and at the hour of our death. Amen,” my mother exhaled her last breath and those three cardinals flew away.
We like to think that Mom was escorted into heaven by three cardinals!