Archives for posts with tag: death

Today I am journeying to the funeral of my father-in-law’s first cousin.  She had a relatively short battle with cancer, and recently lost her fight on Wednesday morning.  She was a very young 60 years of age.  She was a larger-than-life woman who embodied a keen intelligence, practicality, stubborness, and that outspoken nature typical of the Dutch.  She also had a strong sense of family and was a loyal friend.  She was vibrant and witty, with a sense of humour and a zest for life for which she once told me in the Netherlands they have their own special word. 

 At the time, I likened it to the English word, “jovial.”  She didn’t respond, but I immediately knew it wasn’t the same at all.  She was a particular person.  She was usually right, and she knew it.  She was the go-to girl. 

Now, I’m left pondering; what was that word anyway?  My first impulse is to whip off an email to ask her…but she’s gone.  I can’t ask her another question again in this lifetime.  She wasn’t my best friend, but her absence feels very strange, even just to me.  She is still very much alive in my mind.

What happens when we die? 

At 17, I lost my father to cancer.  I remember acutely feeling like I couldn’t believe I was still here on Earth, when he was gone.  The death of my parent abruptly thrust my teenaged psyche into a solitary stance. 

“Without you, I still go on.” 

The paternal umbilical cord was precipitously cut.  There would be no pictures with prom dresses, no late night calls from university, no potential fiancé’s nervous request, nor proud and tearful walk down the aisle. 

The difference between 3:11 a.m. and 3:12 a.m. meant my father would never hold my daughter.  He would forever be nothing more than the stories I whisper to her in the dark, as she falls asleep.  She would know nothing more than, “What her grandfather would have said,” as I seize each opportunity to bring him to life for her.  I was blessed with a mom who stood up and filled all in the holes that she could.  Thank God for Mom.

What happens when we die?

Science states that permanent death occurs four to six minutes after the body systems shut down.  The heart and respiration stop, followed by brain death.  There is absolutely no evidence to support the existence of the afterlife, despite thousands of accounts supporting it.  Neurologists assert that the same underlying biology, as well as similar cultural experiences, account for the continuity between personal stories of near death experiences.  It’s only natural, it’s argued, that this dreamlike state would render images of lost loved ones in a nirvana-like backdrop.  Some neurologists say that, during the near death experience, the brain hovers in a state somewhere between a waking and REM consciousness.  Since REM consciousness activates the visual systems in the brain, this accounts for the intensity of colour and light in the reported experiences.  It’s all quite scientifically explainable.

Unless you believe.

I believe. 

I bore witness to this intensity of light and meeting of loved ones as my dad took his last breath.  He raised his arms up in the air and shielded his eyes, as his face took on a look of incredible awe.  Whether the product of oxygen starved cellular death or REM consciousness, I know he saw something more magnificent and overwhelming than I have ever been blessed to see in this world.  He whispered, “Mommy…” and took his last breaths as we held him and said our goodbyes.

I believe.

I bore witness to my two year old daughter pointing to the rafters in Lowes and asking her father and I, “What dat lady doin’ up dere?”  We looked to the ceiling and saw nothing, but she insisted, pointing and saying, “Right dere!  What she doin’?  Why is she up dere?” 

We still saw nothing but metal trusses, but she was clear that there was a woman hovering above us all, as clear as her parents right in front of her.

Our daughter has always insisted that she “picked us” for her parents and has even spoken of her memories of my own childhood, “Before daddy was with us,” such as when my mother would tickle my back to help me get to sleep. 

Our daughter has shared knowledge of items in our home that once that belonging to loved ones, long since passed.  As a toddler she stood in a tray that was made by my great-grandfather and, to my amazement, declared, “I in Bumpa’s tray, Mama!”

I believe.

One of my favourite lines comes from a movie directed by Steven Spielberg, titled Always.  It was a remake from 1943 film, A Guy Named Joe.

Audrey Hepburn plays the role of Hap, a guardian angel who is given the job of teaching recently deceased aerial firefighter Pete Sandich how to be an angel.  She tells him that the word “inspiration” comes from the Latin “spirtus”, meaning “divine breath.”  She tells him that what human beings believe to be inspiration is actually just the angels whispering in our ears.  “They hear you inside their own minds,” she says, “As if it were their thoughts.”

No, I can’t explain it, but I believe it.  There may never be the scientific evidence to give it academic credence, but I’m satisfied to know there are angels looking over my shoulder and whispering in my ear.

Goodbye Loes.  We are all grieved to bid you go, but I know we are blessed to count you among our many guardian angels.  

Whenever you are ready, I’m listening.



Dear Mom,

Yesterday I learned some very frightening news.  I learned that your heart isn’t young anymore.  I knew you were aging, anyone with eyes in their head would see you are.  Your body began to betray you years ago, but I always commented that your heart was as strong as an ox.  You were a young woman trapped in an old person’s body.  Now your heart has begun to betray you too…and to break my own.

I distinctly remember the smell of your skin, warm from the sun, as I lay in your arms wrapped in a towel on Bowmanville Beach.  I remember how your blonde hair fell past your shoulders and your blue bikini.  I remember your long skirts, unique jewelry, and the smell of your perfume when you were going out with Dad.  You had a natural glamour about you.  Truth be told, you still do…

I remember how you cared for me when I was sick.  Beef barley soup and homemade bread was the world’s best comfort food.  I remember how you would sit with me when I had migraines and change the cold cloth on my head.  I remember how you would tickle my back until your arm ached, if I was having trouble falling asleep.

I remember your Hallowe’en lunch menus.  Pumpkin seeds and raisins became witches’ fingernails and dried bats’ eyeballs.  I was always thoroughly disgusted!  When I was in grade one and having trouble leaving you to go to school, you bought a little whiteboard puzzle that fit in a canvas bag.  You would write me a message and I would put the puzzle together at lunchtime.  Reading your message helped me get through the day.  I remember the day you stayed home from work so that the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies would be wafting through the house when I got off the bus.

I remember how safe you made me feel.  I never felt like you were helpless.  You could handle anything that came your way.  Dad always said you were the most intelligent woman he had ever known.  He said you were a great driver and I loved our road trips.  Hours passed between us in the car.  My sister and I played cards in the back on the plywood table the hung over the front bench seat.  At night, I rode shotgun; down to Myrtle Beach, up to Smith’s Falls…anywhere.  My job was to chat with you and keep you awake.  We would sing Johnny Cash and Crystal Gayle at the top of our lungs.  It never occurred to us that we were three girls alone in a car, hours from home.  We never worried when we were with you.

I expect that you will guess which drive I remember most.  Yes mom, it is the afternoon you told me you knew a “short cut” home.  We had a little Chrysler Horizon hatchback and you decided to take it off-roading in the winter on an old logging road.  We were nearly at 70 degrees to the road but you remained as cool as a cucumber saying, “It’s alright honey!  We’re almost through!  Just HANG ON!”  You were fearless.

You are fearless.  You have fought so hard against any obstacle you have faced, be it personal, financial or physical.  You are a true winner and source of inspiration.  I read a quotation today that said, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising again each time we fall,” and I thought of you.  You have never let life keep you down, no matter what it throws your way.

It was you that found me my first home.  Even though it was badly in need of some TLC, we both saw the beauty in its bones.  You always love to see something transformed and we so often share a vision of what could be.   After an exhausting day of working on the house, you would arrive with Burger King and force me to stop and eat.

When we were looking to buying our last home, I always called you to come along.  I loved to have your opinion and share the experience of going through homes with you.  I remember that you have never been afraid of tools or of getting your hands dirty.  You always taught me that women are more than capable of handling a hammer or a drill and this has been a truly priceless gift in my own life.  I have loved to show you the things I have built, repaired or renovated, and to see the delight in your eyes.

Thank you for teaching me to sew and to cook.  Thanks also for always being there to help me with mending, putting in a zipper or creating a fabulous skirt for me with a matching dress for your granddaughter at the drop of a hat.  Thanks for being there to offer moral support and quietly answer questions when I am cooking for a crowd.  And at the end of the night when I thank you, you always say you didn’t do anything.  Yes, you did.

I love the cups of tea we have shared as much as the glasses of wine.  Those hours we have found to just share one another’s company have been such a source of comfort for me.  I love it when we have that synergy.

I will always giggle when I think of trips to the strawberry patch, and we left wearing more on our clothes than we had in our basket.  I don’t remember, but I’m sure that it was usually you who squished first!  I cherish the memories of trips through the woods, hunting for fiddleheads, and the memories of you working in the garden at the camp and at home.  And how many times did you suddenly pull the car over to retrieve some rare vegetation that you glimpsed in the woods?  In retrospect, I guess we are lucky we were never poisoned, but we kids sure came by our love of the outdoors honestly.

I love that, when life throws me a curve ball, as life often will, I usually come home to find a dinner or a pot of homemade soup in our fridge.  It’s not always easy to say the right thing, but you always seem to do the right things.  You are always thinking of others before yourself.  So many people in our city and, in fact, our world, have benefitted from your philanthropy.  More people than I probably will ever know.  I am very proud to call you my mom.

We have shared so much, Mom.  When I look back on our lives, I know we have had our struggles (as any mother and daughter will) but the word that comes to mind is “team.”  I remember the day we leaned together over your own mother –  my own beloved Gram – and wished her Godspeed as she took her last breath.  I heard you sob, “Mommy” and I learned that our mothers are forever our Mommies, no matter how old we are.  I am so honoured to have been there with you and I pray for the same honour when it is your time to go.  Let me hold your hand, like you held your mother’s, and send you to the next world with words of love singing in your ears.

Thank you for the incredible relationship you have with our daughter.  From the moment you first held her in your arms when she was just minutes old, there was a tangible connection between you.  This bond has only grown as the years have passed.  It is as though you have known one another for many lifetimes before this one.  Thank you for always being there for her and for being her best friend.  She cherishes you and she is so at ease when you are near.  That is such a joy to me.  I almost fear more for her than for myself when, together, we have to tell you goodbye for the last time.

But Mom, I am not ready to do that.  So I must ask you to please fight this fight too.  Don’t give up too soon.  I am not ready to let you go.

I am just not ready to lose my Mommy.  It likely won’t be tomorrow, next week, nor even next month, but it will be sooner than I would or will ever want it to be.  I know, when you go, people will immediately ask me how old you were.  And when I say 76, or 79, or 82, they will press their lips together, cast their eyes down, shrug slightly and nod once.  They will all be thinking that you have lived your life and that it is not really so young to die.

Why do people seem to gauge the tragedy of death by the age of the dead?

They don’t know that I catch your face in the mirror many times a day, with the turn of my head or a lift of my brow.  I glance down at my hands, mirror images of your own, and I am so often transported to my childhood; to times when I looked at your hands as they held me.  I hear your voice when I speak and the sound of your laughter echoes in mine.

They won’t feel the hole in my heart.  They don’t know how I will miss you so, each and every day, until the day I join you, wherever it is we go when we leave this place.  They don’t know that you are a million memories for me, each one as vibrant as the last.  They don’t know you and treasure you like I do and always will.

I love you mom.  Then, now, and forever.

On my way home from a walk with Charlotte, I ran into our neighbours, who have just adopted a gorgeous, Golden Retriever puppy they named Caleb.  They had just purchased a nifty plastic container to hold doggie kibble.  Since I had just mentioned to my husband how disgusting Charlotte’s kibble smells and how much I would love to get some kind of sealed container to hold the kibble, I found this quite the happy coincidence.

Our neighbours told me they had purchased the container at Home Sense, so directly after dinner, I started to head out the door to go and pick one up.  Our daughter asked if she could tag along and I figured since it isn’t a school night, it wouldn’t be a problem.

In Home Sense we quickly found what we were looking for when I stumbled across a wonderful sign for the wall.

BE, it said, in large bold black letters.

In a smaller font size, and descending from top to bottom, it read;

kind, creative, funny, loving, loyal, honest, genuine, fearless, generous, original, brave, grateful, unique, happy

I read it to our daughter.  “What’s loyal?” she asked.  I gave her a brief example involving friends and a situation that would require loyalty.  “Good description!” said a woman walking by me, pushing a baby boy in a stroller and holding the hand of a sweet girl about the age of 5, “Those things are so hard to describe to kids…I never know what to say.”

The little girl and our daughter struck up a conversation about our new puppy Charlotte.  The woman told me that her daughter would love a dog but she didn’t feel it was a good decision for them right now.  “Well,” I said to the little girl, “You have a beautiful baby brother…we wanted another baby, but we couldn’t seem to get one…so we settled on a puppy instead.”  The woman glanced at me and said, “Don’t give up.  We never thought I’d get pregnant again after we had her…we tried and tried with no luck.  Then, four days after my husband died, I found out I was pregnant with Ryan.”

“Your husband died?” I asked, “…and you found out you were pregnant?”

“Four days after he died.” she answered.  Her tone was absolutely matter-of-fact and her face showed little emotion.  “So don’t give up…you never know what life will bring you.”

“Wow…can I give you a hug?” I tentatively asked.

I reached my arms around her but I could tell she needed the hug to be brief, so I quickly embraced her and let go.  She said, “You know…ah…my girlfriends call me and complain about their husbands…and I get it…you have to deal with life – your life – how it is…and everybody’s reality is different.  But, you know, my girlfriend calls me to complain about her husband because he won’t pick up his underwear off the god-damned floor…”

There was a long pause while she looked at the floor.  In a smaller voice, she began again, “I still have a tub downstairs filled with my husband’s dirty clothes…because I can’t bring myself to wash them…I would scatter those clothes around my house for the next twenty years if we could only have him back.”   

Her husband had woken with a terrible headache and decided to stay home from work.  A couple of hours after they said their morning goodbyes, he died of a massive aneurism.  They had arrived home later on that day to find him there.  She told me her daughter saw things the day her husband died that she should never have seen. She said her daughter’s teacher took her aside after school today to say that she wouldn’t draw on white paper.  Her daughter told the teacher she hates white, because white is the colour of the foam that she saw coming out of her Daddy’s mouth.  

“Oh God in Heaven, I have no problems.” I stood thinking,  “I am so grateful.”

I was dumbfounded at her candour and stood listening, with tears brimming in my eyes.  The tears are still brimming even now.  I told her that she was unbelievably strong.  She told me that when she finally stops crying herself to sleep every night, then she will believe that she is strong.

I thanked her for the message and the lesson within.  I told her I needed it, more than she will ever know.  She told me not to forget it; life is short – enjoy every minute because…you just never know….

Marriage isn’t easy but I absolutely know that I do sweat the small stuff far too often.  Tonight I complained for close to a half hour about housecleaning and equitable division of chores.  I know with all certainty that I would clean bathrooms for the rest of my life rather than lose my husband.  I’m not suggesting by any means that we should bow down to others and compromise ourselves, but perhaps a glance from time to time at the bigger picture?  This woman was the first to say that we need to live in our own realities, and that I can’t live her life or her loss.  But if I lost my husband, would I consider the issue of bathroom cleaning important enough to waste a half an hour talking about it?  Not a chance.

Tonight I am sending out prayers and thanks to this extraordinary woman who had the courage to give me the gift of her story.  Why this woman chose to confide in me, I will never really know.  I believe in everyday angels, and I know this lady was one of them.  I believe that this message was divinely sent and meant for me to hear tonight.

I won’t ever forget it.