There are very few fairy-tale deaths, all the loved ones gathered around the bed in the home the elder lived in for decades, peacefully passing with a smile borne on the wings of the family singing and such. But there are some. Or at least some that come close.
And so this afternoon, my mother-in-law Pam Shultz passed to the other side after a complicated few years. It began around two and a half years ago, when she consciously announced that she was done, got friends and family to gather around and pack up the house as she prepared to go into hospice. Which they did and she did. And then she decided it wasn’t time after all and gave us another few years.
As I wrote about back in October, there was another joyful gathering, a kind of living memorial service in the form of an art show featuring her decades of rug hookings. Her first and last public art display, complete with friends and relations gathering from afar, moving speeches and tributes, fun gatherings in her room and me with a little music around the piano in the hall. She was well enough to get dressed (eloquently, I might add), get in the car and to the show, greet people and chat with them, sort through the various cards and letters people had written back in her room.
Soon after, she began to decline noticeably, perhaps some sense that this had been a beautiful cadence of closing chords in the long symphony of her life. And so my wife went out the week before Christmas and spent another six days with her. By now, she wasn’t getting out of bed, but was still lucid and could hold a decent conversation. And then phone calls every day, mostly the news of the day which she still seemed interested in hearing. And then the two brothers and her granddaughter Zoey and more friends gathered in her room a couple of weeks ago for her 90th birthday. I played Happy Birthday over the phone on the piano.
And then yesterday, my wife’s brother writing that there was another big drop and he thought that the time was near. So last night, I suggested to my wife that she call her on the phone and give her permission to let go. That her work here was done and we would miss her forever and remember her forever, but that she needn’t stay any more on account of us, with the body so clearly ready to give up its mortal ticking.
After school today, I drove five hours to Fresno (traffic!) and had the sensation that perhaps today was the day. I forgot to leave the secret cell phone on, so I got the news—well, you can imagine these days— from my daughter’s posting on Facebook. Immediately called my wife and she told me this:
“So I took your advice and called Mom and they put me on speaker phone and I told her it was okay to go and the nurse said she seemed to register the conversation. Then I called her back a half- hour later and told her that her granddaughter Kerala (our daughter) just found out that her second child will be a boy and that she now has a great grandson. Again, the nurse said there was a facial reaction that indicated the news was registered. And an hour later, she was gone.”
Death is probably one of the grandest mysteries we know, but the way my own Mom waited for me and my mother-in-law seemed to hear permission to leave and the way many wait until no one is in the room (both my Mom and Dad) to sneak out seems to indicate certain patterns, nothing reliable and absolutely true, but happening often enough to indicate that they’re worth thinking about.
A mere eight years ago, my children had four grandparents and now they have none. It was a great blessing to have them all for so long and a natural loss to let them go. This is not tragedy, this is not a passing sadness. This is great jubilation and great grief intertwined, the natural course of events, but always worthy of letting all the pain in and all the joy in. That's the work of all of us left behind.
As for you, Pam, I know you were lifted to the heavens on the wings of the love and admiration you received from your long life well-lived. I imagine you flying free of your encumbered body with its heavy oxygen tank and other devices that compromise dignity, ready to meet the next adventure that awaits you.
And I hope they have a glass of white wine poured and ready.