SUE WESTWIND

Mental wellness, Earth-spiritual practice,  Ecosexuality, Poetry.

Sue Westwind writes from America’s prairie woodlands.

She was 96 and lucid to the end. Today I found another of those little containers she saved—it once held bath gels when I gave it to her as a child. Repurposed to hold her broken rosaries, there were many, garbled into a ball of bead and tarnished wire. I never guessed my mother would save every rosary she ever touched. She’d hidden the breadth of her Catholicism so well.

It took me three months to view photographs of her after she died. What does that say? That I was busy with my life? Or that the look in the mirror I glimpsed—no, lived through—as she stepped into the next world was hard to face.

A widow, my mother embedded into my brother’s life, a five-hour drive from me. It felt like they were all another world away, but I knew my brother and family had her wants and needs covered. For a long time. When I saw I could aid in giving her the death she hoped for, it was my turn to show up.

My mother was a liberal librarian and our dad a liberal college professor and that was the life my brothers and I were cultured in: existentialism, modernist literature, and proud support for civil rights. I know it pleases my conservative brother to be so strikingly unlike his family of origin, but sometimes he seems like a rebel without a cause.

Because God could have been a shared cause between our mother and him, if he would only have understood that, and reached past the mistrusting innuendoes of Protestant fundamentalism when it came to Catholics. Especially on the topic of women: if Mary was allowed honor, then Jesus was apparently dissed. Eileen, our mother, did her Catholic thing at her Catholic church, and extended family saw it as something a bit feral, or archaic, unremarkable as long as unexamined.

That is, until my brother’s wife divorced him after forty years of marriage to court her high-school sweetheart. Ever so quietly my brother quit going to church. Ever so slowly he and I began to coalesce, mostly over the facts of our mom’s increasing frailty. The divorce and ripping away of a daughter-in-law, more present as a daughter than I ever was, constituted the last sonic boom to rattle my mother’s heart. What would happen to her only living son? We all knew the depths of his feelings for the mother of his children. But even this blow my mom steeled herself to overcome, as the “ex” maneuvered gatherings where no one mentioned the divorce or the presence of the new man. Eileen too kept silent.

#

She had no warning of the fall. Suddenly, she was on her back, her pelvis shattered, her arms bruised. She dragged herself to the phone, and when first responders came, she couldn’t imagine it was the last time she’d see her apartment. The hospital transferred her to a skilled nursing facility in a few days.

Which was where I saw the apparition.

No one knew the path of her recovery yet. I’d spoken to her on the phone and she sounded bad. The pain was excruciating, she said. They weren’t giving her enough meds for it, they were understaffed and overworked and would leave her on a bed pan forever, she didn’t have her glasses, she couldn’t turn the TV up, and where were her hearing aids? Make it stop, fix it, I can’t stand it . . . this was a new Eileen. The people-pleaser, back-pedaling her needs for those of others, was gone. I drove south in a dither.

Maybe these laments primed me to see what I think I saw—I was braced for a shock anyway. But at this juncture we were only imagining a long, arduous recovery period, not the end, because that was all the facility would describe. So it was, at least to my conscious mind, a vision so shining, precious, and disturbing that presented itself, when I finally walked into her room.

My mother looked at me through and through with the eyes of someone I’d never met: the young woman she’d been before marriage and children. Late teens? Early twenties? I’d seen enough photographs but as old black-and-whites they didn’t elucidate a window to her soul. That day, from across the room, I saw her soul.

How to convey this two-second view of the one who peeked through? Utterly sweet, is what comes to mind. Genial, a little tentative by nature and not circumstance, unbroken, completely open to me. Writing this, I’m tempted to say it was the look she gave me when I first came out of her womb.

Then it was gone, and she commenced to running me ragged. I tracked down answers and items, made phone calls, tried to straighten her pillow correctly and failed until she barked, “I thought you said you once worked as a nurses’ aide?!” Dumbfounded, I couldn’t even reply that it was fifty years ago, a teenager’s first job in a home for the forgotten elderly.

I couldn’t please her, and that was bringing me down. Ditto that this place she was in seemed on overwhelm: the pandemic’s toll was starkly visible, and I found it hard to be a hard ass to the staff who were trying so hard. Three hours later, I stumbled to my car, exhausted.

#

Sweet. That was how most people described my mom’s disposition. Days after her death I kept hearing it and I kept responding silently: she wasn’t always sweet to me, the only daughter, bracketed by boys. By the time she reached hospice her one regret in life was the way she’d treated her own mother, in a family where she too was the only female, alternately cherished and denigrated. “I was so mean to her,” she cried. I assured her my long-dead Granny wasn’t holding teenage rebellion against her. I didn’t say, “The way you held it against me all my life.”

Mirroring is a psychological term with layers to it. The AP Dictionary of Psychology defines Mirror Technique as “the conscious use of active listening by the therapist in psychotherapy, accompanied by reflection of the client’s affect and body language in order to stimulate a sense of empathy and to further the development of the therapeutic alliance.” It’s a tall order for a parent to coordinate feelings and body posture to such a specific goal, but there lie a few concepts that might have helped our relationship.

Listening. Reflection. Empathy.

And the biggie: alliance. I wonder if my mother felt she lost her mother as an ally when puberty turned sweet Eileen headstrong. For me, becoming a hippie that ran away from home was never forgiven, though we’d tried to make amends. She carried her grudge forward into the political arena when her state’s ballot held a referendum on medical marijuana, and she, a staunch liberal, voted against it.

Yet whenever I needed financial assistance my mother and father always stepped up—from my years as an early-married to decades later when my husband’s stroke decimated our income. It took me a long time to develop the maturity to grasp the worth of this gesture, beyond a childish sense of entitlement.

But did she ever really see me? Would she, in her dying, try now?

#

Rushed back to the hospital when her blood pressure plummeted and stabilized and plummeted again, it became clear she was never returning to her friends and homey nook. Every time she ate, it hurt. The nurses kept urging one more bite, and people-pleaser that she was, she would nibble, then later say to me, “It hurts when I eat, they never come when I call, why am I not dead yet?”

It was agony for me to listen, reflect, and empathize. But my brother couldn’t do it, and I didn’t begrudge him that. His adult sons were also offline for any soulful conversation with her. Yes, this is the male training to be stoic and not speak of feelings. The only granddaughter was overtaxed with four young children of her own. It was also true that they’d been the ones there over so many years to attend to Eileen’s needs, to give her the cushion of real family. They couldn’t imagine life without her as the matriarch in their orbit, and initially we got sideways over the issue of hospice. But I’m getting ahead of my story. I want to speak of Father Don.

#

The Catholic hospital was rich with iconography of family, Jesus-Mary-Joseph, and the Divine Feminine as Jesus’ Mom was prominent. No stern depictions of Yahweh thrusting his white beard along the hallways. I expected to have bad Catholic-school flashbacks but somehow the friezes and statues were reassuring, healing imagery. I was to find out just how deep my mother’s Catholicism went the day I searched for a solution to her looming problem.

Having fully grasped that her next step was a nursing home, she asked, “am I just going to spend years in bed until I die?” It slayed me to hear this, as she went on to evoke one of her aunts who met this exact same fate.

It dawned that my mother was holding up a mirror for me at that moment. I could choose to see myself, because without her overt knowledge she was asking me to be who I was, for once. That being, in part, a person who’d gone mindfully through the painful death of a spouse, delved into the topic of grief, and had less of the common fear of death. Despite our differences in other matters, I flat-out couldn’t stand to see her raw suffering. Could I do anything about it?

It was a grueling time years ago as my husband died over the course of a week in a hospital, due to his fifth stroke. It changed me from the inside out into a person who may not choose to hobnob with the sick, suffering, and dying, but could navigate their world. So I asked the nurses in the simplest layperson’s terms possible, about what would happen if she refused to eat. They told me about “comfort care.”

In the case of my husband, the medical staff had urged it, naming it “palliative” care—the end of the line where the patient is made comfortable, but no more intervention or heroic efforts to sustain life ensue. My mother was still lucid as the day she fell, so she had to be the one to authorize her own switch to this type of care. I relayed the conversation with the nurses, and she said, “my religion won’t allow it.” I begged to differ, but I wasn’t Catholic. I had to find an authority.

Why wasn’t a priest visiting my mom regularly anyway? Some glitch in operations; plus, she said that when they dropped in, she couldn’t understand their foreign accents. She had only one hearing aid left, and it pained me to have to use a xenophobic rationale to get my mom the right point-man, but I did it. I explained her needs to the religious office and asked if she could see a someone whose words she could hear and process.

Father Don was an imposing figure because he was so big, but also so boyish. Wearing suspenders and a wild beard, he called up that word again: sweet. His heart filled the room, and he didn’t hide the irritation his beeping pager caused while trying to be present to us. When he realized Eileen’s serious request at hand, he turned the damn thing off.

I told him in as few words possible that my mother was having ethical difficulties with the concept of comfort care, even as she longed for it. He took it from there. Once again, I became a silent watcher of faces.

I recalled being pre-K and making my parents roar with laughter when after one Sunday mass I said, “God wore green today.” I’d seen somebody at the front of the church with all eyes trained on him, moving to and fro in shining emerald vestments. My parents explained to their little girl what a priest was, and why his clothes changed colors. I stood corrected and frankly it didn’t disappoint me he was just a man, since I was a mite afraid of the He’s Everywhere But I Can’t See Him kind of God. Now, I won’t say that in my mother’s hospital room, with the priestly intermediary, I saw the Divine.

But she did.

What I saw was my mother looking to Father Don as if he were her heavenly Father, Judge, and Comforter–and while her total obedience to his word unnerved me, the whole experience healed another piece of my Catholic-girl trauma. The moment was as startling as the apparition of her younger self: this woman who believed so strongly in an emissary of her God that her trust was total. Her decisions about her death hung in the balance, and whatever the priest said (speaking for Him) would be Law.

How beautifully he explained that God would understand, and never judge her, should she choose the path under consideration, namely, the end of food and drink so she could leave her pained body for good. When she said, “I’ve wanted this for such a long time,” he cinched the deal by giving her a portion of Last Rites. My strong mother, in charge of her death. Father Don held her hand and mine as he prayed, and I gathered more gratitude than outsider-status though I still struggled with what just happened.

What did, exactly? She asked an expert in her religion for his opinion. Or did she bow as a subordinate to an authorized representative from a faith that wouldn’t even ordain women? Whichever—it worked. Her peace unfolded from there.

My brother and family, Southern Baptists, mulled the idea of a conscious death. Who was she to plot her course? It was up to God to decide when we die, they argued. I begged them to talk to Father Don. Then the hospital balked at providing hospice: what’s her terminal diagnosis, they whined, she doesn’t have cancer or the like!

But one of her doctors saw the big picture and made things right. I don’t remember your name, dear healer, but thank you for letting me know you brought your weight to bear. In time, my brother and his sons understood the matriarch’s wishes were reasonable and their attachment to her transformed dogma into love.

#

My mother left this world in a gorgeous, spacious hospice-haven that felt like a temple, with warm wood walls and marble statues of Mary the Divine Mother. The staff had time coupled with patience and clearly loved their work. I made trips back home through the course of this saga and spent one night in the room adjoining hers. But by the time she gained this last bed Eileen was already drifting afar. She saw me but could not speak; then she couldn’t open her eyes for many days. A nurse told me that quite a few persons prefer to die without the family there.

My brother couldn’t stomach this, and I’m sure she didn’t mind all the family coming to attend her, but I was reading books about spiritual guides and departed relatives who were helping, bedside, at this point. To me it made sense. I’d done my part and did it gladly: it was time to get a move on back to the living. Eileen’s strong heart gave it up on a warm October afternoon.

Then the Celebration of Life. She’d wanted a funeral mass in the Church and she got it, family Protestants attending respectfully and the oldest grandson adding his voice to the liturgy. But we opted to fill my brother’s living room instead of a funeral home’s parlor in order to say our collective goodbye. It was a tremendous speak-out and photo-sharing that heaped some closure on all. I spent one last night at my brother’s, and in the morning something strange but familiar occurred. I was dizzy, just for a few seconds, upon awaking. The room spun then righted itself.

#

It had been long time. Since my husband’s death, in fact—four years since I’d had an attack of what was diagnosed as Meniere’s Disease, an inner ear disorder that causes vertigo. Nor was that the first time; it popped up every few years. I left my brother’s house after our mother’s final send-off and proceeded to endure weeks of it, the worst stint ever.

This was the biggest mirror my mother constellated for me. Her experience, the way she fell and never got upright again, fostered me to look through a glass darkly at my future. It freaked me out: was I seeing how I was going to die? When I had the dizzies, balance was impossible and I had to sit back down.

I’d inherited the ear thing from her. She struggled with her balance only in her elder years but living until age 96 made that a long season. When my vertigo hit, I used to be able to stare right through it—I was in control, it was no big deal. But not this time. Eventually I adapted, avoiding trigger positions, salty foods, but there it was. A life out of balance.

Why, at age 68, didn’t I believe I was currently a candidate for a dangerous fall? I told myself about what great physical shape I was in, not even retired yet, with a diet, exercise and supplement regimen that wouldn’t fail me. I wasn’t even close to my mom’s level of fragility, and I was better off than many people my age.

Then I pondered getting dizzy and slipping off an embankment (avid hiker) or lurching into a piece of furniture that could knock me unconscious. I began to collect many ways my demise could happen, wondering if I’d be following my mom into the spirit world sooner rather than later.

If stressors were the trigger, it had been a helluva year. My disabled daughter was in a group home where she was being abused; due to Covid and the direct-support worker shortage, it took me eight months to get her out of there. I’d started a new relationship and we were about to move in together. My mother fell, declined, died.

Dizzy but determined, stubbornness prevailed: I was going to figure out the remedy myself and set up many experiments with supplements and herbs. I knew the doctors would give me a drug and tell me again there is no cure for Meniere’s.

Each time I thought I’d found the ticket to remission, the vertigo would return the next day. Finally, something started to have an effect, or maybe the course of it wound down, or the stress eased. Then I saw a PDF on my doctor’s website about vertigo that covered new ground, and I booked an appointment.

Long story short, I don’t have Meniere’s Disease. I have a benign disorder where calcium crystals break off in the inner ear and get lodged where they don’t belong. The cure is a simple course of exercises that involve turning one’s head this way and that way, holding the position for thirty seconds each time. That’s all. The head-twisting postures have banished any

recurrence since.

A million questions fly out of Pandora’s box. What was the point of this look into my future that doesn’t have to be? Was I paying a toll for living on after what Eileen endured to die—but wait, hadn’t I already done a lot for my mom in her final days? Used to mining my background in natural health, had I met a puzzle unsolvable, towing a lesson about inevitability? Or was my mother trying to tell me something from the next world, how to get back in balance?

Why wasn’t she ever taught the exercises? With her severe arthritis, lack of appetite and widow’s depression, would it have helped? For many a year, in better days health-wise she would tell me, “I wake up in the morning and wonder why I’m still here.” I’m not writing this essay to justify helping her die, for I saw the pure longing when she told Father Don, I’ve wanted this for so long.

Who can stand to see a parent suffer? They become Everyman/Woman, caught in a vice of pain so sweeping that to witness it dwarfs the sky, our jobs, the news, or tomorrow. Listening in the aftermath of her death to tales of how Sweet a person she was, I was conscious that women can be different animals with their daughters, quite possibly due to patriarchy—where a woman must hand off the reins into a bad situation, a world run by men who look askance at equality. Yet still one longs for the mother to listen, to empathize, to be an ally.

I tried at her deathbed to sum up the chronic gap between our souls: “I feel that you never understood my spirituality.” She was frank in her reply: “No, I don’t.” I studied the look on her face as I tried to bridge ideas, explaining how the interest in the female divine equated to her love for Mary, and how her appreciation for nature blossomed in me to embrace the outdoors as my church. But this was after Father Don, when she felt she was on her way to heaven, all sins forgiven.

She listened politely, but she was Catholic. In retrospect, I believe she thought I was a dabbler in New Age bric-a-brac and her religion was wider, deeper, more certain, and about to welcome her in. I almost envied her conviction, so clearly a dispenser of peace.

The mother who seemed to wish for a different daughter than me—someone who didn’t challenge her, didn’t emote so freely, didn’t make waves in the world but foremost, didn’t buy into the family ways of fear, obedience, and escapism—would die at least knowing I loved her. Because the truism is that death put the scuffles into perspective.

I love that she carried me to life and pushed me into this maze of multi-layered lessons that must be learned repeatedly. Maybe she gets it now: that I had to go off on such oddball tangents in order to be the one to midwife her death. I didn’t do the best job of it, but every step I took was for her. I’m grateful that she allowed me to put this chapter—where we worked together—next to the ones where we didn’t communicate. It was a meaningful end to our story.

Sail on, Eileen Marie Elkins, the girl with the wavy red hair.


Sue Westwind

Writer interested in the earthspiritual and eco-erotic, who seeks to learn and share ways we can solve our mental health crisis through alternatives to medication that heal mind, body, and spirit.

7 Comments

Sue Westwind · October 23, 2022 at 11:40 am

What a healing thing it is to write of the death of a parent. It took me a year, but I got it all out.

Bruce Blank · October 23, 2022 at 1:05 pm

As if an omen from a crow, on the day you posted this article I had thoughtfully gone through a list of books I wanted to pass onto you. The book fell off a pile I had assembled haphazardly, like one of those tarot cards that just ‘happens’ to fly out. The book is Starhawk’s “The Pagan Book of Living and Dying’. I had to leave my Mother with my sister, two women wronged by the men in their lives – how bitter their last recollections and how distant they were from my own offerings. I reached out by spell and photo, by sharing stories and recalling how broken our family was. Like your mother, I never understood the attachment to such old institutions such as the Catholic (in your case) or Episcopalian (in my case) Church except that neither asked it’s disciples to question the disciplines involved. I appreciate your deeper examination on what it means to assist a parent into Death’s fold – and where or how a final acceptance arrives.

    Sue Westwind · November 14, 2022 at 2:31 pm

    Thank you for this comment. You’ve had a hard road with the women you mention, and especially lately with your sister. One thing that is no small thing at all is that you were there for them when they called on you. That’s worth a lot, be proud.

Russell Martin · October 24, 2022 at 11:59 am

This is a beautiful piece, Sue.

    Sue Westwind · November 14, 2022 at 2:26 pm

    You are so kind to say so. I hope it gave some solace on your journey too.

mculloughgirl · January 20, 2023 at 3:23 pm

This emotional story struck familiar chords with me. My relationship with my mother was a roller coaster of highs and lows. I never knew with which of her seemingly myriad personalities I would be interacting. As you did, I heard many people describe my mother as “sweet” after her death. It led me to consider why that aspect of her demeanor was so infrequently on display with me.

Also like you, I felt as if my mother’s difficult and too drawn-out path toward death put our relationship in a different place. Unlike your mother, my mom was tragically not lucid to the end. She was in a state of first dementia and then unconscious stasis for far too long, and it made our goodbye incredibly difficult and sad.

But I did finally summon the courage to verbalize to the lingering spirit still hovering over the poor, tortured, comatose vessel of Mom’s body that it was at last okay to let go her determined hold on this life. It was okay to leave behind the adult children she had tried so fiercely to protect in the only ways she knew how. It was okay to let her spirit reunite with Dad, who she loved more than anyone. She died the next day, which was the first day in weeks that I had NOT gone to her hospital bed to see and speak to her.

Unlike you, for a long time I felt I had somehow let Mom down by not being there when she passed to the next plane. The point of my story is that your words helped reinforce my eventual realization that Mom’s and my goodbye was just as it had to be. I no longer see my absence at the moment Mom died as a failure. Instead, I think I gave her permission to slip away, which I imagine she had been longing to do for quite some time.

After Mom’s death, and after letting go of guilt at not bearing witness to it, I am able to give her, and myself, some grace. We didn’t have a perfect relationship, but we loved one another, just as you and your mother did.

I’m happy that you had this opportunity to give grace to your mom while she was still able to recognize it. You did a selfless and courageous thing by letting go of your own ideas and putting your mother first. I applaud you for recognizing what Eileen needed and setting about getting that for her. And I admire you for helping your brother and his family understand your mom’s choice for what it meant to her. You did a service to your mom, and undoubtedly that was good for you as well.

Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts. It helped me, too.

    Sue Westwind · January 21, 2023 at 4:56 pm

    Dear one, this is so beautifully said. I’m glad we can share hearts and minds about our mothers. Always validating for me to hear that others can relate, for as you detail so well, one can feel alone during another’s dying and wonder if your moves are right or make a difference. Thank you so much for your considerate reading and comments.

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