Her name was Avigail, born and raised in Israel, and immigrated to America when she was 39 years old. Annie called her Eema, which means “mother” in Hebrew.
The last 12 months have been a progressive decline of her health, which wasn’t strong to begin with. The last month has been a succession of falls, runs to the emergency room, therapies and a fast downturn.
Until finally last Thursday when doctors assessed, in agreement with Annie, that there was nothing left that could be done to improve the quality of her life. Surgeries and probing would’ve only given her the discomfort and added pain of the procedures. Annie was clear, “No more pain. No more hospitals. Let’s make whatever life she has left the best it can possibly be.”
No one specific cause, just a health condition in continuous deterioration. An avid smoker her entire life until the very end. The “Active Problem History” from her health insurance was a page long, with forty-four conditions listed, any ten of which could’ve killed a Navy Seal. In the end the most critical were compromised liver and lungs, and a heart that, albeit powerful, had a chronic disorder and a valve that should’ve been replaced five years ago.
So, on Thursday it was decided to bring her to her home, where she always said she wanted to die. She was in a quasi-unconscious condition, with moments of fleeting lucidity that lasted a few minutes. As they were wheeling her into her home on the gurney, she woke up, her eyes opened wide, she smiled and clapped, filled with joy.
Annie, myself and a caregiver moved into the apartment to be with her 24 hours a day, assisted by a medical service with which we coordinated daily medications and dosages to minimize her pain and discomfort. A nurse would come every other day to check her vitals and fine tune medications. She would always say, “Yes, she’s dying.”
And time always stopped for me when those words were spoken. Intellectually I was well aware of the situation. But, in my heart, the reality that we were there to prepare Eema for death felt huge. A huge responsibility and a huge privilege.
She couldn’t get up from bed anymore. She didn’t eat. She didn’t drink. All those things that we take for granted every day and we subconsciously associate with life were suddenly gone.
Each time I saw and was reminded of that, I was shaken. I was reminded of how grandiose life is. When I was watching Eema, when I was helping the caregiver to change her, when Annie and I were draining liquid overflowing from her lungs out of her throat, I kept thinking of how huge life is. I believe that “life is short” is an absolute lie. Life is short only if we sleep through it. Otherwise, life is huge, every second of it is eternal.
I kept thinking, “Is this really happening?” Then I would look at Eema fading away and, like looking into a “mirror of life,” I would feel how every little cell of our body hosts the entirety of life in which our mind exists and thrives. And how often we completely forget it.
Death is the one thing all people and beings have in common since the beginning of time. Yet it is the one thing that has the most fear, doubt, taboo, denial, confusion, anger, pain, secrecy, mystery associated with.
For me death is a crucial, intrinsic part of Life.
When my father killed himself one of the things that gave me devastating sorrow was how sudden and violent his departure was.
It was a uniquely special privilege to accompany Eema out of this life.
It was an honor to be with my wife during this time.
Annie informed everyone she could reach. Near and far friends and relatives came to visit her to say goodbye. She would smile to the people she loved. At times she would make sounds reminiscent of words.
She had moments of huge physical discomfort, and she kept reaching upwardly with improbable strength trying to get out of the bed. Or maybe she was trying to grab hold of the universe and pull herself out of her body. Those were the moments that required medication to help her stay calm and serene.
Annie and I kept looking at her. I kept looking at Annie, an indefatigable love conduit for her mother. Annie would look at me and say, “Where is she? Where is my Eema?”
For over five days we hardly ever slept. We camped on the couch and the chair around the hospital bed that was placed in the middle of the living room. She had a very distinctive smell. Not bad, just very specific (I can smell it now if I think about it). The sound of her labored breathing that shook her exhausted body with each inhale and exhale accompanied by the rhythmical oxygen machine was the score that Annie and I were constantly tuned into, asleep or awake.
Since Annie was a child she always said, “My nightmare is the day my mother dies.” Yet, Annie has been extraordinary as her mother’s health started to fade away. Instead of refusing to accept it, she got closer to her mother. She took charge, she helped her father and older brother deal and accept it. She coordinated all the practical, medical and social things necessary to make the last year of her Eema’s life the best it could be.
And Eema knew how fortunate she was to have Annie as her daughter.
As we were assisting Eema around her bed, Annie chanted, invited dear friends to sing for her mother, meditated. She laid in the hospital bed with her unconscious mother, talked to her incessantly, knowing that the sense of hearing is the last to go. She kept whispering to her “I love you, you can go now, everything’s good, go to the light…” She made sure that everyone that Eema loved came to visit her, she surrounded her with the pictures of the people Eema loved, she tuned the television to the shows she loved. She poured love and care constantly, relentlessly, for her beloved mother.
Until, Tuesday night Eema took her last breath and she passed. Six of us were there with her and it was an extraordinary moment of liberation. My hand was on her heart, Annie was caressing and kissing her face whispering words of love and relief and she closed her eyes. Her ninety year old husband, Joe, held her hand. Becky, the friend who originally introduced Eema to Joe. Melisa, Annie’s dear friend, and Magdalena, the caretaker. We were all filled with gratitude for her life, the end of suffering and the passage to the next stage of her existence.
Like Annie wrote, it was “profoundly beautiful.”
As we got busy doing the necessary practical things that follow the moment of death, I kept looking at Eema’s body. Without the heart pumping and the breath going in and out of her cells, it was as if her body became flat, I felt it 2-dimensional. It literally looked as if something essential had left.
Maybe that’s the answer. We are the breath. We are the breath within the breath. That’s where your Eema is, my love.
As we were driving home on Tuesday night Annie looked at me and said, “Now everything’s different.”
We accompanied Eema out of this life.
For this I’m forever different.
I’m forever more.
I’m forever grateful.
And this is Annie’s blog, “Dear Eema.”