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Death Experiences

We moved to Central Falls; named after a waterfall in the Blackstone River, 1.5 square miles, the

most densely populated city in the nation, home to the textile mills of the 18th century, known as old mill

town. Living in a white hobbit cottage, with a chain link fence around our small grassy yard, looking

like a normal home; trying to keep death at bay. The neighbor’s trestle grapevine canopy shaded her

picnic table, creating a scene of serenity and peace; comforting us by sharing yummy treats, of stuffed

grape leaves, and fresh ripe fruit from her trees.  Always playing with our cousins, who lived up the hill

from us; having snowball fights, creating snow tunnels through snowdrifts on the sidewalk, and sliding

down the hill on linoleum, the hula-hoop craze, the slinky that goes down stairs, Easter egg hunts, and

family celebrations .Everywhere we walked was within a half-mile radius of our home; the place of

bittersweet memories and feelings that ran like melted chocolate.

 

 

Father was an amazing and a positive person, no matter how difficult things were; propelling the

wheel chair through the 3 small rooms, approaching me when I was withdraw, saying, “I want you to be

able to tell me anything”, having surgery on his paralyzed hands then learning to repair watches; when

just two years before, he was completely paralyzed and unable to do anything for himself. I watched a

man who never gave up, making me aware of my own difficulty sticking with things I found hard,

giving me encouragement to push on through obstacles, admiring him and following his example. We

were told father was very ill and would die, and so we moved here so that mother would have her three

sisters around for support.

 

 

This is the place where death came knocking; getting my attention, seeing it through the eyes

of a child 8 years old. On that dreadfully anticipated day, a week before thanksgiving, my sister and I

were walking home from school, pressing our fantasizing faces against the shop display windows in the

old brick buildings on Main street, suddenly hearing the sirens screaming, announcing the impending

demise of our father, we run through the thick gluey air around us, feeling we can’t get home fast

enough. As we turn the corner, our neighborhood has turned chaotic, the ambulance speeds past us,

straining to see in, we freeze in place, gasping for air, struggling to break free of our paralyzing fear, we

run towards the small cottage surrounded by menacing triple-decker buildings: reaching home, our worst

fears come to life, and an overpowering cloud of grief descends down upon us.

 

 

Being in the back seat of the car give me a drive-in theater view; we pull into the Charles

Chapin hospital’s drive-up, large bay view window, keeping the polio monster away. My vision alters,

the scene becomes surreal; we are at a drive-in movie, father is a  TV. actor, lying on a metal table,

surrounded by masked people all in white, closing the curtain on his last act, his final curtain call.

Mother returns and tell us “your father is dead”. We hold onto each other crying, not fully gasping her

meaning, just knowing he was gone from us forever.

 

 

Here I’d like to consider the word dead; it is a four-letter word, considered obscene, not easily

talked about, defined as the end of life, whose meaning brings fear, dread, loss, grief, anger, disbelief

denial, anguish, and maybe even acceptance, of the loss of a loved one, or when facing ones death. Since

my first contact with the grim reaper back in 1957, I was drawn by the gravity of the situation, always

aware when the angel of death was just around the corner, learning not to hide from it.

 

 

I was an adult, when my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, and given the death sentence.

While death was knocking at the door, we were together in the 2nd story yellow sears siding house,

where her mother had stared death in the face; spending our days sharing our life stories, determined to

leave no unfinished business,  opening up and connecting with each other,  hearing her say “ I know my

daughter as an adult”; learning the importance of closure. I supported myself working at RI hospice,

caring for the dying and their love ones; being the on call nurse from 5pm to 8am, covering the state of

Rhode Island, in the deep dark nights of the soul, going to their homes, sitting with them while they

experienced the valley of death, and staying with the family till the body was taken to the mortuary.

Learning to be with those who are dying, in an open supportive way, was what I experienced that year.

 

 

I was a hospice nurse for 10 years after the loss of mother, working with a team, we were a

family who gave excellent care and learning to enjoy life and not take things for granted. Dying is the

state leading up to the place called Death, an area shrouded in mystery. Death comes in all shades and

colors; good deaths for those who have lived a loving life, transformational deaths for those who have

lead exceptionally unselfish aware lives, peaceful deaths for those who are ready, and bad painful deaths

for those not able to let go; learning we die the way we live.  We can be holding on to attachments, not

being able to let go! Our resistance, pain, agitation and anger can mobilize energy, temporarily. During

the final 36 hours, it is not uncommon for the dying to rally and have lots of energy to do things they

have not done in awhile; eat a large meal, wake up and say goodbye, get out of bed, walk outside; then

suddenly pass on; while the family are in shock, having believed that they had gotten better. There may

be unfinished business; waiting for someone to visit, for someone to give permission to die, to say that

its OK, that everyone will be OK, and will miss them. There is a thin curtain between reality and altered

states of consciousness during the dying process; they may describe seeing those who have gone before

them, coming to assist them through the transition.  Some eventually get so exhausted that death creep in

and steals them away, not able to keep death at bay. Death is not at our beck and call.

 

 

Today I interact with Alaskan pioneers, who live well beyond their 90s, asking, “why am I still

here?” wondering, “what use am I?”. They are strong people, having a great ability to adapt to the harsh

environment, who live with diseases and illnesses that kill others, with a strong life force that is slowly

evaporating into the ethers, while they share with us, their final gifts of wisdom, acceptance and love. Is

it so difficult for us to just sit with them, listen to their stories, and enjoying them, before death comes

and takes them away?