I joined the Sonoma County Threshold Choir thinking Threshold might play a small part when Mom died. What transpired during her dying process, wake, and memorial was not small. It had a profound impact. For one, I let go of some deep rooted beliefs. One in particular, was feeling I was on my own to figure things out. Instead, I was opened to a vast, loving, and responsive field of connection. For Mom’s friends and community members, it created new ways to think about death and gave them never-before-imagined possibilities for conscious living, dying, and grieving.
A few months after I joined the choir, Nothern California had many terrible fires. In October 2017, in Santa Rosa alone, 9000 structures burned, including 5000 homes. 40,000 people had to evacuate, including nearly everyone in Sonoma County and the Valley of the Moon Threshold Choirs. Our rehearsals were a time to share intimate details of what we were personally navigating, what we needed, ways we could support each other and ways we could support the trauma and grief-stricken community all around us. Hearing each other’s stories and singing was bonding and healing. Sharing intimately didn’t come as a result of the crisis; it was part of Sonoma County Threshold’s values of actively prioritizing self-care, and caring for each other as the foundation from which we did outreach to the community. Regular teachings and the practice of attuning to each other, as well as the song sister taking the reclining chair in the middle of the circle, and intimate sharing, happened at most rehearsals.
The fires and the residual toxicity had a big impact on my health. By January, I had to relinquish my apartment and leave the area. For 9 months I spent time between Northern and Southern California and Colorado trying to figure out why I was so sick. I was managing treatments alongside the care-taking and care-managing of my Mom. Whenever I could, I visited my Sonoma County home choir and other Threshold choirs, grateful to sing with song sisters, let the songs, singing and community anchor me during this intensely challenging time.
Two years after the fire, now settled in the East Bay Threshold Choir, I found myself again suffused by support leading up to and after my mom’s passing. This is what I share now.
It’s 3:30 in the morning. Nurse Israel was there on Tuesday. But was that last week or this week? Nurse Bob said she was over the worst of it. When was that? When was her fever? When did Jesus say she wasn’t getting up again? Where am I?
In this in-between state between dreaming and wakefulness, I’m trying to piece together what happened. Then I remember – I’m at Susan’s. Mom is gone. She died. That’s what happened. I’m awake. My heart feels heavy, too heavy, and my body feels like I’ve been beaten up. I try to go back to sleep.
Here’s my story.
After some unusual symptoms, Tuesday April 30, I take my 89 year old Mom to the Emergency Room. She has pneumonia. The doctor discharges her under hospice care.
The next morning hospice comes and says that the labored way she is breathing is putting a lot of stress on her heart. She could be non-responsive in a few days. Mom wakes late, is groggy, pale and disoriented. She looks like she has been run over by a cement truck. She meets the hospice intake nurse. After 15 minutes, she is sitting upright, gobbles down an entire sandwich and says, “I’m fine, what’s the fuss all about?”
My brother, David and Sister-in-law Michelle are flying out tomorrow. I tell Mom. Incredulous, she says, “Did you ask him to come?” “No Mom, all I did was tell him what the doctor said: You’ve got pneumonia, you could die in a few days, it could take weeks or you might recover.”
“Why did you tell him I’ve got pneumonia? That’s scary.”
Later, I leave. Not knowing what to do with myself, I fiddle on my cell phone. An email reminds me that the regular Sonoma County Threshold rehearsal is beginning in 15 minutes. I text Venus Meher, the co-director. She replies, “We’ve got you and your Mama. Come.” There are 14 women in a circle singing. Venus pauses everyone, stands up, walks over to me, warmly embraces me, and quietly asks if I want to speak or if I would like her to summarize. I speak. Venus waits for my signal that I’ve shared as much as I need and switches gears again leading songs.
I become the bedside.
First sitting with the others, where I join in singing, Venus turns her attention to me, picks songs that cradle me in tenderness, speak to me, allowing me to feel the turmoil inside and connect me with grace big enough to hold it all. The combination of Venus’s attunement, the songs, the song-sisters presence and thier attunement as well, melodies and harmonies hit an empathetic resonance.
Like a flood bursting a damn, I’m sobbing inconsolably. My song sisters don’t miss a beat. Two walk over to be physically near me. Everyone continues holding melody and harmonies with their responsive, loving presence. In this tender, exquisitely attuned, and very safe space, I share intimate details of my complex relationship with Mom. I ask if there are any songs about the complexity of mother daughter love. The number of heads nodding, lets me feel the empathetic resonance and resounding understanding and agreement there should be. But no. Then I go to the reclining chair. Venus slowly eases the chair into its reclining position and then covers me with a shawl. Everyone’s attention is gently focused on me. I feel thier attention as if it were a down comforter – soft, holding, keeping me warm and protected as they weave a relational-field/blessing-field/prayer-field with songs. The safety I feel releases my most subtle tendency to scan and check if everything is OK. All my attention is available to be with what is arising. More tears pour out of me. Eventually I settle. This layer of frozen grief has thawed. I’m no longer numb nor feel like crawling out of my skin.
The next several days are a blur with activity and visits – family and close friends come. Threshold Choir comes three times and for two of those times my brother and sister-in-law from Colorado are present. In that safe space held in song, the closeness I feel with both of them reaches an all time high. Mom tells me she loves the Threshold songs. Her peaceful, radiant presence speaks louder than her words.
I return to my studio.
Monday, I call Mom and find her alert and energetic. “Do you want to go out to get your nails polished tomorrow?” Yes! I know this tone. It’s Mom’s signature panache and zest for life. I make arrangements for someone to take her. I sleep well, wake up Tuesday and do my protocols. At 9:30 am I call Jesus, the senior care taker where she is living. How’s Mom? In a somber voice he says, “I don’t think she’s ever getting up again.”
I drive 78 miles an hour to Santa Rosa. I arrive and find Mom in bed with a high fever. Nurse Israel comes and confirms death is imminent. I’m sure she isn’t going to last till morning and I stay up most of the night singing. I feel calm knowing these are perfect prayers for Mom, gently guiding and holding her. Confident there couldnt be a more perfect way of being together, now. I feel reassured Mom is calm, at peace.
Wednesday morning comes. I’m surprised Mom is up and wants to eat, or even engage. In the evening we go outside.
Thursday morning, Mom’s breathing has slowed. I move in close, hold her and resume singing. At some point, I climb into her bed, crawl above her pillow and straddle her, embracing her with my legs, while cradling her head in my hands. I feel clear and confident. I feel the poignancy of sitting and singing in this birthing posture. I call Israel. He comes and while supporting the sanctity of the moment, eases some of her struggle to breathe. I climb out of bed and come bedside, so he can shift her. I wrap my right arm around her right shoulder and caress her chest with my left hand. Holding her tenderly in my arms, she passes.
Jerrigrace Lyons, a song sister for 17 years, comes over and helps me prepare Mom’s body. Jerrigrace started Final Passages 23 years ago when a close friend asked for a home funeral. She is having a major deja-vu. A few years ago, her mom died in the same room.
It is my wish to have a multi-day meditation vigil. Rev. Chris Bell is very supportive. Jerrigrace is stunned. This is the first time in this county a church is holding a multi day wake. We move her to the Unitarian Church where we set up a shrine with Mom’s body laid out in honor. The wake is interspersed with various chanting. Kate Munger comes with 15 song sisters from four different choirs. Again, Venus anchors.
Ensconced at church for the entire 4 days of the wake, I stay in vigil witnessing, attending to my internal ebb and flow of exhaustion, joy, gratitude, grief, relief, while sharing with dear freinds and community members who come to pay their respects. Members of the congregation feed me. Each meditation, meal, message written on the carboard casket, every expression of love, and story are a gift. This is time beyond time, surrounded by ones who know and love Mom and me. We grieve together.
Monday morning we take Marley’s body to the crematorium. When it is time to return for the cremation, I hit a wall. The cells in my body are in full revolt. Nothing wants to go; nothing wants to face the annihilation cremation represents. I feel like I’m killing her. I would have muscled my way back with the arid force of determination. Knowing that my Threshold song sisters are going to be there hold open a thread that keeps me connected to love. Venus is anchoring on her lunch break.
At Marley’s memorial Threshold again came en-masse. At different times, Melanie DeMore, Kate and Venus lead the congregation and choir. I could feel Marley rejoicing in this perfectly fitting life celebration. All the while feeling loved and supported, relieved to move between my roles as daughter, host and speaker and then seamlessly entering into the choir and sing, led by deeply loved and trusted song mothers and surrounded by cherished song sisters.
In hindsight, I can see that the values and practices of Sonoma County Threshold contributed to the overwhelming positive impact. Our rehearsals deliberately cultivated the skills of attunement, gentle loving attention focused on the song sister during our rehersal bedside, debreifs about actual bedsides and check-in’s that prioritized authenticity, depth and vulnerability. The safety these skills provided, made it possible for me to break open so fully and then speak candidly. This in turn seems to have accentuated the song sisters willingness to show up for many of the bedsides leading up to Mom’s passing and Threshold events during and after the wake. My own vulnerable sharing seemed to have further increased the level of attunement to me and my families needs.
For my brother and sister-in-law, this was the first death that from begining to end was a sacred passage after six traumatic deaths. The contrast was staggering. Friends and community members shared their gratitude. Fear was removed. Instead, death became a field of blessings; an opportunity to share love, be honest, reflect, connect and greive. What happened was something that they would want for themselves and their loved ones. For me the intimacy, overwhelming support and attunement filled me, let me make inroads into my heart broke open, feeling loved and just the right kind of care. Mom’s death has been an extraordinary, life changing event.
By grace of good fortune, we have video footage and many photos and sound recordings of the songs and chanting from the wake. If anyone has documentary film skills or knows someone who does, kindly contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org I would love to talk further. It would be a gift to share the transformative power of Threshold and conscious dying with others. A few of the photos of the last days of Mom’s life and this vigil of honor and grief can be seen here. Her obituary is here.
Awakening Truth Newsletter!