Singing Mamacita Across the Threshold
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.
It’s Monday, April 29. Jesus calls to tell me that Mom had a fall. She got tangled up between the handrail and the mattress. She was okay, though tired and having a hard time walking. Later, I speak with Anna, another caregiver who I love and trust deeply, who confirms that she is okay. I talk with Mom, and her labored breathing and readiness to get off the phone in 3 minutes, as opposed to our regular 30-40 minutes, is concerning. I call her doctor.
Tuesday, April 30: I wake early in the morning and do my protocols – double liver flushes followed by far infrared sauna to clear out the toxicity from the Bee Venom Therapy I’m using to treat late stage Lyme disease. In the middle of my protocols I have an insight – I have to get Mom on hospice. At 10:00 am I speak to the doctors who say that from the obscure symptoms she has been having I need to take her into the Emergency Room. I call Jesus and ask him to prepare Mom so I can take her to the ER. I pack, not knowing how long I’ll be away. On the freeway, I drive 78 miles an hour from my home in Piedmont to Santa Rosa. It usually takes 1.5 hours. I arrive in an hour. Mom is in a foul mood.
After driving in stoney silence, I say something: “Mom that’s the first time you’ve smiled in 20 minutes.” She says, “if you want me to smile don’t take me to the emergency room!” I tell her, “I’m gonna see if I can arrange it so this is the last time you have to go to the emergency room.” “That would be great,” she replies.
The attending physician orders lab tests and an x-ray. The lab tests are all clear. The x-ray comes back with a vague sign of pneumonia. I ask about mom’s prognosis: “She could go in a couple days, or it could be weeks, or she could recover.” Mom was listening to this conversation, totally nonplussed. When the social worker comes to discuss hospice, Mom seems okay, particularly with the prospect she won’t have to go back to the ER again. We discharge from the hospital and Mom says, “Let’s go out to dinner!
We go to Goji’s Kitchen, both very happy to be in a familiar place.
Mom eats everything on her plate and savors her glass of wine. Her fortune cookie says, “A gracious host will receive you soon.” My cookie doesn’t have a fortune in it. There is a vividness to the evening – the mood, a sense of suspended time, the colors of the table and walls, the sound of water trickling down the water feature next to us are all explicit. The messages are clear.
Wednesday, May 1, at Oak Meadow Lodge, where Mom has been living these past 6 months, I walk in and the staff are in tears. This is a complete surprise. “What did I miss?,” says Jesus. He is the senior caregiver/manager. He tracks the minutia of detail as a way of caring deeply about his residents. The warmth he exudes caring for each resident is as if they are family.
There are no obvious signs Mom is so sick. The cognitive dissonance between the level of vitality she exudes and what the doctors are saying are hard to reconcile. Everyone is in shock.
Hospice shows up, talks with me, and assess Mom. The labored way she is breathing is putting a lot of stress on her heart. She could be non responsive in a few days. The first time Mom wakes that day is 2:30 pm, when she is ordinarily up at 10 am.. She’s 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 decide to fly out. They are coming tomorrow, Thursday, 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, or it could take weeks and you might recover.”
“Why did you tell him I’ve got pneumonia? That’s scary.”
I leave Mom at Oak Meadow and return to Tricia’s house, my second home in Santa Rosa. Not knowing what to do with myself, I fiddle on my cell phone. An email reminds me that there’s the regular Threshold Choir rehearsal beginning in 15 minutes. I text Venus, the director, tell her what’s going on and that I’m coming. She replies, “We’ve got you and your Mama. Come.” There are 14 women in a circle singing. Venus pauses, stands up and embraces me, and invites me to share. I speak. Venus waits for my signal that I’ve shared as much as I need and switches gears inviting the women to resume singing.
Threshold was started 19 years ago by Kate Munger based upon her experience of singing to a dying friend. Now there are over 200 Threshold chapters and 2,000 choir members worldwide. It is a free service that is offered upon request.
I have been singing with this choir for nearly 2 years. Venus and many song sisters know me.
Venus picks songs that cradle me in tenderness, speak to me, allow me to feel the turmoil inside and connect me with with grace – love suffusing that which knows and witnesses, but doesn’t cling or dismiss. The combination of Venus’s attunement, the songs, the sisters presence, 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, continue holding melody and harmony while bringing forward their responsive, loving presence. After many tears, more sharing and many songs, eventually I settle.
The next several days are a blur with activity and visits – close friends come, the Threshold Choir sings with mom three times, and Rev. Christopher Bell, the UU minister, visits twice. Mom is delighted to have my brother David and Michelle from Colorado. I feel their presence and support as a huge gift to me too. Mom is happy with friends around, and loves the Threshold songs. Mom insists on going out to dinner both Friday and Saturday night. Why on earth not? We relish it.
Sunday, May 5. I return to my studio in Piedmont. On Monday May 6, 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. How’s Mom? In a somber voice Jesus says, “I don’t think she’s ever getting up again.”
Once 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 the night. I’m up singing threshold songs, Jewish songs, Mantras. I sleep less than 3 hours.
At 5:30 in the morning on Wednesday, May 8, Mom is up and needs to use the toilet. Several more trips and half a bowl of strawberries later, with several friends lined up to visit, I head over to Susan’s to do my protocols. Evening time, and Mom is alert and wants to go outside. I take her.
She looks at me, “You must be crazy with grief.” Mom, you were 16 when your Mom died and everyone told you not to cry. I’m not 16 and no one is telling me not to cry. We know you are dying. We’re going to miss you terribly. But we’ll be OK. It’s not fun for you anymore. It’s time now for you to go.
When I wake Thursday morning, its 7am. Mom’s breathing has slowed. I move over 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 with masterful innocuous grace, completely understanding and supporting the sanctity of the moment, eases some of her struggle to breathe. He wants to shift her so that she is higher up. I climb out of bed and come to the bedside, where 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 comes over and helps me prepare Mom’s body. Even though I see her last breath, I keep waiting for her to start breathing again. It isn’t until we prepare her body and dress her that it sinks in. This is a body. Mom’s gone. She isn’t going to start breathing again.
Jerrigrace Lyons started Final Passages 23 years ago when a close friend asked for a home funeral. She has helped many families take care of their loved ones naturally and gracefully.
Rev. Chris is very supportive. We move her to the Unitarian Church where we set up a shrine with Mom’s body laid out in honor. It is my wish to have a multi-day meditation vigil. Jerrigrace says that this is the first time she knows of a church holding a multi-day wake.
Thursday May 9. The day Mom passes. The regular Thursday night meditation group meet along with the Dhammadharini Bhikkhunis who bring their depth of presence. We do traditional funeral chanting. Friday morning, the ongoing meditation group that I started when I lived in Santa Rosa comes. Friday night the Bhikkhunis return with more meditation and chanting. Early Saturday afternoon City Zen members gather for sutra readings and chanting. Late Saturday afternoon Threshold choir returns en masse, with 15 song sisters from 4 different choirs including Kate Munger, the founder. Again, Venus picks the songs and leads the choir. Ani Palmo offers Tibetan Buddhist prayers. Sunday, at the Mother’s Day sermon Reverend Chris speaks of Marley. The congregation is invited next door to sing UU songs around her.
The cardboard casket is in the back of the room. Nearby are art materials for visitors to decorate her casket. By Sunday evening, the outside and inside are covered in messages, pictures, paper flowers, and hand prints.
Ensconced at church, I stay in vigil witnessing, attending to my internal ebb and flow of exhaustion, joy, gratitude, greif, relief, seeing friends and sharing with many who come to pay their respects. Members of the congregation feed me. Each minute of meditation, meal, message of love, and story are a gift; to have time surrounded by ones who knew and loved Mom and me. We grieve together.
Sunday afternoon, I hear Mom’s voice in my head, “It’s enough already. I’m dead. Go enjoy life!” Occidental Choir is performing in the sanctuary next door. I go and enjoy listening.
Monday early morning we take Marley’s body to the crematorium. The cremation is due to begin at 1:30. When it is time to return to the crematorium, 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. Knowing that my Threshold song sisters are going to be there helps add some positive motivation. I would have muscled my way back with the arid force of determination. My song sisters and friends hold open a thread that keeps me connected to love.
Outside, we are in a circle next to a tree, listening to crickets, water from the sprinkler, a bee flies right between us, a hummingbird buzzes us. With nature holding us, once again we sing Mom over the threshold. My song sisters hold, bathe, and immerse me in song until my resistance softens.
Tuesday morning I return to the crematorium with Susan. Anthony opens the oven door and I feel the 500 degree heat as I look inside. I pause, take in what I see inside the oven. I am calm and grounded. I see a skeleton visible in the ashes. I choose a few bones and return later to get the ashes after Anthony pulverizes the remains.
Leaving Susan’s house Friday is hard. I feel resistance as if I’m walking through molasses, packing my things, getting in the car and driving home. I feel apprehensive returning to my studio alone.
Mom died when she was 89, something my brother and I have been preparing for for many years. Anticipatory grief still doesn’t prepare the DNA, and the cells for this rewiring. I lean into the groundlessness and lack of mooring that Mamacita’s departure heralds and let the visceral nature of this journey unfold and guide me, hold me as I live into, now what?
Photos of the last days of Mom’s life and this vigil of honor and grief can be seen here.
Her obituary is here: http://awakeningtruth.org/blog/marley-obit
I’m grateful for each and every one of you, the family units, close friends, and communities that have been part of this process. Your love, care, presence, songs, chanting, prayers, meditation, thoughts of good will, messages and gestures of kindness near and far, for all that holds Mom, me, my brother and family and this process with exquisite grace.
With tenderness as we are all just walking each other home,
A celebration of life will be held on July 13 from 1-3 PM at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Santa Rosa, 547 Mendocino Ave, Santa Rosa. In lieu of flowers a donation may be made to Marley Fein’s Memorial Fund promoting health and empowerment to women and children. The first recipient will be Elder Woman refugees in Uganda who Marley knew and supported.
Donations to Marley’s Memorial Fund may be made online via paypal or credit card at:
Alternatively, checks may be made out to David Fein and sent to: David Fein, ValuSource, 4575 Galley Rd, Suite 200E, Colorado Springs, CO 80915.
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