When I received the late night call that my mother had passed, I was a mess. I felt guilty that I did not jump in the car the moment her nurse told me she was failing. Had I done so, I might have gotten there in time. I felt terrible that she died alone.
During the call, the nurse asked if I wanted to come see her or if I planned to wait until she was at the funeral home. At the time, no arrangements were made and I said I would be over shortly.
Understandably, I was upset. But we could not figure out a way that made sense for my husband to go with me. Our son was at a sleepover but our daughter had been snuggled in her bed for several hours. It was too late to ask someone to come wait at our house and there was no way we were going to bring her. So I dressed and took my time, slowly driving in that right highway lane.
When I arrived at the facility, the nurse supervisor shared her condolences and walked with me to my mother’s room. It was pretty surreal. She was still in her bed, with her roommate sleeping nearby, separated by only a curtain.
While the nurse was mindful of my grief, and kind, it was very important to the facility that we had the final arrangements for her in place. But, even in death, my mother remained untraditional.
For many decades, my mother made her final wishes clear: She wanted to donate her body to medical school. She had no use for her body once she was gone and she wanted some good to come from it. Her beloved father was a doctor, and, had it not involved so much time, she would have chosen medical school over law school as a single mother of three at 35.
A few years back, I started researching body donation, as I recognized the need to have arrangements in place before my mother passed away. Through that process, I puzzled out a few things. The donation needed to be made in state. The websites for body donation made clear, without explanation, that the programs excluded bodies that suffered from Alzheimer’s or dementia. I was frustrated and annoyed and, like I sometimes do, stuck my head in the sand.
However, after the care conference for my mother this past January, when we started thinking about her end, I tasked my brother with revisiting the issue. A social worker himself, he approached the research differently. He reached out to the social worker from the care conference to see if she had any experience with or suggestions for body donation. She looked into it and shared with him a couple of thoughts. He was then able to follow up on them without any of the emotional difficulties that had plagued me a few years back.
While he quickly learned that body donation was still not an option, he made a wonderful discovery: Yale has a Brain Donation program and our mother was a perfect candidate. In fact, she was already in their system because of its relationship with her facility. All we had to do was call over after she passed. Someone would be available to retrieve the message if it was after hours, seven days a week. After giving consent and other information over the phone, arrangements would be made for the extraction.
The relief we felt after my brother figured this out, even before our mother’s final decline, was incredible.
So when I arrived at the nursing home after she passed, the nurse supervisor had already called and left a message for the Yale program but had not heard back. It was close to midnight on a Saturday night.
I spent some time with my mom. I talked to her a bit. I recognized that this would be the last time that I would actually see her body. I had already spent much of the afternoon with her. It was late, and, after a bit, I said my final goodbye, and was ready to go home.
The supervisor wanted to talk with me before I left. She was not in the unit, so I stood at the nurse’s station, waiting for her to return. There were a few aides sitting at the station and, to my surprise, the time I spent waiting was its own gift. After sharing their condolences, the aides told me a little about their experiences with my mother. How she smiled a lot and would say a word here or there when she felt strongly about something. Things they noticed she had liked. How sweet she was and how she would be missed. I felt lucky to hear a bit about her life from women who helped care for her and who truly cared about her. I may not have been there with my mom when she passed, but it was clear to me that she had not been alone.
The nurse returned, concerned about the fact that Yale had not called back. She was going to try a different unit at Yale and see if she could reach someone. It was late and I was going home, much more at peace than I had been a few hours earlier.
To be continued….