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I remember gently touching her, breathing in her essence, wishing the moment would never end. How inexpressibly sad and painful, this last goodbye. How could I let her go? As if I had a choice. All the moments, the months, the years of preparation-the long period of anticipatory grief through which I had already passed, were not enough-could never be enough-to be prepared for this aching finality.
The night nurse left me alone with Mother, and I knelt beside the bed. Carefully slipping my arm under the thin and bony shoulders, I reached under and behind her, wrapping my body into her as close as I could get. I knew I was holding my mother for the last time and needed to feel the warmth of her-to breathe in the clean, fresh smell that was always part of her. I felt tormented by the battle inside my head and my heart-hold on, let go, let go, hold on. Of course I knew there was no choice, for in a few minutes the nurse would make the call to the hospice office to inform them that their patient, Doris Davis, had passed away. Soon all would be set in motion to take heraway from this room, and this house, forever.
When my mother died, she was as prepared as anyone could possibly be. We, her family, had been prepared, too. We knew how sick she was. Her doctor, in Florida, had labeled her illness "terminal" years before. But "prepared" is only a word, after all. There really is no such thing as being fully prepared for death.
One month earlier, we had moved my 86-year-old Mother from a nursing facility in Florida to our home in Connecticut. We felt particularly blessed to have her with us. Primarily because of the local hospice program, Mother could remain in our home while receiving care provided by their team of compassionate professionals. My family and I fully expected that Mother would be with us for many months. But that was not meant to be.
All I could do now was hold her one last time and whisper, "Safe home, Mother. My dear, sweet and gentle Mother, safe home." There was comfort and peace in believing that she had begun her journey away from long suffering, toward the God she fully believed in and a heavenly home. Though I wanted desperately to hold on, my comfort became secondary. I could not bind my mother to me a moment longer.
But something rose from the depths of my heart, and I cried out to God for the help I knew only He could bring. "Ease away some of this aching," I implored. "Teach me gratitude and let me see the gift in all this pain." A small degree of comfort formed. I began to sense my Mother's spirit filling the space around me, and I knew I would be all right and that this jagged edge of pain would pass.
Tolstoy wrote, "All you can hold in your cold, dead hand is what you've given away." My mother always gave away the thing that counted most-her love-to me, to her family and friends, and to many others with whom she came into contact. I felt enormously grateful for her love, and I thanked God from the depths of my heart for the gift of having been allowed to share a life with her. So much was gone, and yet so much would always remain. The best tribute now was to abide in that gratitude and to carry on as best I could. I would remember my mother with love and the deep respect she deserved. And I would tell our story and pass on some of what she had so generously given me.
I've heard it said that the most compelling stories are about dysfunctional relationships. Through the years, I've listened to many women talk of their relationship with their mothers and have read about many more. More often than not, the stories were about hurtful, damaging relationships. Women referred to sadly detached or manipulative and interfering mothers or mothers who were controlling, demanding and sometimes overtly abusive. In too many instances, I observed that the probability of these mothers and daughters ever fully enjoying each other and respecting their mutual growth was almost nil.
This was clearly not at all the kind of relationship my mother and I had known. Far from dysfunctional, we looked forward to being in one another's company, keenly enjoyed each other and sought to show our love in any way we could. I even suspected there was, between us, some sort of spiritual bonding that may have had its origins many lifetimes ago. We understood each other and, even when disagreeing with one another, were more prone to empathize and accept one another's opinions than to pass judgment. We simply loved each other and we loved each other well.
Growing up under my mother's tutelage, I was given the powerful gift of never having to struggle with the concept of a loving God. He was there for me first in the way my own mother showed her love for me. To a large extent, it was due primarily to her unconditional love that I would come to follow a spiritual path, and though, in early adulthood, I strayed from that course from time to time, I knew for certain where to go when I became ready to continue what had become absolutely essential in my life. Traveling on this spiritual journey, I would come to a place of peace and joy that nothing and no one else could satisfy.
Defining spirituality as a connectedness to the Source of all that is love, I have come to believe that the beauty and the power of love have their fullest and most authentic expression in our ability to feel the fullness and the richness of a whole range of emotions. Only if we are fully in touch with anger, sorrow and doubt can we have the capacity to feel deep love.
I have reveled in experiencing intense passion through the expression of music and art and gifts that shine through in the written word. I've discovered quantum ardor in both spirituality and sexuality and in the deep love of family and the memories they leave behind. This increased capacity to love and to appreciate the gifts in life was the very reason I grieved so deeply now that my mother had traveled on without me.
I was passing through what Henri Nouwen describes as a "dark night of the soul." In the process of finding my way out of the darkness that had me so trapped, I found that the seeds of all I needed to know had been planted long ago. Through a closely knit family, faith and solid values, and, most particularly, the unconditional love my mother never failed to show me, I had been gifted with the desire to know the love of God. The hope of whatever it was I needed now was there, and in the communion with something far greater than anything else in the world, I would come to a place of deep inner peace. I would thrive once again. Long ago, God had touched my soul in the most profound ways, and I was merely walking further along in my journey.
Some of my earliest memories have to do with God, church and a faith that was both indisputable and indispensable. As a very young child, I had what I now believe was the first spiritual experience of my life. At the time, I would not have been aware of exactly what was happening nor would I have used that terminology. However, the incident would be of utmost importance to the rest of my life.
Looking back to that time, when I was four years old, I am visiting my maternal grandmother in Blakely, Pennsylvania. On a clear and bright Sunday morning, I am dressed in what is considered my Sunday best and am walking down a hill, a block from the house where my mother was born. I am on my way to the Baptist church which stands on a corner of Main Street. Most likely, there is someone accompanying me, though in my mind's eye I see no one else beside me. Holding out my right hand-a small and unblemished hand-I flick each of my tiny fingers along the spokes of a black, wrought iron fence separating the cobbled street from the lawns of the houses. As I walk, I begin to feel an intense excitement welling up inside of me. Tension builds and, keeping my eyes on the white church ahead of me at the bottom of the hill, I know that something very special is awaiting me. I have been in this church many times-shortly after my birth, Mother entered my name on the cradle list there. I love the wonderful sensations I experience inside this holy place and am thrilled with an eager and passionate anticipation at the thought of going inside again. There is something special about this walk, this moment, that fills my child's heart with joy and seizes a piece of my soul. The experience adds dimension and texture to my life, is deeply spiritual and stays with me. I will remember it in years to come.
Later in my life, continuing my search for something that I could only think of as "more," I would find it beneficial to my spiritual growth to convert to Roman Catholicism. But ever mindful and respectful of my spiritual roots, I would return to the little town of Blakely more than a half century later and once again walk down the hill I walked as a child. I would strike my now grown-up, far coarser and even liver-spotted hand against the black wrought-iron fence which still stood. The Baptist Church, ahead of me at the bottom of the hill, was now freshly painted white, its wide, front door a bright and vivid red. This time, the walk would be made with a full awareness of the ways in which God had graced nearly 60 years of my life.
In The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, Deepak Chopra wrote, "We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share. This is a precious moment, but it is transient." His words touched me deeply.
Excerpted from Countless Gifts of Love by Lynn Davis Slavin Copyright © 2006 by Lynn Davis Slavin. Excerpted by permission.
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