It turns out we die from the feet up.

[Disclaimer: Don’t read this post if you are sensitive around the topic of death and dying up close.]

It turns out we die from the feet up? Well, that’s not strictly true in every circumstance, some people die from a bullet to the head,  but it has an element of truth to it. As I noted in a previous post, my amazing mom died last week, on the 13th, very near midnight. She would have been 94 on April 4th. I wrote before that she died a good death, but that’s not what this blog post is about.

For three days or so before mom died, we held a vigil by her side. I have many siblings but two of my sisters were especially attentive towards our mom and visited her virtually every day at her care facility in Coquitlam. They were especially present during this vigil, but most of my other siblings showed up at one time or another as did some of their children and even grandchildren. We spent many hours in mom’s room and out in the hallway. Some of my sisters (and a brother-in-law or two) spent nights by my mother’s side too.

My mother was 93 when she died. Her story is really astounding and is one of sacrifice, caring, selflessness and dedication. She married my father on January 28th, 1946. He had 5 daughters from his first marriage. His wife died in childbirth as she was giving birth to her first son. Because my father had to work to support the family I assume he put out the call for help and my mother, 21 at the time, answered that call. She moved into dad’s house to look after the 5 children and to do all the housework too. Long story short, my mom soon after married my father and they proceeded to have 10 more children, I being the oldest. I’m 71. I was born in 1947, a year after my parents were married. My eldest sister from dad’s first marriage is about to turn 83.

Well, it turns out that although we are a loving and caring family we are also prone to irreverence. We love to laugh and tease each other but we also care about and respect each other, despite our differences. As my mother lay dying, we got to wondering just how the staff knew that she was in fact near death. We asked questions and the nurses and care aides responded in very matter of fact ways. How can we tell when someone is near death? I had heard that when the kidneys shut down that’s a sure sign that the end is near but in this case, mom had not had food or liquids for 2 or 3 days. It would be difficult to tell if and when her kidneys shut down. All this time, mom’s pulse appeared to be quite strong and although her breathing was irregular, it seemed to be consistent.

One of the nurses then told us that it’s possible to roughly assess how long it will be before someone takes their final breath by looking at their legs. When the toes and feet get cold and a line of blotchy skin appears, that means that it won’t be long. Now, nurses and care aides have a lot of experience with having people die on their watch. It would be foolish to ignore what they have to say.

After that, we proceeded to periodically lift the blankets off of mom’s feet to see how her toes and feet were doing. We didn’t notice any special coldness at first. Even on the day of the 13th, it didn’t look as if her feet had changed much in colour or temperature. We often checked on mom’s feet to see if they were getting colder or if the line of blotchy skin was going up her leg. The nurse said that when the line gets to the knee, that’s it. Death slowly creeps up our legs. Of course, there was no question of mom coming out of this crisis alive, so it was just a waiting game now.

I left the care facility around 4:30 PM on the 13th so I could have dinner with my daughter and her family in Vancouver. We half expected mom to still be alive in the morning when we returned to the care facility. I was getting exhausted too and needed a good night’s sleep. As it turned out, that day was the last one I would see my mother alive. In the early morning minutes of the 14th I got calls from one of my sisters and a brother-in-law telling me that mom had passed away, but my phone was on vibrate and I missed their calls. At breakfast, I learned that my mother had passed away a few hours earlier.

I called my sister and we talked about what happened as mom got closer and closer to taking her last breath. It so happens that the nurse was correct. Mom’s legs had indeed gotten cold and blotchy as her heart became too weak to pump blood to her extremities. By the time she died, her legs were cold up to her knees and her legs were blotchy.

So, along with the grief and sadness that we all felt as we watched our mother/grandmother/great grandmother/mother-in-law die, we learned about how the process evolves.

Right up to her last moments our wonderful caring mother had something to teach us.

 

My back is hooped! I need a new one.

My lower back is permanently damaged because of an industrial injury that I had when I was around 20 years old, followed by a disc removal in my lumbar region. Over the decades that injury and surgery have often left me incapacitated and practically immobilized at times. The pain spikes up to a 10 at times although if I lie still it’s manageable. Dare I try to move and I get gut wrenching debilitating pain spikes. In 2002 I was diagnosed with kidney cell cancer so a surgeon removed my left kidney leaving a 14 inch scar from my abdomen in front to close to my spine at the back. Gladly, the cancer had not metastasized and I’m cancer free 16 years later. The pain from the surgery, however, has not abated much and it has joined up with the pain from my disc surgery and injury to create a crazy nexus of pain on my left side from my hip  to my upper thoracic area. Joining this happy little pain scenario is a B12 deficiency that has left me feeling constantly hung over and exhausted. Add to that a couple of other injuries to my right knee and both shoulders makes life very interesting. So, what have I done about this and what can I do now about this?

Through all of this I’ve tried to maintain some normalcy in my life. At times it was impossible and I had to take months off of work on three occasions. Now that I’m retired I can’t take time off anymore! Such a drag.

Over the years, I’ve tried a number of ways of dealing with my back pain and I’ve had scores of very well meaning people suggest ways that they’ve tried and found effective  in dealing with back pain including any number of varieties of physiotherapy, exercise, massage, acupuncture, yoga, meds, diet, etc., etc., etc. I have availed myself of most of the remedies recommended. Nothing seems to work for any length of time although I have gotten stretches of pain-reduced time over the years and I have been able to paint, sculpt (even using a chainsaw), printmake and putter in my shop. I cherish those times, and I want them back.

A couple of days ago, we (my family and I) attended my mother’s funeral in Maillardville. Before leaving my daughter’s home in Vancouver to go to the church for the ceremony I thought I would reach down and tie my shoes. Big mistake. That triggered a pain reaction in my back that almost had me passing out. The ceremonies at the church and later at the cemetery were very difficult because of the pain, never mind the grief. Yesterday, I drove home and although I was not entirely pain free, I was more or less comfortable. That’s the way this pain syndrome works. It comes and goes. This morning I did a stupid thing again. I tried to tie my shoes. Not too bright, this old man. I was aiming to go with Carolyn to walk the dog. Instead, I lay on the couch hopped up on T3s. I’ve got some pain relief right now and can sit and type this on my computer, but I have no idea how long this will last. Tomorrow, I call my M.D. I doubt he can do anything, but maybe prescribe some more T3s. I see a neurologist at the end of February. I hope he will be able to help me with the pain, the exhaustion, the dizziness, etc.

I tell you this not because I want sympathy. Maybe a little understanding would be good, but that can only come with knowledge. Hence this blog post. One problem is that most of the time I look pretty normal and healthy. People assume that I am and I don’t blame them. I do, however, find it a little frustrating when people ask me how I’m feeling. I don’t know what to say. It’s complicated. I have normal blood pressure, my pulse is good. In fact all my vital signs are good. I’ve just had an MRI that told me that my brain is in pretty good shape. So, yeah, it’s complicated. It might be good for those of us who experience debilitating pain to have a gauge implanted under the skin of our forearms indicating the level of pain we are experiencing at any given moment. I’m joking, of course, but…

Being at my mother’s funeral a couple of days ago was sobering to say the least. I couldn’t help but think about my own mortality and morbidity. My eldest sister is 82, almost 83 years old. She’s in good shape and could easily live well into her 90s. Most of my siblings are in good shape although MS and other autoimmune issues run in the family and I expect most of us will live long lives. It’s in our genes. But my parents’ generation is almost all gone. It’s our turn now to leave this mortal coil, and we will, one after the other, it’s just a matter of time.

More about my take on life and death in my next post coming soon.

My mom died last night.

As a blogger, I will blog. That’s just the way it is. My mother died last night at around midnight. She lived for 15 years or so in a care facility called The Dufferin, in Coquitlam, BC. She was almost 94 years old.

Her room is quiet now, but really, it’s no longer her room. Soon, someone else will occupy it and there will be no trace of my mother’s time there except in the memories of the care aides and nurses who looked after her. I can’t say enough good things about the care my mother received at The Dufferin. Part of that is because of the dogged persistence of my sisters Lucille Haveland and Claudette Friesen but it’s also because of the caring attitudes of the people who looked after mom every day. They had way more contact with my mother in the last few years than I did. In fact, I rarely saw my mother over the last few years. We live on Vancouver Island, a 5 hour trip including a ferry ride from The Dufferin and when we did go to Vancouver over the years we always stayed with my daughter and her family. We just didn’t see my mother or many of the rest of my family either for that matter. For probably 17 years before her death, she carried a heavy burden of dementia and she was certainly not the woman I knew as a young boy growing up. It was hard to see her like that. I do wish I had made more time to see mom over the years, but I can’t change that now. Still, she was my mother, changed as she was. She was gentle, warm and tender. She loved her family. She loved all of us.

Over the last few days, her room at The Dufferin was anything but quiet.

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As you can see she was surrounded by family. Not all of us could fit in the room at the same time so we would leave the room now and again and spend time out in the hallway. At any one time there could be as many people in the hallway as in her room. That’s no surprise because she raised 15 children, only three of which could not make it to the Dufferin in the last few days to bid farewell to their mother(one being deceased and the other two living far away with health issues of their own). Husbands, wives, grandchildren, great grandchildren rounded out the group along with a steady procession of care aides.

My mother is gone. The people who do these things took her body away in the middle of the night not two hours after her last breath. That’s how fast and efficiently these things get done. What they couldn’t take away though was the laughter and the love that was palpable in the hours and days before her death and that saturated the room. We can be an irreverent group at times and we proved to be just that over the last few days, but that irreverence was always tinged with love and trust. Our mother’s death has brought us together again. We feel her in our love for each other.

I’ll have more to say in the coming days. For now, I’m home in Cumberland, on Vancouver Island, resting and awaiting news about when the funeral will happen.

Take care, all of you and hug your loved ones.