Dear husband and daughter,
My mother says I take after the French line of the family, and those women live long. You will likely have me into my 90s, finely silver-haired, slim, and head permanently bowed in a graceful osteoporotic curve. But you may not. Accident or disease could take me sooner than old age and tiredness of body. One day, we will find out.
If I go quickly, and we have no chance to say goodbye, please know it is okay. It will be different, but I will still find ways to talk to you. Probably in gardens and forests and birdsong and the swoosh of yellow sundresses. You will know it’s me.
And if there have been harsh words or disappointments between us, please know that they are done. What is real at the end is what was real at the beginning, what is eternal: only love. There is nothing to forgive.
If I go slowly, and you are at my bedside, you might wonder what I’d wish, so let me tell you.
If at all possible, I’d like to lie dying in a quiet place, a private room. Hospital or hospice are both fine. You needn’t bring me home to nurse me. But please make it beautiful, as allowed. I would like fresh, fragrant flowers. Paperwhites would be nice if they’re in season. (Those were the first flowers you smelled in this life, cherished daughter. We brought you home to a house full of them.) Lilacs in spring, roses any time of year.
Bring a colourful blanket for the bed, or if I am too hot for that, a light silk sheet in some pretty shade of pink or yellow or lavender. Maybe a prayer shawl for my shoulders if I’ll tolerate the feel of fabric.
Open the curtains, unless I ask for darkness. (Keep all fluorescent and artificial lighting off, except for the briefest periods necessary, please.) If you can, wheel me outside to see the sun and the moon and a sunrise or sunset for one last time and tell me it is the last time so that I know to let them go.
Please set any necessary medical equipment to the lowest volume setting. Those alarms are jarring. I think music would be lovely some of the time. Rachmaninov’s Vespers and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Allison Angelo’s Clair de Lune each hold personal significance but don’t play them on repeat just because I mentioned this. Elvis Costello, Spoon, Pulp, James, Leonard Cohen, some Parisian cafe music are all good… Neil Diamond and Roy Orbison will remind me I’ll be seeing my father again soon. You know what I like. Play what of it you enjoy too. Softly. And have lots of silence as well. You know me. I do enjoy quiet.
If you feel like singing, Be Not Afraid and Hosea are favourites of the old hymns I used to sing as a girl, and that I sang to you, dear daughter, while you were in my belly.
Please hold my hand. Not constantly — your back would get sore, and those hospital chairs are terrible. But every so often. And please, tell me it’s you. As I get very close to the end, I won’t necessarily know by sight and it will be music to hear you say your names for me.
Gently brush my hair. Some dry shampoo of clay and oatstraw and lavender would be nice, if needed. And please keep my mouth fresh and moist. Apply a rich balm to my lips with just a little to the corners of my mouth. Kiss my forehead.
Talk to me. Even when you think I am sleeping, I am likely only visiting the place between worlds, and am still listening from there. Tell me you love me, if you do. Tell me you forgive me, if you do. (I know I said there’s nothing to forgive but that’s from me to you; at the end, I may not feel so sure I have been blameless. I expect, between now and then, I will have made many mistakes and hurt you many times, without wanting to, and I may need a reminder I’ve still been worthy of your love and the gifts of marriage and motherhood.) Tell me what you see as some of the contributions of my life. Help me with my life review so I will have an easier time knowing I’ve earned my rest, that I’ve used this life well enough to release it.
When you are with me, do not speak of me as though I’m gone, before I am gone. And please don’t allow the medical team to do so either. I want to have them, or you, explain to me what will happen — with treatments and tests and such — before it does, even if no one believes I can hear or understand. This one will be tricky but if you can manage it without offending, please also ask the medical team to speak to me in a normal tone of voice, not the high sing-song often reserved for children and the infirm. Inside my ailing body, I will still be me, an adult woman who has never tolerated those sickly sweet high pitches.
Even if they seem rude or uncaring, please thank the doctors and nurses for me when I cannot. It’s been my experience that the coldest ones cry most when a patient is lost. Be compassionate. (And scream in the car if you need to. You can be mad at them for me too.)
While my father was dying, a friend shared with me this special Tibetan prayer. If you feel comfortable doing so, please speak these words to me, too, as often as you like, near to the end:
“As the earth element leaves, your body will feel heavy. As the water element leaves, you will feel dryness. As the fire element leaves, you may feel cold. As the air element leaves, your out breath will be longer than your in breath. The signs are now here. Don’t get lost in the detail. Don’t cling to any of these phenomena. They are part of a natural process. Let your Awareness of the Light before you, guide you. Let your Awareness go free.”
Please lightly touch my temples with rose oil, and, if you are able, massage my feet with it. (They carry it in the health and beauty section of The Big Carrot.)
I may cry to say goodbye to you and to say goodbye to my body and to say goodbye to Life. Those are sad goodbyes. Of us, I will have to grieve (and maybe rage) first. It can be an awful thing to see. You may want to comfort me out of it, but, please don’t; if allowed and honoured, my grief will pass.
Your tears are welcome at my bedside too. If you are sad, you don’t need to hide that from me. Everything you feel is welcome. If you are angry, if you are afraid.. all of it is welcome. Now, and after. I’ve heard people say “Your loved one would want you to be happy” and I am not interested in that kind of urging. Your loved one, after death, has all the capacity in the universe to accept the isness of you and your human experience. What I will wish for you from the other side is that you feel what you feel so as not to stay stuck in any particular emotional place, but even stuckness has its gifts. Be as you are, and know I am loving you and you cannot disappoint me.
It may seem that I am in very much physical pain, and this will be hard for you to watch. I am not afraid of pain. It’s part of death as it is of birth and it will be working to bring me into profound awareness of the process begun. Letting go of Life is physical work. Labour. This is okay. That it aches you to see is okay too. If I am unable to speak for myself, give me pain medication whenever it feels right to you. You can make no wrong decision for me.
Take long breaks from my deathbed. Go outside. Lie on the earth. Shovel snow. Plant pansies in dirt. Read, or watch mindless television. I am a woman, you’ll remember, who has always enjoyed her own company and who cherishes solitude. You are welcome in my room for all the hours you wish, and you have my blessing to never set foot inside it. And I mean that. If you are with me or not with me, I will not die alone, uncomforted. When it is time, my great-grandmother and grandmother and father will walk me home.
If you would like to be with me when I die, let me know, and I will try to arrange it. I do think I’ll have a certain amount of choice, circumstances depending. If I’m the first person you’ve seen through death, it will feel strange. You will know it is coming in the next hours when my breathing changes. It will sound gurgled and strained. Don’t worry about that. It’s the way of the body. (Don’t suction it, please, just allow it.) Before the breathing, the smell of my body will change too. In the last few days, it will be sweeter, like cooked sugar. As the energy of death rises in the room (and within you), you may feel something akin to panic. That panic will change in my final breaths. Breathe with me, if you’d like. My breath will slow and then stop. You will inhale again, and I will not. My eyes may roll upwards. (I like the idea that I’m seeing heaven then. And my dear dad.) There may be some foaming at my mouth. It may be slightly agape. As the blood leaves my face, you’ll see my colour fade with it. It may startle you because it’s an uncommon sight but it is also beautiful. I remember thinking it looked like watercolour paint being diluted and washed away when I saw it in my father’s face. In the presence of death, you may feel still or numb or euphoric. All is well.
As for my body, once I’m dead, I’m gone from it and not terribly particular about how it’s handled from here. If you’d like to say a few words of blessing over it, you may. If you don’t want to see it, that’s fine by me too. If there are flowers in the room, and you’re there to do it, please pluck the blooms from their stems and place them on my body to be cremated with me. I like the idea of that. Give my organs to anyone who can use them.
If you’d like to keep some of my ashes, you can. I don’t mind if they’re divided. I would like some, if not all, to be buried in the earth. Please plant a tree above, something that is generous with its beauty or its fruit. Lilacs? Pears? You don’t have to visit it for me to know I’m remembered.
I’ll speak to you more privately about a funeral service. I have some ideas but what you decide will be best. I will only say that I would like flowers and charitable donations… none of this in lieu of business. And I would like a champagne toast. Please also, dear daughter, use some estate money to buy yourself a beautiful dress to wear, my last worldly gift to you.
Above all, know that I love you both still and although it’s different now, I haven’t left you.
Carrie Klassen writes about (and sometimes photographs) things she finds beautiful. She ghost-writes for thoughtful people with something important to say at PinkElephantCreative.com, teaches writing for small business at PinkElephantAcademy.com, and she shares her own words at CarrieKlassen.com. Carrie is currently working on a series of personal essays.