Nonfiction by Anne Richardson
She tiptoed toward Death as she would a vaguely familiar lover. And Death courted her, rubbing her feet, her hands, leaving them cold. Death stroked her cheek with a soft, open palm. At first she leaned in, like a cat accepting the caress. Then she pulled away, not ready to fall into those arms. Her hazy eyes opened, looked into mine. She whispered, “My darling girl.”
After moments or minutes of alertness she would again slip behind the veil, face changing, taking on the patina that I experienced with my patients as a hospice chaplain. It was the mask of Death.
Most hours, my mother rested peacefully and seemed content, pain well-controlled, her physical body doing the slow work of shutting down. But calm surface waters belied a deeper level of agitation. Tears erupted to the surface, frightened looks, the words “I’m okay” and “I’m going home,” replaced by, “I don’t understand what’s happening.” My salted tears matched hers. I wished they were aloe drops; a balm to soothe her soul. She even rejected my touch at one point, perhaps mistaking it for Death. Though those moments were brief, I knew from my experience they were part of the inner work she needed to complete and no one could do it for her. My offering: being a sacred witness.
For days I watched my mother sculpt her mask, a process both universal and unique. Realizing this was part of her journey deepened the anticipation of my loss. With each trying on, the layers thickened, protecting her from the pain of leaving behind those she loved.
As I witnessed her life ebb, what had she witnessed when her life flowed? What was stirring in her well of long-settled memories? It is not uncommon for difficult memories, held behind walls built to contain them before dementia creeps in, to seep through or even crumble those walls as dementia destroys the foundation, leaving peacefulness elusive.
Most of her life, my mother’s deep waters remained underground unless invited to surface, and then only appearing with the hesitancy of snowdrops in January. My daughter’s curiosity could coax stories to rise, but my mother selected them like roses for her Royal Albert vase, sweet in fragrance, trimmed of thorns.
For my son’s middle school project on family roots, he chose his grandmother’s embodied experience of the German Blitz as a teenager living in WWII London. Willing to leave select thorns on the stem, though still leaving her emotions masked, we heard darker stories. They clung to me like burrs with nowhere to take root. As I sat by her that final week, I wished my curiosity had come sooner. That I had asked questions before the stories disappeared back into the deep of her, erupting those last days like torn scraps of a journal without the anchor of context.
My imagination settled on the story of my mother and grandmother exiting the Tube with ration coupons in hand to buy my mother a coat. She would have been thirteen, when life should have been about the beginning flow of blood and exiting childhood to become maiden. Instead, a whistle dropped out of the sky like a teakettle run past the boil. A moment of silence. Then explosions crashing through walls no thicker than wasps’ nests when incendiary chemicals are at war with concrete and wood. The doors of Selfridges opened not to greet my mother and grandmother, but to toss out merchandise and debris like a cosmic rug shaking. Was that the memory no longer contained behind the wall of her coping? Was she mistaking the whistle of the teakettle in her apartment with the Blitz? Was she running with her mother, back to the Tube for safety?
I noticed something else with my mother that eluded me with others I sat beside on their journeys. I knew her face. Her features. When I glanced between the snapshot of her and my father framed next to her and the waning face before me, I saw her eyes, her brow, her nose, her chin—all reflecting the face I absorbed since I was an infant looking up at her as I nursed. Familiarity. The gift you give being beside someone you know intimately.
The photo, a reminder of committed lovers heading toward retirement. When her anger did bubble up around my father, it would be his leaving her widowed for thirty-two years. Maybe it was the way he went. The lull between his second heart attack and the third. Eighteen years. An unspoken promise to not leave her alone after uprooting them both from their homeland in their twenties, now broken. My mother, preferring comfort and roots. My father, always ready to move on. Left fatherless at age nine. Apprenticed as a tool and die maker at fourteen. Never sharing his Londoner’s perspective on war—the one he survived as a teen turned adult working a trade. Or the one he fought genetically with a heart that refused to discard unnecessary cholesterol. If my mother’s stories lay in deep waters, my father burnt his before they could settle into his bones and weigh him down. Whistle. Silence. Explosion. Run.
Time falls into a chasm when the phone rings and you hear your mother’s voice say what you couldn’t take in at age two or eight: “Your dad’s had a heart attack.” The drive to the hospital contained the last piece of autumn fruit on the bough, the hope it would still taste sweet. Instead, I found his body on a gurney. Inhaling reality, I brushed my lips against his morning stubble, a cold and hard frost on a January landscape. It was the mask of Death.
My mother needed time for her mask to form, adding layer after layer. And my father? Had his mask been a series of trials and errors, scrapped like defective die casts after each heart attack? Didn’t he know I needed to witness each layer?
I breathed in a small piece of my father’s mask as he lay on that gurney. It lodged in my throat to keep me from wailing those early days. As winter fell into spring then summer, it migrated to my own heart, standing guard against pain. My father was my protector. I was going to keep that piece of him. I didn’t recognize Death when he wore it. We hadn’t been so close before.
I wish I could say my mother gently placed her mask on in those final hours and slipped away like a summer mist, but she tussled with Death in the deepest of states, and even when her spirit had flown free of her body, the stubbornness of flesh fought to stay on.
When completeness came and her inner waters quieted, she placed the mask on one last time—face settling into the universal sheen of Death.
With brief resurrection of respirations finally subsided and her Death mask firmly adhered, I had the gift of time to admire her work: to stroke her cheek with my lips, fill her fine wrinkles with my tears, say thank you for showing me such marvelous craftsmanship for when my turn comes. There was no need to breathe in her mask. In witnessing my mother’s mask making, the fragment of my father’s mask embedded in my heart could be washed away. In letting her go, I released him.
Her face had beauty in death as in life: a face I washed as I prepared her for the funeral home. A face I see in my own. But it is not the face in my dreams. My mother, when she visits, has removed the mask she needed to wear to slip behind the veil. I imagine her mask on display in a grand museum somewhere, with all the other Death masks.
Is it hung by my father’s? I think so. His became complete as I breathed out what I held in the deep waters of my heart. He has started to wander back into my dreams.
Spiritual director, chaplain, labyrinth facilitator, and positive death movement advocate, Anne Richardson, was a hospice chaplain for over seven years. Believing that our society is ill-equipped to deal with loss from death and other difficult life transitions, she founded Nurture Your Journey in 2016 to offer individual support, and designs and facilitates group workshops and retreats focused primarily on grief.
She is a passionate educator supporting health-care professionals and care-partners, an experienced presenter, and offers labyrinth facilitation in a wide variety of settings. She is an award-winning poet, and loves using Instagram to post her insights on grief as a companion through life. In 2018, she accompanied her mother on her final embodied journey.
She is looking forward to an extended trip to the UK in spring 2019 to explore her roots and labyrinths. Her current project is a memoir-hybrid incorporating the labyrinth as metaphor for dying, death, and grief.
Website: Nurture Your Journey