“To Live Until . . . ” Many know the rest of the title: “We Say Good-Bye.” It is from Kübler-Ross’s well-known book about terminal patients, how some manage to live fully, how we all can learn to face death heroically and emerge like butterflies from cocoons. The day Mom was diagnosed with congestive heart failure marked a turning point: she could resign herself to the inevitable and “go gentle into that good night,” or embrace the abyss, and live purposely ’till the end.
Hungarians are famously known for their melancholia, and for decades Hungary had led the world in annually-high suicide rates. Szomorú Vasárnap or “Gloomy Sunday,” a song composed by Hungarian pianist Rezső Seress and popularized by Billie Holiday in the early forties, says it best: “Gloomy is Sunday; with shadows I spend it all. My heart and I have decided to end it all . . . ” Sadness, gloom and doom—it runs in the blood.
Despite her roots and the reputation Magyars have for melancholia, temperamentally Mom was more fiery and sanguine, more Zsa Zsa Gaborian, with a tad Mother Angelica mixed in. No shrinking violet, her remaining days would be lived fully, and faithfully.
Between that inauspicious Good Friday of 2015 when she received the dire news and the moment she closed her eyes a final time some five months later, her days were filled keeping doctor appointments, sitting in her rocking chair on her beloved front porch while fingering rosary beads, and welcoming a steady stream of well-wishers who passed through what seemed at times like a turnstile for a front door.
I remember the day Kathy, a visiting nurse who lived a few blocks away, came knocking to check on Mom. She had recently fallen and remained wheelchair-bound. After exchanging a few pleasantries, quietly, perhaps fearing a decline, she cautiously asked, “So, how’s Mom? Any change?” Oh, THIS is going to be fun, I thought. “C’mon in, Kathy. She’s in the kitchen with her gypsy friends.”
The faint smell of nail polish and taste of hairspray still lingered, results of Mom’s earlier efforts to recapture her more youthful, Liz Taylor-like looks. Approaching the kitchen, Kathy soon spotted the dark, Brunswick green-colored bottle surrounded by an array of emptied, lipstick-stained shot glasses.
Egészségedre! Egészségedre! The Hungarian equivalent of down the hatch, or cheers, had resounded only moments earlier. Pam, Mom’s perennially-tanned, beach-blonde-friendly hell-if-I-care gal-pal, looked like the cat that swallowed the canary. Anna, a wiry little loquacious octogenarian given to snapping selfies, was wiping down countertops. And Mrs. Kistler, Mom’s reliable hairstylist of forty-plus years, sat pleasantly erect, content to shoulder most of the small talk. Other than Mom, who’d been glad to just wet her whistle, she had drunk the least.
Jägermeister, Mom pointed out to Kathy, had medicinal properties—ohhhh yes. She could recite many of its fifty-six ingredients by heart. And it wasn’t unusual to be doing icy-cold shots of Jäger in the middle of the day, either, especially when friends—lifelong friends—dropped by. You kind of expected to. But there was more, much more, I was about to discover along with Kathy.
When I had suggested to Mom weeks before that she take up a hobby to help stimulate her mind, I was thinking jigsaw puzzles, bird watching, perhaps letter writing—but online horse betting? Are—you—KIDDING?! Booze and gambling are a dangerous mix at any age. I remember sighing in disbelief, and muttering something to her such as, “Just don’t lose the house.” And poor Kathy, I mused, half expecting her to blurt out that oft-quoted cinematic line, “I’m shocked! Shocked to find gambling is going on in here.” Instead, she seemed relieved to find Mom feeling better and back to her old ways.
This Jäger-laced wrecking crew then began reminiscing about the last time they had gotten together, but with half a dozen more of their Catholic school lady chums. That was the day they decided to hold a friendly reunion of sorts in Mom’s kitchen. I was present that time, too, and can still recall the smell of warm, stuffed cabbage and the taste of moist, chewy, poppy seed roll. Several of them were recounting one particular day in grade school at Our Lady of Hungary Parochial School. With plenty of the dark-green elixir already in them, details slowly returned. One day, the story went, the head sister entered their classroom and asked if anyone had the time, since there were no clocks on the walls. “Who has the time? Who has the time?” Sister impatiently queried. It was then that the heavens parted and Mom seized the opportunity to earn the adulation of all. Bracing herself, up popped her little hand like a jack-in-the-box as she proudly exclaimed, “Sister, Sister. . . . I have the time. I have the time!” Eyes upon her, Mom then proceeded to roll up her Navy blue-colored shirt sleeve and, on her forearm, meticulously drawn in black ink, there appeared the image of a watch. Another deep breath, mustering further courage, she finally blurted out the time displayed on her “tattooed” masterpiece. This ploy might possibly have worked had the frozen-in-place time on her forearm correctly matched the actual time of day in question, that opportunity existing briefly, only twice daily. Unfortunately, and to the disenchantment of all, there was NO match, no cigar to be awarded, and, as her friends laughingly remembered, she really caught hell for it!
That’s pretty much how it went over the next several months, lots of stories, Mom’s world having shrunken, but her zest for life remaining undiminished—right till the end. And that’s when things got interesting, really interesting.
Believability? It’s tricky business, especially nowadays with “fake news” and all. Signs and wonders? Not on your life! Not in this cynical world of ours. Yet, there is a belief among those religiously-minded that for some select individuals, particularly those having died suddenly, prematurely, or tragically, God graciously permits them to reach across space and time to provide signs of hope to loved ones left behind, perhaps to help in their healing. I call it “spiriting,” love transcending death.
I waited seven long years to reveal the following, for fear of being labeled a kook or con. I am of the age now where I care little what others think. I offer no proof. I can only describe events as experienced and best remembered, and let others decide for themselves the veracity of my claims. Years of training as a behavioral scientist, publications in peer-reviewed journals. . . . I am not prone to exaggeration. I consider myself a good reporter.
In the sixties and seventies, a pair of researchers, Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson, conducted a series of surveys of physicians’ and nurses’ observations of dying patients. Their findings, focusing on deathbed apparitions and summarized in Deathbed Observations by Physicians and Nurses and At the Hour of Death, suggest that the hallucinatory experiences of the terminally-ill prior to the moment of death may in fact offer a glimpse of the afterlife. Caretakers, particularly full-time caretakers, besides being unsung heroes who selflessly give of themselves, are uniquely positioned to provide rich, first-hand accounts of their loved ones’ final hours. Having relocated from Virginia and taken up permanent residence in Mom’s home (my childhood home, former dwelling place to three generations of Magyars), I obviously qualified. Dad had been gone for several years; Mom was all alone.
I felt alone, too. It is surreal returning to one’s hometown after decades being away. But, we do as we must for our loved ones. Perhaps, equally unsettling as witnessing the demise of a parent, is noting the changes to one’s former community. Northampton, Pa.—home to the Atlas Cement Company, which, in its heyday, employed more than five thousand employees and produced cement that built the Empire State Building, Panama Canal, and Hoover Dam—seemed, like far too many post-industrial towns across America, a shadow of its former self. Smokestacks stood in disrepair like once-proud pillars of the gods, kilns resembling Roman ruins. Factories closed, storefronts shuttered, a boarded-up whistle-stop surrounded by weeds, covering broken glass and the occasional used condom and blood-stained needle. The smell of piss. Even the diner, midnight-best for a Marlboro, Coke and fries, was on its last legs. Only the Roxy Theatre, the town’s “crown jewel,” seemed to have weathered well the storms of time.
A week, perhaps ten days before she died, I didn’t note the date but do recall the details, my sister and I were with Mom. She was resting in her recliner in the living room. By this time she had been on oxygen and undergone treatment for congestive heart failure for approximately five months. She seemed in no distress other than exhibiting fatigue. Without warning, she suddenly lurched forward, staring into space as if tracking the swooping motions of a bird in flight, calling to the two of us, “Who’s there? Look . . . what are they doing here? Ookie! Ookie! I see my brother!” Sitting up, gazing more intently, “Nanna? I don’t believe it. . . . What are you doing here? Toddy, Trecie, do you see them?” Stupefied, perhaps due to fatigue or insufficient oxygen (I did check the oxygen concentrator and liters/minute flow—all seemed normal), Mom continued for another minute or two to see her brother Joe, or Ookie (nicknamed for the way he mispronounced ukulele as a toddler), who had died in 2001, and her mother-in-law, Petronela, whom we affectionately called Nanna, who passed away in 1973.
Mom remained lucid during this entire experience, straddling two worlds, “seeing” Ookie and Nanna, while also communicating with my sister and me. One might have expected her to have hallucinated her favorite brother Ookie (who fought in the Pacific during WWII and in Korea, she would forever remind us), due to wishful thinking or as the brain’s way of preparing for death. But her mother-in-law would have been an unlikely choice, as her disbelieving reaction indicated, satisfying neither explanation. Psychotropic medication of any sort, as well as untoward drug interactions could be ruled out, and she exhibited no prior history of hallucinogenic behavior. My sister and I were mystified.
All the while Mom was relaxing and catching brief glimpses of what possibly awaited her in the next world, I was having split-second flashbacks of the past, visualizing all of us—Mom, Dad, sister Patrice or “Trecie,” and brother Tim—gathered around the Christmas tree with Taffy, our pet collie . . . wondering how on earth we’d all moved on so quickly with our lives. Oddly enough, I recalled the day another of Mom’s brothers, Anthony, had died. It was 1968, during the turbulent sixties, a time when it seemed easier to believe the impossible—even landing on the moon. It started off like any other day, Mom in the kitchen cooking, me in the living room reading or watching TV. All of a sudden, a large, glass-encased painting that had been hanging from one of the living room walls came crashing down. Shards of glass covered the floor. This happened within an hour of learning of Anthony’s passing.
“Toddy, what just happened?!” I could hear Mom shouting from the kitchen. “Mom, you’re not going to believe it, and I didn’t do it, either . . . the big painting on the wall . . . I wasn’t doing anything, it just fell, it crashed to the floor! The nail is still in the wall, standing straight up, like someone lifted the painting and dropped it. How is that possible?!”
Perhaps as strange as the painting’s crashing was Mom’s reaction: she just shrugged, responded laconically with something like, “Beats me. . . . I don’t know,” then went back to her kitchen chores. Could be her incuriousness was a matter of mourning, I thought, having just learned of her brother’s untimely passing. However, I was to discover not long afterwards that events such as this were not at all uncommon in our household. In fact, I remember my Aunt Mary once telling me that she had seen my mom’s mother, or, rather, her apparition walking through our living room the day of her burial, as if taking a final look around before departing for good.
But here’s the kicker, what I feared most could land me in the psych ward should word get out. For many a weekend, from the time I returned to live with Mom until her death, I had taken to preparing Sunday meals to which my sister and her husband, my brother and often an additional guest or two would be invited. Paprikás csirke or gulyás were standard fare. Mom would take supreme delight in supervising every detail of their preparation. Afterwards, I would proceed to clean all dishes by hand. I preferred doing them that way, and since I alone would invariably be doing the work, I figured how I cleaned them was my business. However, Mom being Mom, she had other ideas, and would vehemently insist I clean them using the automatic dishwasher. She thought it’d be much easier that way, and they’d get done quicker (she was right, of course). It amounted to an ongoing, often heated, argument.
Sometime after Mom had passed, again dates fail me but I would guess within weeks, I happened to be standing alone in the kitchen, perhaps four or five feet from the dishwasher, when, for some inexplicable reason, it just (I don’t know how else to put it) turned on by itself, started spritzing and humming and going through its cleaning cycle. I was taken aback for sure, could not figure how or why it behaved as it did. I turned it off after half a minute or so. I have no explanation. Could it have been some kind of electrical short or loose wiring in the system causing it to malfunction? I suppose. However, it never did this before, nor has it suddenly turned itself on since. If Mom was trying to communicate with me, of all possible messages and choices of electrical appliances, her picks were brilliant, unmistakably reminding me of our longstanding argument. They bore her fingerprints. What is equally noteworthy was my calm demeanor at the time and how quickly I resumed normal activities, reminiscent of Mom’s reaction decades earlier to the glass-covered painting incident.
I would be remiss in not providing details of the actual moment of Mom’s passing. Best I could determine, there was an absence of fear and no struggle or clinging to life whatsoever. No labored breathing. No death rattles. She passed from this earth like a vanishing angel. Like the near-death experience, deathbed apparitions are a universal phenomenon. Whether real or imagined, whether departed souls (or angels) do or do not in fact accompany the dying from this world to the next, there is no doubt that these hallucinated perceptions are a tremendous source of comfort.
One final observation: a few weeks after her passing, I felt compelled to clip some flowers from her prized rose bush in the back yard. I remember thinking this was rather odd, since I much prefer leaving nature intact. Having placed them in a vase and left alone for a little over a week, the roses appeared to have withered, dried, and then died. I planned to dispose of them the following day. Overnight, the largest of the batch seemed somehow to have reanimated itself. It bloomed or, rather, re-bloomed – brighter and more glorious than ever! Why that particular rose had sprung back to life, and all others adjacent to it had died, is puzzling. Was it a mere sign or symbol, its meaning residing in the eye of the beholder? Perhaps synchronicity, as Jung had often spoken of? Or something grander: Mom spiriting? Mysteries, eternal mysteries . . .
If seeing is believing . . .
Source: photo taken October 2015 by Patrice Schwartzman
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