Beverly Hess, 1926

My mom died last Wednesday. She'd been diagnosed with scleroderma, a chronic and often progressive disease of the immune system, back in 1992. We've known since then that there was a good chance that the disease would kill her if something else didn't first. She had ten good post-diagnosis years, more or less, but the last few were very tough. The form of scleroderma Bev had was systemic, affecting lots of different systems in her body. Her skin became tight and hard in places, her digestive function was compromised, shutting down entirely several times, and her circulatory system was increasingly unable to get sufficient blood flow to her extremities. It was this last issue that precipitated her death. She'd been having trouble with her feet for months, and in early January underwent a diagnostic procedure to determine to what degree circulation to her feet could be re-established. When the answer came back "not at all," she had a choice between having her feet amputated in the near term and probably her hands and more leg in the medium term, or calling it a life and entering hospice. There was never really any question in her mind or anyone else's who knew her which she'd choose. In the hours immediately following the diagnosis, my sister Megan and I wrestled with how to approach Mom with the hard choices that needed to be made. When Megan broached the subject with Bev it was clear that she was way ahead of us.

I spent the week before last in Pennsylvania, sleeping in Bev's apartment and spending most of the days with her. It was an experience I'll never forget. Students of the dying process say that people begin to make the transition long before the actual event. That was certainly my perception of what Bev did. There were moments of seemingly perfect lucidity, but they were interspersed with the most amazing journeys back through her life in the form of waking dreams. The pain meds may have contributed to this as well. My dad, Dick, who died in 1991, came to visit often, as did our dog Cokie, who didn't make it out of the 70s. At one point she exclaimed "Oh, look, Dick's here!" and then, "He just went up through the ceiling...I should have kept my big mouth shut!" I visited as a child, even as I sat there in real life as an adult. Apparently "Little Chris" was sitting on my own shoulder for a while. Mom's room became quite mobile, flying between places she'd lived or visited. Oddly, she knew these were hallucinations. We even joked about whose reality was real: the dreary one I advocated, or hers. It might have been easy to dismiss all this as the delirious rantings of a sick woman, but there was a certain undeniable logic to all of it that was both fascinating and a little unsettling.

Over the course of the week, we had the opportunity to wrap up some longstanding business. There were some issues that had been hanging over and between us for 20-plus years. She'd made some decisions for me when I was a teenager that I'd fought tooth and nail. She prevailed, and I said some stuff I wish I hadn't. She was right, by the way. Last week, I let her off the hook and she did the same for me. Perhaps ironically, it was Bev's urging that I say what needed to be said to my father years ago that helped me work with her to make things right last week. I think I was immensely lucky, thanks mostly to Bev, to have had the opportunity to say exactly what I needed to say to both my parents before they were gone. I don't mean to preach here, but I strongly recommend that you use the time you have with your loved ones wisely. You might not have as much time as I had. The smile Mom gave me after we'd said our pieces will keep me warm for a long time to come.

Jennifer and the came down to see Bev (and help preserve my sanity) toward the end of the week. I'd been worried that Mom would be out of it and the would freak out, but she mounted a herculean effort to be present and lucid. Sophie and Skye made huge pink posters for her room telling her how much they love her, and she was appropriately doting and grandmotherly.

I drove back to Massachusetts on Saturday, thinking I'd return to see her the following weekend. There didn't seem to be any particular hurry...our expectation was that eventually an infection would set in in her feet and she'd die of blood poisoning. Megan visited her the following Monday. Mom told Megan that she had to pack so she and Dick could go home. Wednesday morning she was unresponsive and her breathing became labored. She slipped away peacefully around noon with two hospice workers and her friend Eliza in the room telling her that Megan and I love her and that we said it was OK to go.

I don't know exactly what killed her. She didn't die of sepsis, like we'd expected. I'm thankful for that, as it's a pretty gruesome death, even with meds. I choose to believe that she'd finished her work here and was ready to move on. I have great respect for the way she lived her life and the way she ended it. I love her, and I'll miss her.

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