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Deathing Miriam

By: John W. Worman

A joyful way of crossing over and into the Light.

She was a magnificent and courageous woman; more than one-hundred caring friends attended her funeral service. Accompanying the minister’s eulogy and per Miriam’s written request, Linda and I shared our hearts, publicly; several friends from the congregation did likewise. We all lit candles, one from the other, in silent prayer while the cathedral organ quietly played Schubert’s Ave Maria. At the conclusion of the service Linda and I played a violin-piano duet, the Meditation from Massenet’s Opera, Thais, much to everyone’s heartfelt surprise.

Following Miriam’s cremation, Linda and I brought her home and performed a private ceremony; a public ceremony wasn’t enough. Together, we lit candles, opened Miriam’s Bible to her favorite passage, The Sermon on the Mount, and read the text. Then, for several days following, we offered our prayers, guiding Miriam into the light of God.

Finally a day came when we knew we must take care of ourselves. As long as we held back any part our own grief, not carrying it to completion, our subconscious pain would impact our daily lives. We got out family photo albums and filled the living room with pictures and mementos. We read aloud parts of the family genealogy and love letters between Linda’s parents. We watched home movies, some dating back to before Linda’s birth. Then, in order to facilitate bringing our grief into acute awareness, I placed a recording of Puccini’s, La Bohème onto the compact disk player and set the volume. Linda and I loved this opera; we knew the love story well. But, somehow, magically, as the story began to unfold we both visualized Linda’s father, Jack, as Rodolfo, and her mother, Miriam, as Mimi. And when the dissonant climax came, announcing the anguish of Rodolfo’s loss in Mimi’s death, spontaneously, we cried and cried.


One afternoon in early January I arrived home from work early. Linda was busy packing her mother’s clothes into boxes destined for the Goodwill store. I didn’t say a word as I walked to where she was kneeling and began massaging her head and shoulders.

"Mom was extraordinary," Linda reminded me in her usual quiet voice.

I reached down and took my wife’s right hand. I placed a slight pressure in her palm and, as if leading in a dance, I asked her to rise. Then I held her in my arms, knowing she was right.

"Through her I realized that pain leads to fear; fear leads to anxiety," Linda continued. "But it’s not pain nor fear that threatens our soul, it’s anxiety, the disquieting concern that fate might turn against us; that in spite of all our work and effort, life might show itself to be meaningless."

Linda’s words concerned me. But she touched her right index finger gently to my lips, silencing my thoughts.

"Mom demonstrated, it’s not about anxiety were we get stuck in our lives; it’s how we deal with it. She taught me the courage to be. The courage to affirm my life in spite of the universal human condition: insecurity, uncertainty, and imperfection."

Following dinner, washing and putting away the dishes, Linda and I retired to our family room in order to read and enjoy the evening’s fireside. As I lit and then stared into the rising blaze, soon beginning to pop and spit, I couldn’t help remembering the eight months, past:


"Leave it to God?" Dr. Alexander echoed, pretending disbelief. He knew my mother-in-law well enough to know this was coming.


"Miriam, chemotherapy is still an option. We turned your cancer around once before; there’s a chance we can do it again. We know more than we did five years ago."

"At what cost? Those last treatments made me sick; the nausea, the vomiting, the constant fatigue; it was worse than my disease. Now look at me…my face, my hair, my skin…I’m not going through it again!" Miriam affirmed, reaching out and tightening her grip on her daughter’s right hand.

"You’ll die!" Dr. Alexander reminded her.

"Going to die anyway…all of us are going to die!" Miriam retorted. She was a stubborn woman once her mind was made.

Watching Miriam, now propped up by several pillows in her hospital bed, her ashen complexion made her look much older than her years; her once beautiful blond hair was now gray turning to white and she’d lost much of her natural vivaciousness, a startling contrast to my memory. Seemed not so long ago, I thought of her as a fairy princess, filled with magic and love. She was never the mother-in-law stereotype.

"Linda, what about you?" Dr. Alexander asked my wife, observing her closed posture. "Do you support your mother’s decision?"

As I stood listening to the ensuing dialog, my thoughts took me back to Jack’s death, only three years earlier. My father-in-law died in the hospital from post surgery complications amidst uncaring fools. It was ugly! I remembered Linda’s, Miriam’s and my pain, how we wanted it to be different. It became obvious that the medical profession believes curing the pathology is more important than the nobility of the soul. Still, they failed, robbing his dignity in the process. I knew those events were influencing our present decisions.

"What about you Walt?" Dr. Alexander asked, turning, startling me from my reverie.


"Surely you don’t support Miriam’s intention?"

"Yes! Yes I do!"

Dr. Alexander shook his head. Then, turning back to my mother-in-law, he asserted, "Don’t think you understand."

"I understand very well. I’m terminal! And even though you think you have my best interest at heart, my health is my responsibility, not yours!"

Dr. Alexander winced. He’d been trained to believe that a patient’s health was the doctor’s responsibility, theirs alone. "I want you to talk with a friend of mine, an expert in these matters."

"I’m not going to see a psychiatrist, if that’s..."

"Why not?"

"My support is my family, my church, my circle of friends."

"I don’t think that’s enough! In a few months you’re going to need care, lots of it. Who…"

"I’ll care for my mother! Whatever it takes!" Linda exclaimed.

"Me too," I added.

Miriam turned and smiled into her daughter’s big blue eyes, then, into mine.

I thought about our agreements. We knew there would be difficulties ahead. And, Linda and I had some tools. For Miriam’s physical welfare, we’d already contacted our local Hospice and had taken several workshops. For her spirit, we were well grounded in the humanities. While in college we learned about being human by taking extra classes in anthropology, philosophy and religion. Since college, Linda and I attended personal effectiveness seminars, including couples and family systems psychology workshops. We knew that health means balancing all aspects of life, physical, mental and spiritual.

"I can give my mother something I don’t think you understand," Linda asserted, turning, looking Dr. Alexander straight in the eye.

"What?" Dr. Alexander demanded.

"Walt and I understand soul stuff! Like, how to share our hearts, how to support the emotional needs of another."

"And just how does this help your mother?"

I turned and looked at my wife in wonder. How could she explain the abstractions of spirit to someone so grounded in material realism?

"Soul stuff makes what we have, right here, right now, meaningful. It opens the door to true intimacy," Linda continued.

"Meaning? Intimacy? Words! What good are they? They certainly won’t pull your mother from the quicksand of disease!" Dr. Alexander looked like he was ready to grab for throats as he tightened his grip on the bed’s handrail.

"I have a voice here," Miriam appealed, bringing everyone’s attention back to her. "I no longer care about fixing the disease, being half aware from drugs. I want to be conscious. I want to get to know my family and friends better, who these people really are, their passions, their frustrations. What I know is true, without intimacy, without satisfaction of the soul, life has very little meaning!"

Knowing the imminence of ones own death is both blessing and curse; Miriam’s moods began swinging wildly and with the randomness of dice. During her highs, she recognized the blessings and spent quality time with her daughter. There were no axes to grind, no psychological games to play; they shared as best friends, laughing and having fun. Sometimes they went shopping, took hikes and picnicked at a local nature park. Sometimes they enjoyed simple walks around the neighborhood, talking with friends. Together, they planned and prepared delightful meals. They also shared hopes, dreams and their disappointments. We encouraged her to enjoy life as much as her stamina would allow.

During her lows, however, no matter how noble her ideology, Miriam carried a lot anxiety around the unknown. "Why has God turned away?" became a recurring question, a question that tested her soul.

One evening while feeling strong enough to help wash the evening’s dishes, Miriam began throwing her finest china against the wall in a fit of rage. Linda had the courage not to stop her. She knew that rage was one way of coping with despair.

"Lots of anger, huh." Linda said when her mother had lost some momentum.

Miriam exploded into tears.

"It’s can break all the dishes you want," Linda said as she took her mother into her arms.

" won’t help, not really." Miriam mumbled in-between her wet sobs.

"What do you want me to do?" Linda asked, softly.

"Dunno...I feel so awful, so helpless...don’t wanna die," Miriam muttered as she pulled Linda to the floor with her slumping weight.

Linda helped break her mother’s fall, then sat down next to her while sweeping the broken china away with a dish towel. Linda rocked her mother back and forth like a she would a wounded child.

Finally, Linda and I helped Miriam to bed and tucked her in. Linda laid down beside her, holding her close, realizing that parent-child roles were subtly reversing. I turned out the bedroom light and sat on the bed holding Miriam’s hand. It wasn’t long until she fell into a deep nurturing sleep. Linda and I returned to the kitchen and cleaned up the mess.

The next morning Miriam was in a much lighter mood, she laughed at her predicament. "The cosmic joke!" She called it. Then she apologized. But we held no judgment; whatever her mood, Linda and I let it be okay. After all, how does one bind their anxiety? We knew, to make her wrong was an act of violence, ultimately creating barriers and withholds, worsening the situation for everyone. As long as communications remained open, intimacy was maintained; that’s what we all wanted. We understood from reading authors like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross that the human spirit must transcend a hierarchy of emotions in order to come to completion around spiritual pain. After the initial shock, there is denial resulting in anger, then rage. Next comes depression and bargaining. Finally, resignation and acceptance. Always there would be hope for a miracle.

The Hospice and Miriam’s church support group surrounded her with many caring friends. This helped her spirit tremendously. But as the months progressed she continued losing what was left of her physical well-being. About five months following her fateful announcement to Dr. Alexander, she began using a walker anytime she went out of the house.

One Sunday following church, even though tired and in great discomfort, Miriam insisted Linda and I take her to her favorite sandwich shop. The day was unseasonably warm and clear as we sat beneath an umbrella protecting us from the noonday sun. Sparrows pecked at pieces of crusty bread lodged in between orange, red and brown maple leaves packed against the sidewalk and a brick planter. Other patrons were engaged in there own importance.

"I’m sorry I’m being such a burden on you guys," Miriam began.

"It’s okay, Mom..." Linda reached out and took her mother’s right hand.

"No, it’s not!" Miriam interrupted. "I’ve been very selfish. The two of you should be starting your own family, not nursing a dying woman."

"We’re family. You’re part of our lives," Linda reminded. "You brought me into this world, saw me through sickness and pain, happys and sads. The least I can do..."

"Yes...and I’m dying. There is nothing you can do, nothing anyone can do. What’s worse, I’m behaving like an idiot!"

"’re magnificent!" Linda smiled and squeezed her mother’s hand.

Miriam relaxed considerably, then she took a sip of her iced tea; her hand trembled from its own weakness. "Sooner or later, we all die. Just happen to know my death is sooner. Tomorrow I want you and Walt to take me to see Attorney Josephson. It’s time to get my affairs in order." Miriam pulled a tissue from her purse, then blew her nose. "Whew...finally I can say it!"

"Some fear, huh," Linda offered, closing her eyes while biting her lower lip.

"Scared to death!" Miriam giggled her funny little laugh. Then silent tears began washing from her eyes. Linda turned and took her mother into her arms.

"I’m scared that after all the effort to do the right things in my life I may ultimately stand condemned."

Linda said nothing; she gently rocked her mother to and fro. I moved closer to Miriam and began stroking her hair. A young married couple seated at the table next to us began moving away; we frightened them.

"Mom, you’ve had the courage to take a stand in your life," Linda whispered after several minutes of nurturing silence.

"Guess I have, haven’t I." Miriam attempted a smile, but her eyes began burning from the smeared mascara. Linda helped clear her mother’s sight.

"Tell me, what was the most outrageous thing you ever did?" Linda asked, once her mother was settled.

Miriam didn’t have to think. "I got to play the piano on Chicago Radio back in the days it was broadcast live." At fifteen, her dream was to become a concert pianist.

"You really felt alive, huh."

"Yeah. Thought I had the world by the ass, I’ll tell ya what!" Miriam smiled in a way I hadn’t seen in a long time.

"What else?" Linda asked.

"The day you were felt like all of me was complete...the pain, the exaltation...Beebird, you must experience childbirth!"

"Mom, you haven’t called me that since I was a kid." Linda got a huge smile on her face and glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. Her inner child shined through, just like it did the day we met.

"The day your father proposed to me, that was pretty outrageous!"

"It was at Huntington Beach wasn’t it?" I asked, remembering some of Miriam’s personal history.

"Yeah, we had just finished grunion hunting with a bunch of friends. It was almost midnight. There was a bon fire, flames at least ten feet high. My cousin Duane was playing the guitar and Jack was singing...suddenly he turned to me and with a cracking voice, he sang his marriage proposal. I was so overjoyed; don’t think I slept for a week!"

"Sounds pretty special," I said, wishing my proposal to Linda had been half as romantic.

"Yeah…ya know, my whole life has been pretty special, least until now."

"Mom? Would you like to do something really outrageous again?" Linda asked.

"If I only could!"

"Would you like to go on a vision quest?" Linda asked. She and I had been discussing this prospect for several weeks. Even the Hospice folks agreed and offered to assist in whatever way appropriate.

As college students, Linda and I had been on our own vision quests. For us, in the solitude of the wilderness, the vision quest was the catalyst that made it possible to experience our deepest spirituality. Presently, Linda and I believed the vision quest held that possibility for Miriam. We knew that the Great Spirit could be experienced directly. We also knew that to do this usually means getting away from the normal activities of our daily lives.

The first weekend in October found Miriam, Linda, nurse O’Hara and myself in the Borrego Badlands east of San Diego, California. We drove for several hours, giving Miriam the time she needed to find her special spot. And, since Miriam was in no condition to set up her vision quest site herself, we did the manual labor: the traditional circle of rocks, her meditation tent, campfire and accompanying drum, smudging the area with sage smoke. Then we set up our own camp several hundred yards away, close enough to keep mindful watch, yet far enough away so she could have her own experience without our activities interfering.

The first two days were unremarkable. However, the morning of the third day Miriam called us on her handheld CB radio. When we got to her, her eyes were bright and a smile shined forth with the radiance of the rising sun.

"Something very wonderful happened," Miriam began, finding it difficult to enunciate her words. "It was close to sunrise, the moment before night ends and day begins; I felt the Earth tremble in the balance. Slowly the morning’s light began to finger through the darkness like some mysterious being dancing across the desert floor. Then the first rays of dawn edged their way over the distant horizon. Suddenly I felt as though I’d been released from my body and that all the confusion in my life had been made clear. I felt as though I’d somehow broken away from time and space. I felt as though I could die...I was willing to die. Because for just one brief moment, I knew; God and I are one."

By mid November Miriam’s condition began deteriorating rapidly. In just a few weeks her skin had grown to a ghostly white. Dr. Alexander said she was in serious danger of getting pneumonia and wanted to put her back in the hospital.

"I’ve had enough! You’ve poked, prodded and stuck me more than I can endure!" Miriam commanded with wheezed breath. Then, in keeping with her commitment, she made Dr. Alexander, Linda and myself promise that we would not allow any aggressive procedure or last minute ditch effort to thwart the inevitable.

That afternoon, Miriam handed Linda her eulogy along with detailed instructions on how to conduct her funeral. We all cried.

"I don’t have any time left," Miriam announced to her daughter in a lucid moment, one Tuesday afternoon, the first week in December.

"It’s okay to go, mom," Linda replied tenderly, giving Miriam permission to begin the next stage of her grand journey. "Walt and I will take care of everything."

I was in the kitchen preparing the evening meal. The smell of baking buns permeated the house. The kitchen window was open, allowing the setting sun to show its final glory. Linda walked quietly to my side. She had tears in her eyes. I embraced her.

"Won’t be long now," Linda said, clinging to me very tightly. "Mom’s running a fever."

"Sure you don’t want me to call Hospice, the minister?"

"You remember our agreements...just family!"

I strengthened my embrace as Linda sobbed. After several minutes Linda said she needed to be with her mother and quietly left the room.

Shortly, I walked into Miriam’s bedroom with some hot tea. Linda was on the bed snuggled close to her mother. One lone candle flickered in the corner of the room while a Mozart quintet played softly from a portable tape recorder. I was deeply moved and climbed onto the bed, too, snuggling my wife’s back. Miriam snored, wheezed and choked with the rattle of too much fluid in her lungs. It wasn’t long until her breath faltered and her body shuddered. We reminded her it was okay to go.

That evening, just after seven, Miriam died in her own bed with her children holding her so very tenderly. I sensed an essence wafting up, lingering, gone.


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© Copyright Feb. 2010