On Facing Mortality

Heather with her husband Jerald

This morning on the way to the Portland airport my husband turned to me and said “I can’t do this.”  He was about ready to catch a flight to Honolulu, Hawaii to be with his daughter that was just been diagnosed with stage 4 heart and lung cancer, a very rare occurrence.  Heather, a non-smoker, at age 38 was in the prime of her life.  She and her husband were building their dream on property in the highlands of the Big Island when she collapsed after dealing with what her doctor thought was a severe case of bronchitis.  Her husband rushed her to the hospital. Now, she cannot leave the hospital in Honolulu as she needs oxygen to survive.

Heather welding with her dad.

I replied to him- “yes you can.  “Be a bulldog, don’t run away.  Go head-on.”

“This isn’t about what you can deal with, it’s about supporting her to get through this whatever the outcome with your full love and support.  She chose chemotherapy.  Be fully there for her.”

I’ve had some experience with this.  My darling newborn son, Gareth, contracted a life-threatening infection at 10 days old.  I kept hoping to wake up from that nightmare.  I didn’t.  My beautiful baby was full of tubes.  His little body was all swollen, hair shaved off one side of his head.  Worse, we couldn’t hold him.

We were told such things as:

  1. If he makes it, he will be brain damaged or live in a hospital for the rest of his life
  2. Kids don’t live through this
  3. You will need a LARGE miracle

I fully embraced option 3.  They allowed me to live at the hospital while he was in the NICU.  My husband at the time had a hard time dealing with the situation at all.  Meanwhile, I pumped breast milk at 3-hour intervals round the clock so he could have my breast milk when he once again could eat.  I rose in the middle of the night to sing and talk to him.  I prayed.

Ultimately my actions saved me.  Did they help save him?  Well, Gareth just celebrated his 35th birthday and he is as awesome as ever! (FYI, his name in Gaelic means strength).

We want to run from these situations since it is not only painful to see the ones we love suffer, we are frightened of our own mortality.

Gareth, my one and only precious son!

My dear friend and former teaching partner, Hilma, passed away 2 months ago from an 8-year battle with ovarian cancer. I made sure to check in with her every three months by phone. It was such a relief to her laughter from the other end of the line between her globe-trotting adventures with her husband.

Then, when the treatments quit working around Christmas, it was harder and harder to make those calls but I did it anyway. This was about her, not my fear. Two weeks before she passed I knew it would be our last phone call. I told her how much her friendship meant to me and what gold medal performance she made of life. I’m so grateful I made that effort.

She lived five years longer than most ovarian cancer patients. Combining the will to live with a positive attitude is powerful indeed.

My father, Bruce Pass

My father at age 91 passed away from complications of Parkinson’s disease.  I was there in the hospital when he said to the doctors, “Get me the hell out of this hospital, I’ve had a good life.  Let me go home and die!” (He always said it’s not good to outlive your shelf life.) Our job then was to honor that and give him the best death possible surrounded by his family.  Of course, it was sad, but it was also a beautiful experience with a cantor singing gorgeous songs to him as he slipped away.

My 94-year-old mother on the other hand is lingering in a memory care facility on hospice with severe Alzheimer’s disease. This is a hard one. It is easy to take it personally if one day they don’t remember you or don’t eat what you feed them, or even want you to go away. Again…this is where they are at. It’s their disease speaking and not their spirit. Honor the life they still have no matter how it manifests, no matter how difficult it is to witness.

With my mother, Elaine Pass

I have to say that my late friend, George David Armstrong had it right when he left this earth about the same time as Hilma.  At age 75 he passed unexpectedly away in his sleep with a smile on his face.  No suffering there!  We were all sad at his passing but knew he would not approve of excessive mopiness so we had a big party at his music store where we all celebrated his life with music and song.  My music partner, Kelsey, and I have guitars made by G.D. We feel his spirit lives on through our music.

This was not my planned post today. I convinced myself to table the other cheerier one for the time being and broach the topic at hand. Death and one’s mortality are difficult to face let alone write about. It’s personal and wrenching. That’s the problem in our culture. We don’t know how to manage our fears and emotions around the subject. I am no saint, nor expert in this realm but I wanted to share my experiences hoping it may help others. To be honest, at age 68 my mortality consciousness follows me around like a stray dog. My only way to deal with this is to face my insecurity head-on, like a bulldog, celebrating my life as it is, right now at this moment, writing.

Prayers for Heather

image by the author (pardon my language)

19 thoughts on “On Facing Mortality

  1. So sorry to hear of your daughter’s diagnosis. Though it may be difficult for him to face, your husband’s presence there will comfort her. I wish her well. Sorry for the other losses of loved ones, in body or mind, you have experienced. Your father’s final scene in this world sounded wonderful!

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  2. These were important reminders for me, today, Alanna. I’m glad that I was a bulldog and stayed alone in the room, talking with my mother as she slipped away. But these days, I sometimes feel like running away from things even when it’s not a question of life and death, so your thoughts were strengthening to me. At 70, I have a similar stray following me around…how aptly you put that! Please know that I’ll be including Heather and your family in my prayers.

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  3. Well said…lots of goodbyes in my 70th decade…they aren’t fun. But being present for whomever is going through the journey is so important. Thank you for your well written words. Harriott

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  4. I am so sorry to hear of Heather’s diagnosis Alanna and I am so glad you encouraged your husband to be with his daughter. It is so important and special to be able to be there for those we love and I truly believe those final moments and conversations help with a peaceful transition from this world to the next. Wishing you all strength, love and healing 💞💜💞 xxx

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  5. A lot of fond memories whith her. So creative, ambitious, kind, and funny. I will be praying for healing and peace.

    CassieJo

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  6. Thank you for this. I’ve known Heather since she camped with us (WetWesties) in eastern Oregon about a zillion years ago. My heart goes out to all who know her. I too hope for a HUGE miracle.

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  7. Oh Alanna, my heart goes out to you and Raymond. There is no easy way through this but your ability to share your darkest fears in such a heartfelt way is like medicine for the soul. Raymond is so fortunate to have your strength, support and guidance on his side. Take good care.

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  8. Mahalo for heartfelt and compassionate words to all of us who know and love Heather and Gerald. They are blessed to have you in their circle of support.

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