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My husband, Tim, has journeyed with many people at the end of their lives. He’s served as a chaplain in hospice, long term care, and hospital settings. Though some people don’t want to admit that they are dying or to talk with Tim or their loved ones about their death, others are open to acknowledging it and to intentionally engaging end-of-life conversations. Tim has often talked to his patients about the Four Things. According to physician, Ira Byock, there are four things that matter most – four phrases that can give strong shape to our final conversations.
Please forgive me.
I forgive you.
I love you.
When my family and I visited my mom in July of last year, Tim knew it would be the last time he was with her before her death. I sat next to Mom on her couch in her Happy Place while Tim sat across from us, holding the large stuffed hedgehog Dad had given Mom for Valentine’s day that year. The name of the hedgehog was Be Brave.
Tim held Be Brave and worked through the four sentences. He made sure that there was nothing for which they needed to forgive each other. He thanked her for the mom that she was to me and to him and he told her he loved her. She reciprocated with her own love and gratitude. We all had tears.
Mom was diagnosed with lung cancer on a Wednesday in late November of 2019. That evening, my thirteen-year-old daughter and I went on a walk with our one-year-old puppy, Nevada. I was numb and tingly with the news and needed the walk to ground me. We knew that the cancer had already spread and that we were facing a lot of lasts. Samara said, “Let’s unpack the feels. What are you feeling right now?” I don’t even know.
“Are you feeling sad?” Yes.
“What does your sad say?” (Thanks to both Inside Out and our exposure to Internal Family Systems Therapy, we had often talked about how the different parts of ourselves have different voices. She knew to ask me this good question.)
I responded and she kept going: “Are you feeling mad? What does your mad say?… Are you feeling scared? What does your scared say?… It sounds like your scared has two scareds… My sad is feeling sad for your sad.”
We talked about making a list of all the things I wanted to be sure to talk to Mom about before she died and about how important it was for me to go to Minnesota to see her as much as possible. In my journal I wrote and reflected on Samara’s words:
“When big things like this happen, I feel excited – well that’s not the right word.” (And we totally understood each other – how we knew we were on the verge of learning and growing and seeing the universe differently.) I talked to her about writing essays [about this anticipated loss] and she said she would title an essay, The Big Small. And I said, “I like that title a lot.”
Oh, Samara. Thank you. I love you.
Every time I crossed the Canadian/American border to visit my mom during her cancer journey, I knew it could be the last time I saw her. And so each time, we packed our goodbye hugs with all the strength of a last hug and we looked each other in the eye with all the love of a last look. And we said the things we needed to say. During one of these hugs, Mom said in my ear, “Everything I have taught you, I will keep on teaching you. Everything you have taught me, you will keep on teaching me.”
Mothers and daughters teach each other and hold each other in all sorts of ways. Mom always loved to tell the story of how I comforted her on a hot July afternoon when I was just two years old. Mom was 39 years old and five months pregnant with my sister. I was resisting my afternoon nap and Mom was at the end of her rope. She wrote in her diary, “We were camping in the tent at Sibley Park. It took Heidi 1½ hours to fall asleep in the afternoon. I was impatient and started crying. Heidi consoled me, ‘That’s all right, Winnie. You sit down and rest awhile.’”
She taught me; I taught her. She cared for me; I cared for her. One of the ways we did this in her final months was by praying for each other at the end of our morning FaceTime call. I would pray through the conversation we’d just had about the day behind us and the day ahead of us – and then she would pray. Sometimes she’d just add a sentence or two. But if I was facing a difficult day, her prayers for me were long and hard. The end of our prayer was always the end of our conversation and so sometimes we’d say, “Amen!” when we meant Goodbye and sometimes we’d say, “Goodbye!” when we meant Amen. And we’d always say blow each other kisses and say, “I love you!”
On Wednesday, November 4, 2020, Mom was resting peacefully in her hospital bed. The discomfort and agitation of the previous day had left her. We knew the end could come soon. I sat next to her bed and talked to her.
I told her I loved her and that I would so miss our morning calls and prayers. As I spoke, she made these small noises–tiny sighs that she hadn’t been making earlier. The slightest bit of air over her vocal cords. Big Smalls. I thanked her for being the best mom and apologized for not having worn make-up that week (she always loved it when I took the time to put on make-up). “I’m not wearing it because I’d just cry it off, Mom!” I laughed as the tears dripped off my nose and on to her t-shirt.
Forgive me. Thank you. I love you.
Goodbye. Amen. I love you.
This was our last conversation.
And yet, it wasn’t. Everything she taught me, she keeps on teaching me. Every way she cared for me, I still hold inside. Nine months after her death, my tenderest moments are still just before I fall asleep at night. I let myself remember something very specific—her teeth when she laughed, the softness of her cheek when I kissed her face, her coffee breath, the big small sighs right before the end. The whole universe tilts and the tears come. And I imagine her coming to my bedside, tucking my hair behind my ear. “Shhhh… It’s all right, Heidi. You can rest a while.”
I imagine her singing the song she sang to me as a child when I couldn’t fall asleep… one of the songs we sang to her moments before she breathed her last:
Rest, rest in him.
Your work is through.
Lean back on his great pow’r.
He’ll work through you.