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Purple Is the Color of Love: A Journey through Hospice

Massaging her feet, the twilight draws me into a place of sudden and unexpected knowing. I trace an outline of calloused soles, cracked from the weight of recent years spent walking a harder earth than she was used to. An insight: Even though strokes took away her speech and much of her mobility, they can never take away this sacred time that we’re spending together as a family. Feeling this truth in my hands, I manage to let out a sigh for both of us.

As I dig into her surprisingly elegant toes, squeezing tightly and pulling flesh away from bone while loving every last part of her, I realize there is nothing left for us to worry about. Hospice has taken care of most of the details. All we do now is wait for Mary to slip through the veil as it is slowly and tenderly being lifted.

There is such joy in greeting the morning sun together. It rises over Taos Mountain, unspooling its light into our living room where we have placed Mary’s bed. She faces East. It was always East with Mary—her heart was there in the dozens of times she went to India to study Hinduism with her beloved guru, Swami Shyam. Her religion has made her more comfortable with death than most Westerners I know, and we can all see the deep surrendering within her. She accepts her fate with grace, something she probably learned when she sat through thousands of hours of meditation. I like to think that the bed’s placement is a fitting, albeit unintentional, homage to her spiritual path.

Her feet—I don’t want to let go. They anchor me into her world. She moves her hands and her eyes, and not much else. It’s her eyes that I really notice. They are like a newborn’s—simultaneously looking at everything and nothing. I remember holding my son when he was a baby and finding the very same sense of wonderment in his eyes. Life can be so rich, so grand! I’m struck by how similar being a new parent is, to being a caregiver for someone who is standing on the precipice of death.

I finally let go and open the French doors to birdsong and a cloudless sky. Since Mary joined us a week ago, the weather has transitioned from March’s winter to April’s spring. Our cats catch their first lizards of the season and bring them inside as an offering. I can imagine Mary laughing—she has always loved the companionship of animals and passed that love along to her kids. My husband tells the story of how he and his sister got mules for Christmas one year, and how Santa delivered them with bright red bows around their necks. How I wish I’d known Mary back in those days…

Our two cats are privy to everything. From their perch above Mary’s bed, they get to see the quiet way she embraces dawn and the giant tapestry of love that we’ve crafted in the course of having her here. They get to see how even when grief splits us down our seams, there are still many gifts to be found in the experience. We learn something that our wild and wise desert cats might already know: what the universe takes, it also gives.

We have the gift of music. It’s always been near the center of Mary’s life, and so we continue the tradition. Mary gave birth to two talented musicians—my husband, Brennan, and his sister, Laura. Brennan plays the lap harp for his mother, churning out ethereal melodies that are equal parts lament and celebration. Mary reaches out and grips the instrument with more strength than her 90-pound frame should be able to muster. It’s like she’s trying to weight herself back down into this atmosphere. We all gather around her bedside—my teenage son, myself, Brennan, Laura, Laura’s husband—and we witness the delight in her eyes as she drifts in and out of this earthly plane.

We have the gift of pampering. Laura paints Mary’s toenails dark purple—her mother’s favorite color. The particular shade is slightly rebellious, just like Mary used to be. She was a French-Canadian model who married an American rock star, and the stories I hear make it sound like she had an endless capacity for fun. She was well taken care of throughout much of her life, and we do our best to pamper her with facials, massages, and anything else that might allow her to feel like she did back when things were easier. Together, we help her reach for the time before the divorce, before the financial difficulties, before the descent.  

We have the gift of love. If it wasn’t for hospice staff showing up to see us at their appointed times, we’d be an isolated little island off the coast of La La Land. Hospice keeps us grounded and prepared. They teach us how to give Mary her meds, counsel us about our own grief, explain the stages of dying, groom her, and provide genuine, heartfelt care. Hospice gives us the opportunity to be present for Mary as best we can. With their unwavering support, we witness our love for Mary, and love for each other, bloom into something extraordinary.

The Setting Sun

Dusk announces its arrival when the birdsong leaves and the sun can no longer be seen through the Eastern windows. We feel Mary’s final hours approaching in the rattling of her chest and in the long pauses between breaths. Her cold hands bring thoughts of ice cream to mind—she was never without the dessert in her freezer! Everything now, appropriate or not, is connected to some kind of memory.

One by one, we let out-of-town family know that she is in the final stretch. They say what they need to on a speakerphone that Laura holds up to her mother’s ear. Even though Mary doesn’t respond, we’re convinced she understands the love that is being poured over her.

Her stepson, Ryan, is another accomplished musician in the family, so of course he communicates to Mary in song. From his home in Nashville, he sends us something he spontaneously wrote and recorded on his phone in honor of her. We play it for Mary on the living room speakers. The poor sound quality allows us to pretend that we’re listening to a record and adds to the tenderness of the lyrics and mournful guitar rifts:

“Lady Sunhawk” by Ryan Murphey

mourning song
from a sun hawk flying low
stops to rest its wings
in the new fallen snow
miss your smile
in the stars and summer smiles
when the eagle dance was new
and the dream of love was true

(chorus):

lady sun-hawk
let’s fly again once more
I’ll play your tune we disappear
in the clouds we’ll walk once more
lady sun-hawk
dark daydreams
of fools and wasted schemes
our painted town is forgotten 
now that the landscape has all changed 
but I still have you 
in our amber memory
where hope is never ending
medicine for the free

Medicine for the free… That line has stuck with me.We brought Mary into hospice not knowing what to expect. I remember talking to a social worker prior to her arrival and expressing how scared I was. I’d never seen death so up-close before, and I’d certainly never invited it into my home. I was afraid of my own grief consuming me to the point of not being able to be present for anybody else. In confronting my fear and in bringing her home to die, I found that having her with us was actually medicine… much-needed medicine for us all.

She made it through that final night, which we did not expect, and she passed just before dawn. Laura draped a purple velvet robe with fine silken embroidery over her mother. It was Mary’s from her modeling days. Upon it she placed a bouquet of white lilies that we’d kept at her bedside since her arrival. Mary had been with us eight full days, and the flowers were just as fragrant as they were when we started our hospice journey together.  

In death, so is life. The urn Laura picked out could not have been more fitting: it’s biodegradable, and Mary’s ashes will now be food for a tree. Not just any tree, either—an Eastern Redbud. Like her, it is native to both Quebec and New Mexico. Its leaves are heart-shaped, and—in yet another sign from the heavens—it buds in early April!

A couple of years from now in a distant spring, there will be a special tree in our yard with gorgeous flowers in full bloom. It’ll be Mary. Once again, she’ll be cloaked in a most rebellious shade of purple.

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