Today is July 25. Exactly one year ago I made my debut in Paris. But it was in 2004, in the wee small hours of the morning, that I had my bravest night.
By the way, if I had to pick one human quality that above all others helps us to get through the most difficult moments of life, it would be courage. Wisdom and compassion are very important, too, and go hand in hand, but if I had to pick just one, it would be courage.
Sometimes life tests us to see what we are made of. Only in the act of rising to the moment do we know that we are capable of rising. I know there are many who have had to bring up immense courage from within themselves to cope with personal tragedy and ill health. I bow with respect to all those who rise to life’s challenges as I remember this day 6 years ago.
My mother, like her father before her, was dying of colon cancer. She was living in Oakland, an unwilling transplant from her native New York. We had decided several years prior that the only way to manage things with my father’s condition – the long goodbye furnished by Alzheimer’s – was that they both had to move here, he to a care facility, and she to a senior community. My father had passed in 1998, and my brother, back East, in 2002. I remember sitting in my mother’s apartment with her, she at age 90, a year before her death, my head in her lap, as she said to me in her characteristic, wry way, “don’t get too attached to me.” She knew before the official diagnosis that her time was coming.
The hospice nurse, and the private nurses I’d hired, had helped to make her more comfortable in her last days, and, on July 24, when she’d finally had enough of the pain, she allowed us to put a painkiller patch on her arm. For days she had been unable to take anything at all into her body; her system was shutting down, it was hard to keep her hydrated at all. I bunked out in her studio apartment, unwilling to leave her side, even as I finished a performance project with kids in San Francisco the day before she passed. Just like my father, she waited until the kids had been served.
Before we put the painkiller patch on, I wanted to make sure that we said goodbye; I knew she might not be able to access the lucidity with which her last years and days had been blessed. She had refused all rabbis, ministers of any faith, other visitors. I was her confessor, her priest, her friend. I told her I loved her and that she had been the very best of mothers, that my gratitude was boundless.
She said to me, her last gift which I hold inside me every moment of every day, “I want you to fulfill your dreams.”
We applied the patch. Soon she went to sleep. As the night wore on, the nurse and I administered small doses of morphine at regular intervals. Then the nurse had to leave at about 2 a.m. She was making food for her church the next morning and she had to go.
I was alone with my dying mother, in charge of her comfort.
My father had passed in a nursing home, with a staff on duty, in the daytime. I had seen death, but I was unprepared for this.
The vigil began. In a couple of hours, a crisis. She started to become nauseous from the painkiller, as she had become nauseous from anything else that was introduced into her body. Our own hospice nurse wasn’t even on call; the dear man that I had bonded with because he and his twin brother had been conceived in the balcony of a Brooklyn movie theater that my mother had often attended as a girl. The Avalon.
Avalon had taken on symbolic meaning for me. The magical land to which King Arthur had been taken to face his own death. An Island shrouded in mist. I had told her that Daddy would be waiting for her, sailing around the Island in the magenta-sailed, 10-foot boat of my childhood summers of Catskills bungalow colonies and lakes. She’d said she wanted to believe me.
I couldn’t stand to see her suffer and I felt utterly powerless. I was alone. I called the hospice nurse on call. About a half hour later she arrived. Stern. A take-charge African-American woman of stature who was going to get me to pull up my socks and handle this. I was afraid to touch my mother; afraid I’d do the wrong thing and cause her more pain and suffering. The hospice nurse taught me to put tiny amounts of morphine inside my mother’s lower lip with my finger, every 20 minutes. She got me started and left. I was alone again, but now I had risen and I was determined to do justice to the woman who had sacrificed her preferences in life to her family, to me, my brother and my father.
The sun rose. The next private nurse on the shift arrived. I shall be forever grateful to her; Geneva, a compassionate member of the community of many Fijian caregivers. She took over on the watch; I may have slept, or maybe not.
I remembered my father’s last hour. How the nurse had stopped in to his room in the nursing home to check his vital signs and said that he was barely alive, that the hearing was the last sense to go, and that sometimes people needed to hear that it was alright for them to leave their bodies. 6 years or so before I had leaned over my father, to reassure him about the things he had been asking about – in disjointed words – through his last months. Were the cars in good condition, my Mr. Fix-It father wanted to know. Did we have enough money, my working musician-full time music teacher-private lesson teacher-family provider wanted to know. I had assured him that the cars were all running, we had enough money and that we were all safe. Shortly after, he’d departed the body that had loved to walk around lakes, and sail on them, and play sax solos.
I leaned over my mother and told her I loved her, told her that I’d be ok, that I’d be safe and sound, that she could go whenever she wanted to. With a last expiration of breath, she released her life.
I had risen. I knew now that a deep well of courage lay within me, that I could pull it up when I needed to. We don’t know what life holds in store, but it was the bravest night of my life. So far.
In tribute to her unfulfilled dreams, I would fulfill my own, with her blessing. And so I endeavor to, every day, do something that brings me closer to that fulfillment.
– July 25, 2010; the 6th anniversary of my mother’s passing.