I would never have thought that anything in my mom’s behavior could mystify me, especially years after her death. If anything, our relationship could have used a bit more mystery throughout our long life together. I was sixty-four when she died, just shy of her ninety-second birthday. Mom, who didn’t have much of a childhood, had, early on in our relationship, developed a bad habit of forgetting that we were parent and child, not girlfriends. From my early teens, she’d confided all sorts of inappropriate secrets to me, most of which I wished I’d never learned, or at least, didn’t learn until I was well into my adult life. The flip side of that life without boundaries was that I knew her really well. I was with her during her best times and her worst times, the physical ones, the mental ones and the emotional ones. I recognized that there were parts of me that were just like her. When she wasn’t sick, she was energetic and curious, funny and entertaining, interested in just about everything. But neither her parents nor my father ever encouraged her to push beyond the limits of her role as daughter, a wife and a mother. She was always insecure, afraid to cross any boundaries beyond the ones between us. So she was always anxious. One of her greatest fears was of dying alone. I can’t count how many times she talked about that, drilling it into my head that if there was any way possible, I needed to be at her side when that time arrived. As she often reminded me, I’d been at my dad’s bedside when he died. Surely I could be with her too.
In July, 2015, my life was pretty intense. Michael’s health had been declining since the beginning of the year, his Merkel cell cancer advancing as his treatment options dwindled. He was inching closer to death when his oncologist, furious because he’d been rejected by a promising clinical trial, decided to prescribe a targeted therapy drug, quite like the one in that inaccessible program. That treatment had begun at the end of June. Initially, the drug hit him like a steamroller, exacerbating his profound fatigue while causing expected but challenging side effects. In the middle of that chaos, my mom forgot to use her walker in the middle of the night, thus falling and breaking her hip on a trip to the bathroom. Suddenly I was pulled in two directions, trying to help both of them through these major health crises with her in the hospital and Michael requiring frequent trips to the clinic to allay some of his dreadful side effects. A mad time. Before my mom’s surgery, I remember her saying that she didn’t know if she could “make it back from this one.” Even in her decline, I believed she had the self-awareness gleaned from a lifetime of health problems. For eight days I ran up and back between Michael at home, and my mom who was still in the hospital, post-surgery. Finally I managed to get her transferred back into her nursing home, aware that the profound physical devolution following a broken hip in elderly patients, had pushed her close to death. I got her back to familiar surroundings on Monday and into hospice on Tuesday morning. On Friday afternoon as I walked Michael into the cancer center for treatment, I received a call from the nursing home, informing me that my mother wanted me. I was able to get my daughter to take over for me with Michael as I careened my way to my mother’s bedside. As soon as I saw her I knew that she wouldn’t live much longer. I contacted my younger sister who lives in the same town. She soon joined me for the bedside vigil.
Back in 1989 when my dad died, he had essentially gone silent a few days before he stopped breathing. I suppose that quiet was in keeping with his personality – he was never a gregarious, outgoing person. Mom, on the other hand, was remaining communicative on her death bed. She was alternately agitated, annoyed or confused. Pain management was a problem as she had a high tolerance the medications hospice commonly used for relief. I spent time trying to comfort her and calm her down while pressing the staff to increase her dosages. At one point during that difficult afternoon, she pressed her hand to her abdomen and said, “something has gone terribly wrong.” I believed she was right, pretty certain she was in the throes of sepsis, although ultimately, that didn’t matter. Somehow we got to evening. We acquired more pain-relieving drugs which were finally enough. Mom was still a bit irritated, but I was able to distract her by appealing to her maternal instincts and by singing to her. As the medication kicked in, she got quiet. And then for hours, with her eyes wide open, she proceeded to extend her arm in front of her, moving her hand as if she was pulling a curtain aside, trying to see what was just beyond her field of vision. This action, which went on for hours, provoked all kinds of thoughts in my head. What was she looking for? Was she really making her way toward someone or something she knew was just beyond her? Or was this a weird reflexive behavior that didn’t mean anything? Watching it for hours in the night was such a challenge. I couldn’t sleep at all. By morning, she stopped moving. She just lay still, eyes wide open the whole time. Finally, her breathing slowed. She’d partially shifted to her side, my sister and I right in front of her, hands on hers, murmuring what we hoped were comforting words to her. Just as she drew her last breath, she suddenly furrowed her eyebrows in what to me looked like a quick, cognitive reflex. Then she was gone. I closed her eyes and turned to my sister, telling her that for the rest of my life, I was going to see that expression, always wondering what it meant. And here I am, over eight years later, still thinking about that moment.
My mom would have loved the fact that I was still pondering what her last hours meant. She would feel validated. Dorothy was cosmic. When I was growing up, she was always conjecturing about mystical experiences that had no basis in fact. When a serendipitous event occurred, she would say that she knew what was going to happen before it did. She thought my dad was chasing Ava Gardner through the universe, arousing bouts of irrational jealousy on her part. She didn’t want to be cremated because she thought she might need her body later. She was always having “these feelings.” Mom was really something, so different than me. I never believed in life after death. I think that one of the best times she ever had was when she dressed up as a fortune-teller for one of my niece’s birthday parties. Sitting in a dark, spooky room with a crystal ball telling fortunes fit in perfectly with her personality.
As for me, I’ve always acknowledged that certain events in life didn’t seem to have logical explanations behind them. But I’ve always thought that ultimately, science would some day come up with hitherto undiscovered explanations for those otherworldly moments. Maybe that time for scientifically explaining mysteries is getting closer. Recently I’ve read multiple articles about studies focused on people who were revived after being clinically dead. Aside from resuscitation itself being an incredible event, a number of these people recall their time in that place between life and death. And the doctors conducting these studies have brain activity data to support their recollections.
I don’t know whether any of the brain’s mysteries will ever be fully understood, at least in a way that can universally apply to everyone. I’m sure that the structural landmarks that comprise the average three pound adult brain are fundamentally similar for most people. However, there must certainly be individual reasons why some people can have vivid recall of being revived while others have none. Is the answer in genetics or the environment or a combination of both? With that broad variability, what can anyone realistically expect about truly understanding “what’s really out there?”
As if the mystery of life after death, however brief it may be, isn’t enough, neuroscientists are turning their attention to the science of dreams. That’s another murky area lurking around in our brains although there’s debate about whether dreams brew in the cerebral cortex, or the brain stem, or a combination of both. I’m just as curious what’s happening in my sleep as I am about what my mom was doing right before she died. I still remember two amazingly palpable dreams I had in late 1988. One was the very night my friend Fern committed suicide, although I didn’t know that at the time, and the other was a few weeks after her death. In the first one, I dreamed that I’d just been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and had been given only a few weeks to live. I woke from that dream sobbing inconsolably, certain that I was dying. I was stunned when I learned two days later that Fern had died at that very moment I was waking, disconsolate in the night. I’ve always been haunted by that dream, especially as it was followed three weeks later by another one equally astonishing. Two weeks after Fern’s death, I attended our 20th high school reunion, a tough event for me as I felt her absence more than anything else. In that dream I was again at the reunion, deep in conversation with another friend. Suddenly I realized that my friend had looked beyond me, his facial expression instantly altered. I asked him to tell me what was happening behind me but he was unable to reply. I turned around and there was Fern, wearing a red turtleneck sweater, one of her best colors, looking at me with a big grin on her face. We went rushing toward each other. I put my arms out to embrace her and as I did, I literally felt her pass through my body. I was astonished by the feeling and woke immediately, telling my husband that I felt as if Fern had visited me to let me know that she was at peace with her decision. To this day I’ve never been able to understand those dreams. Did I somehow know that Fern was going to die? She hadn’t told me. I thought we were going to see each other in a few weeks. Were we that powerfully connected? Was that possible? Or was I just sending messages to myself? I have no idea.
So I keep reading all the articles. My questions, memories and curiosity remain in my mind, companions which are intermittently subdued or active. I still have my innate skepticism that keeps me grounded while at the same time, I’d like to believe that more undiscovered possibilities and connections might be as real as my mom thought they were. I expect to be wondering about these mysteries as long as my mind remains reasonably functional. Maybe beyond then…who knows? For references to some current thoughts on my questions, I include the articles I’ve recently read below. I hope clicking on the links works for you.
The articles below describes data collected by physicians and scientists from multiple institutions which sheds light on previously unknown brain function after cardiac arrest.
*CLINICAL PAPER| VOLUME 191, 109903, OCTOBER 2023 Download Full Issue Resuscitation Journal
AWAreness during REsuscitation – II: A multi-center study of consciousness and awareness in cardiac arrest
Published:July 07, r2023DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resuscitation.2023.109903
This next article highlights individuals who self-reported their experiences after being resuscitated.
What a near-death experience is has never really been defined. Researchers have been trying to explore what’s happening when a patient’s heart stops to see if there are themes or patterns of consciousness.Kelsea Petersen / NBC News
And here is recent one about dreams.