Monday, June 9, 2014

An Intimate Death

Leila Bazzani

Time of death: 9:21 a.m. on January 19, 2014, just two months shy of her sixty-ninth birthday. My mother raised two beautiful children, was a wife to one of the sweetest, most gentle men I’ve ever known, and an honest, good-hearted friend to many. She lived many lives in her sixty-eight years and traveled far, both inside and out. And, she also had a hard life—one filled with many lonely days and unfulfilled dreams. It’s good to be honest about people, both living and dead.

I believe her dis-ease started as a very young girl, when her mother died in a maternity ward in Glouster, Massachusetts where she grew up. She told me that no one in her family came to her and told her what had happened, that she had to figure many things out on her own back then. So she mourned her loss best she could, as best as a five-year-old knows how with no guidance or explanation.

Naturally I don’t believe that grief truly ever left my mother’s body, but rather embedded itself deep in her tissue, a small planted seed. Over time that seed would swell, and she would feel the prick of pain—that pain a tool she used for many years as an inspiration to explore herself, and her relationship to the world around her. She tried therapy, art, and Buddhist meditation, showing her there is another way to relate to pain and suffering. But the seed still swelled.

As she entered her fifties she began to experience shortness of breath, and had a hard time walking up hills and in altitude. She went to the doctors; they would tell her different things and test her lung capacity, and give her inhalers. None of us thought much about it; lots of people have asthma and allergies.

Then about three years ago she began to develop a cough that just wouldn’t go away. She went to the doctors; they would tell her different things and examine her lungs. They said it was GERD. But it got worse.

In July of 2012 she called me while I was in Mexico, and told me the doctors finally ordered a CT scan, that she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, and she was already scheduled for her first round of chemotherapy. I cried, hung up the phone, and immediately looked up “stage four lung cancer life expectancy.” Most all the research turned up about eight months to a year.

The treatments made her very weak and nauseous; she had a hard time eating and didn’t want to leave the house. I would try and talk to her about taking a break from the chemo, that the tests showed it wasn’t helping, that it only made her more sick, but she insisted. She practiced her meditation and studied many teachings in the beginning, but soon she lost interest and just wanted to be distracted from her pain.

She grew thinner and thinner, until it was hard for her to get around, and she started spending more time in bed. I knew it was growing near. All she could eat were blended soups, smoothies, and tea. She lost more weight.

Soon we realized she needed twenty-four-hour care, the idea of hospice came up, and we called. They informed us they couldn’t offer help until she refuses treatment. She went in a wheelchair for one more round of chemo. She was so out of breath in treatment and her oxygen so low that the doctor told her no more. We went home with an oxygen machine, and called hospice the next day.

Calling hospice for a loved one makes the experience very real. They were kind, they came and examined my mother, and discussed what drugs they felt would make her the most comfortable, and offered to come and bathe her once or twice a week.

Soon she was bedridden, and everything had to be done with her lying down. She was only lucid at this point, only a little awake sometimes, and only taking liquids and meds that had to be given every couple of hours all day and night.

This is when we called Jerry Grace from Final Passages. She helps families facilitate home funerals for their loved ones and was recommended to us by the social worker. She came over in my mother’s final days and talked to us about the different options. She showed us pictures of homemade wooden coffins for burial, and beautiful hand-painted cardboard ones for cremation. We knew my mother wanted to be cremated, but didn’t know much beyond that as she never wanted to talk about her dying, or death.

Now the nurses were calling and coming by every day to check on her, and informed us it wouldn’t be long. The next few days were filled with us trying our best to make her as comfortable as possible. But dying is not a comfortable thing, not when you are sick and your body is slowly, piece by piece, shutting down. Watching someone you deeply care for, and who created you, go through this is a special pain, a deep helplessness. It demands a special bravery and fearless presence. On her final day in her body, she was not responsive at all and moaning in what seemed to be some type of ongoing dialog. The next morning she took her last breath.

We called Jerry Grace and told her the news; she said she would be over in a couple of hours with her kit of essential oils, dry ice, and a foam pad to protect the bed. She had instructed us to tie a ribbon around my mothers chin to keep her mouth closed before rigor mortis set in. When Gerry and her assistant arrive, she instructs my father, brother, aunt, and I on what our next steps should be. We start by undressing my mother and bathing her in warm water with washcloths. As she lies naked and clean, we anoint her in essential oils as Jerry Grace thanks my mother for allowing us to do so. I also thank her body for birthing two strong beautiful babies, and ask for us to remember and honor that her body was once very healthy and vibrant.

We dress her in an ornate silk kimono and decorate the bed with tapestries and pillows. I set two shrines, one on either side, and my dad burns ancient incense from their trip to Nepal thirty-something years ago. She looks beautiful.

We set her cardboard coffin up to paint in the living room, and invite her close friends to come by, spend time with her, and decorate. Her coffin was beautiful.

After she laid in honor for three days we held a Shing Kam for her with a local Acharya, and sent her off to pass quickly and without suffering. She was gone; it was a distinct and clear shift.

The next day we gently laid her in her coffin, and drove her to the crematorium. We opted to watch, and the man operating the oven explained the process. She was put in and the door closed. He told us to come back in a few hours to pick up the ashes after they’ve cooled. We returned, he opened the door, and we saw a swirl of ash that he swept into a bucket.

We took her home, donated the rest of the medical equipment, and began the process of returning to life, a new life without her.

Written Mother’s Day 2014
From the Shambhala Times Community News Magazine; reprinted with permission

Leila Bazzani

Leila Bazzani was first introduced to the Shambhala path as a young child by her mother, Valerie Bazzani. A student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, her mother brought Leila to many Shambhala functions as a child including Rites of Passage at age ten in Berkeley, California. Leila is now thirty-three and as of the last eight years has become very serious about practice and study. She is looking forward to revisiting Karme Choling this summer, since the last she was there was with her mother at age six for Trungpa Rinpoche’s cremation, an auspicious time both then and now.

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