Navigating the Sandwich
The Unexpected Gift of My Mother’s Death
My grandson was born three weeks after my mother passed away — revealing the magic of the circle of life
It was a warm spring day in May when I received the news that my mother’s cancer had returned. By September, she was gone. Mom had survived a malignancy in her breast years earlier and had been thriving for decades. Always vibrant and upbeat, I thought she would live to be an octogenarian. Her death took the entire family by surprise and left a gaping hole in our shared reality. She was the one who personified love. She, our family’s central nervous system. Now my heart had a permanent crack.
Why is My Dying Mother Singing?
I had only been home for five days after completing a week-long visit with Mom in the hospital when I received a call from my sister. Mom wasn’t getting better. I got back on a plane the next day. My sister and brother met me at the airport. On the drive to the extended care hospital where she had been transferred, they told me Mom had been singing quite a bit. My siblings expressed curiosity at this. Mom was very religious and sang regularly in the church choir. We decided perhaps it brought her comfort.
When I arrived, it gave the rest of the family a much-needed break to go out and get something to eat. I got to spend some time alone with Mom. She remained conscious but very weak. She also continued to sing, so I sang as well — some of her favorite hymns that I knew she loved — as I mopped her brow with a cold compress.
Eventually, though, I realized Mom was trying to communicate with me when I heard her trill, “You don’t have to sing.” I leaned in close as she struggled to get more words out. “I’m ready. Let me go,” she said. “Tell them.”
When the rest of the family returned, I relayed Mom’s wishes, now recognizing she probably sang because it took less effort to push her breath out, her lungs being so filled with fluid. Once Mom knew we understood, she became remarkably composed. She wanted us to stop trying to fix her, and she wanted to say her goodbyes so she could move on. Even as she lay dying, she still taught us by setting an example for how to do it with courage and dignity.
As those of us in my family who were able to be there — my sister, my sister’s husband, my brother, my father and I — gathered around Mom’s bedside for a final farewell, she addressed each one of us, taking us all in, one last time. She enunciated better when she lingered somewhat on my father in a moment of clarity. “My handsome husband,” she said. These were the last words I recall her saying to Dad. A sweet takeaway memory. Shortly afterward, she lost consciousness and died within a few hours.
My Grandson is Born
A mere three weeks later, my oldest daughter had her first child. Present for the home birth, I was able to hold my grandson in my arms within minutes of his arrival. Toward the end of her labor, my daughter momentarily lost her composure as so often happens in transition — that period of time when everything escalates and delivery is imminent, yet it’s easy to go off the rails because the pain has reached its threshold. “Mom,” she looked at me through panicked eyes. “I don’t think I can do this!” I stood beside her and stroked her hair. I knew precisely where she was. “Oh, but you can,” I told her. “You’re doing it.” Half an hour later, surrounded by her husband, the midwife, myself, and my younger daughter — she welcomed her beautiful baby boy into the world. The crack in my heart opened wide and in rushed penetrating and indescribable joy.
I had witnessed, up close, both ends of the life cycle. Not with just anyone, but with the one who had labored to bring me into the world. And then again with the one who had entered the world through my own laboring, even as she herself travailed with her firstborn.
To bear witness to a beloved’s delivery, whether into this world or the next, is an incredible privilege and honor. Holding space for someone when they cannot do it for themselves takes a commitment to be fully present in the moment.
From all of this, I’ve learned to listen better, not only with my ears but with my heart. That my siblings and I so readily labeled our mother’s singing as a simple peculiarity at first saddens me in retrospect. Yet I am grateful we were able to understand before it was too late. And I am more committed than ever now to slow down and practice ongoing mindfulness.
My Broken Heart Heals
I’ve also learned a heart can hold far more than we normally allow. And a broken heart is an open heart. Holding grief and joy simultaneously is not only possible but life-affirming. These experiences have only deepened my appreciation for the mysterious and strengthened my gratitude for the creative underlying force at work in all things, at all times.
In struggling to find the words to articulate my feelings about my mother’s death and grandson’s birth, I had an insight come to mind one day as I painted with acrylics. Two colors on opposite sides of the color wheel are referred to as complementary colors. Not to be confused with complimentary, meaning flattering, complementary — spelled with an e and not i — means enhancing. Some examples are red and green, blue and orange, or purple and yellow.
These colors complement each other precisely because they are not at all similar. They are counterparts to one another, reverse extremes. The paintings of Henri Matisse, André Derain, and Jean Metzinger come to mind as they offer up an intimate visual and sensory experience.
Having faced the grief of my mother’s death made my encounter with the elation of birth all the more powerful. One event made an opening in my heart so that the other event could fill it up. I now call these events complementary. They are what distinguish and define us as humans. And when we embrace them, we can be in humble, open-hearted appreciation of them all.
Janet Rebhan’s latest novel, Rachael’s Return (June 2020, She Writes Press), contrasts the supernatural and material worlds in a suspenseful drama about mother-daughter soulmates. Rebhan has two grown daughters and lives in Los Angeles with her husband.