A raw and honest journey of grief, love, and self-rediscovery unfolded through writing and art.
Writing and Artwork By: Anne Auten
In 15 horrible, excruciatingly gut-wrenching minutes, it was over; Mama was gone.
I was not prepared to watch my mama die.
Twice before I had sat in silent vigil, holding the hand of someone else's loved one, while they discreetly drifted away in a coma-like state over the course of several hours. But, not Mama. She was wide awake. I don't think that either one of us thought that her hospice care would only last 23.5 hours. But, mercifully, that was it.
I had no idea what hospice care in my home would mean. I only knew that after 7 weeks of hospitalization, on 4 different floors, 3 stays in CCU, 5 different procedures, 1 operation and innumerable labs, x-rays, and nights in a sleeper recliner, we were both exhausted and had no fight left. Mom said, "Let's get out of here," and so we did. In a few short hours, Hospice managed to deliver an entire roomful of equipment, and my mama, into the parlor of my house. My husband had arranged her bird feeders outside the large window so she could watch the outside world go by. The medics propped her up in a railed, hospital bed with every pillow in the house stuffed under her knees, arms, back, and head, and there she sat, like Cleopatra floating down the Nile on a barge, with oxygen blowing up her nose like a cyclone. Then, everyone left.
I hadn't realized that we would actually be alone or that I would quit being the patient advocate and become the lifeline.
Mom and I had talked about how great it would be for me to be able to sleep in my own bed. We had even purchased a baby monitor, so that I could hear her in the night if she needed me, but I was terrified to be that far from her. Her one night at home, I spent sleeping either on the couch or straight up in a chair next to her bed or wide awake wondering how I was going to be able to do this night after night.
I was so grateful the next afternoon when the hospice nurse showed up and had an official way to log the barrage of medications that I was responsible for administering. We freshened Mama up, and she wanted to sit on the side of the bed. During the night, Mom had had an episode of feeling like she couldn't breathe, and I had turned the oxygen to max. The nurse tried to whisper that I needed to lower it again over the next couple of hours. Of course, Mom's selective hearing kicked in. She told me that she didn't trust the nurse and thought she was trying to do her in. But, the truth was that my mama was dying. Her lungs were full of fluid, and she was drowning. I only had morphine and anti-anxiety drugs to combat time.
Imagine my stupefaction when the nurse told me that she was leaving, that it would be a couple days before someone else would come, and that I could call the hotline number for any questions. My last nerve was blown to kingdom come! So, I did what any woman would do; I made myself an elixir-of-courage martini and started cooking dinner.
Mama had had a little burst of energy while she sat on the edge of the bed that afternoon, and we had talked about nothing and everything for a couple of hours. She suddenly looked very tired, so I propped her back in the bed and brought her supper. She wasn't really hungry. She tried about 4 bites of a soup that she declared was the most delicious thing she had ever eaten, and commenced gazing out the window.
As I wondered what she was looking at, she began a low, guttural, rhythmic humming and started shaking the hand rails of her bed. I called the hospice hotline. I gave her the medicines they prescribed, like bringing the hemlock to Socrates. "Mom, do you want anything?" She shook her head no, but kept making the sound and staring out the window. I knew this was the end, and so did she.
I sat on one side of her, holding her hand, and my husband sat on the other. For 15 minutes we served as witness, watching 90 years of memories of life dissipate into the ethers: growing up in the Great Depression; watching her classmates trudge off to WWII and not return; knitting for soldiers; canning Victory gardens; working in an ammunitions plant; attending the Vogue School of Design; contracting Polio; regularly donating blood for the Salk vaccine; working as a milliner; flying all over the country for work as a woman in the 1950's; meeting Dad; giving birth to me; losing her own parents. Christmases, Thanksgivings, birthdays, big things, and tiny details fleeting by until the final grains of sand slipped through her hourglass, her labored breathing became less frequent, the shaking ceased, the humming faded away, and the light extinguished from her eyes.
It was over… and, then it began.
I knew nothing about grief. I knew a whole lot about how to shove every emotion into the darkest crevice of my soul and lock it away. I had been practicing that for years; I was the consummate emotion hoarder. I knew a whole lot about picking up all the pieces and putting them back together in new, easier to deal with ways. I was accomplished at recreating undesirable history into new and magnificent plots. The problem was that Mama was the glue that I had used to hold my puzzles together, and now she was gone. And, as the pieces wouldn't stick together anymore, I discovered that not only was there no more room left to hold any of my grief over losing Mama, but without the glue, all those ancient, shrouded feelings began to pry their way out of the catacombs where I had left them buried.
At first I didn't notice it so much. After a few weeks, I trudged back to work. My auto-pilot's auto-pilot was on auto pilot. Every day I would climb into the car and drive 30 miles to work and try not to think about anything other than how much I hated driving those 30 miles. But one day, all those locked away feelings trying to escape managed to eroded a small fissure in the core of my being. The dripping leak became a flood, and my flood of once-trapped emotions fractured my spirit and left me with a raw and gaping wound that felt like an abyss.
I was Wylie Coyote, leaning over the precipice, contemplating the distance to the bottom, and hoping that the Road Runner wasn't going to sneak up and scare me over the edge, leaving me as a tiny plume of dust at the bottom. The irony of my mother drowning in her own fluid and me drowning in my own despondency was not lost on me. I, too, felt unable to breathe, engulfed and sinking, and gasping for air, for life. I needed for the constant bombardment to stop; I was pummeled in every direction by sounds, smells, voices, and responsibilities.
At the pinnacle of my inundation, a miracle occurred. Some base, primal instinct took over. I knew that in order to survive, I would need to make as much of my world as possible come to a screeching halt and try to learn to breathe again. So, I took a sabbatical from work, a whole 24 weeks, a gift from God and the Universe.
The first thing that I learned is that I show myself no compassion. I am a relentless taskmaster, an unyielding overachiever of the worst kind. I had my first week of leave all planned out with schedules and project lists for each day, trying to wrap up Mama's estate into a neat, little, time-lined package. After a week or so of that, I sat on the deck one morning having coffee, and realized that I had made myself so busy that I had no time to heal or to grieve, or even to think. I did need to accomplish some important things during my time off, but I didn't have to do them all at once. Back off and relax a little; so, I ordered some watercolor pens and began painting.
I have a BFA with a concentration in painting, but hadn't painted since college. I lost my mojo when I graduated and got my first real job. Unfortunately my real jobs have sucked the creative life out of me and left me with no artistic energy for most of the last 27 years. Trying not to intimidate myself with a large, blank piece of paper, I bought watercolor postcards. I sat outside each morning and made myself fill one up. What ensued was a series of 13 self-reflective watercolors.
Initially, I didn't realize the depth of allegory and hidden meaning that these paintings would have for me. It wasn't until I began talking and writing about them that their lessons began to emerge and continue to reveal them selves like layers of an onion.
Lesson#1 Through the Looking Glass
With no expectations, I doodled a flower and somehow Alice appeared. The Looking Glass, with all of its symbolism evolved, and clearly, my self-reflective journey had begun. My friend, who's a psychiatrist, said Dr. Jung would equate the four quadrant mandala face as symbol of wholeness. Ha! Well, I feel like a zipper, never more together or more apart at the same time. I am Alice as you know. Nestled in grief, anxiety, and depression, it's as if I hear my whole life at once. Magic is brewing in the sky, and Alice has discovered something small but strong growing out of the rock. Once I met the owner of Newton vineyards. She recounted that she found grapes that struggled for existence to be much more flavorful and interesting than flaccid grapes that had nothing to do but grow. Somehow, even submerged, my inner-self sees something new, small but healthy, growing out of the rock. Lesson #1: Be kind to yourself; give yourself a break. Take time to go within. It's ok to do nothing, even for days at a time, if you need to find your center again. You might discover the beginnings of something new and beautiful.
Alice is Manifesting. As she writes, the Universe takes her words and creates. The woods behind our house are filled with owls, hawks, and other large birds. They are very vocal and talk all day and night. The morning I painted this, Crow spent a lot of time chattering in the tree next to our deck. Our home is surrounded by trees which are are a symbol of protection and stability. Lesson #2 When your world falls apart, you will need to manifest a new one. The best place to create your new reality is in your own backyard.
Lesson#3 Yellow Brick Road
Alice meets Dorothy. Most significant here is Alice's growing connection to the Universe, even though she is so confused that her head has cracked open. Her one foot is firmly rooted in the past, while her other timidly pokes a toe on the path to Tom'mowland, which is, of course, Tomorrowland in Suthrun talk. While either path leads to tomorrow, one takes her back to repeat yesterday, and the other leads her into the unknown. "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow fades into yesterday," while the unrevealed path tells us, "All who wander are not lost…." Alice is at a crossroads in her life with a decision to make. Lesson #3 Sometimes in life, you will find that you are at a crossroads, and as much as you would like to return to the familiar, it's impossible because some of the key players are gone. The only choice is the new, unfamiliar and often unwanted path. I will pull up my bootstraps and travel into uncharted and unexplored territory. I am a survivor.
Lesson#4 A River Runs Through It
Alice has chosen the path to a new tomorrow. She must rely on her inner-strength and wits to face new challenges, thus she channels the Sphinx. A Laughing Buddha awaits at the gateway to her own rebirth through the monolith. The Double Spiral represents the duality of her inner journey and her outward path; the manifestation of Goddess into physical life, which in turn reveals Alice's own Divinity. The river Styx serves as the boundary to Hades, the land of the dead, and flows blood. The river symbolizes the death of her mother, and the death of her current phase of life, as she transitions from the Mother to the Crone. Menopause, the end of blood flow, awaits on the other side of the river. Lesson #4 There's something very similar between grieving the loss of your mama and transitioning into Cronedom, primarily a tremendous sense of loss of self-identity and a profound need to rebuild oneself from the core outward. There is no room for bullshit.
Lesson#5 Nobody Promised You a Rose Garden
Alice is cultivating her new self. She waters her garden with blood from the river, which is her own. The garden is the figurative representation of the term, "Blood, Sweat, and Tears" and also "You Reap What You Sow." Her spade is her heart. Her garden, her life is a labor of love. She has begun the process of selecting the seeds/traits/aspects that she desires. Fresh new life is sprouting, but what will fully emerge is still indiscernible in the distance. The Owl symbolizes death, rebirth, and wisdom. Its abilities of silent flight, keen night vision, and almost full head rotation, make Qwl a trusted and omniscient messenger. The base, primal grounding of working the soil, and being immersed in nature opens Alice to her own clear-seeing (clairvoyance) and capability to unmask (self-)deception. From this new vantage point of exposed truths and creating a new reality, Alice gives herself the gift of life. Lesson #5 There is a reason that Menopause is referred to as "The Change." Coupling this with the loss of a loved one creates the perfect storm for a midlife crisis and sets the stage for a spiritual, emotional, and physical resurrection.
Lesson#6 Tea Party
Alice has tea with the Mad Hatter/her Fairy Godmother/herself as Crone/her mama. She is given a crown (indicating her new position as matriarch of the family), a fancy dress, and a key. There is quite a bit of mystery as to what comes next, and Alice's fortune is unclear. The Crone, like the tree, is a source of stability. Although Alice is losing the fruit of fertility, she is gaining the fruit of wisdom. The gift of the key is the wisdom of time and self-empowerment. Lesson #6 I am not the first to take this journey. It is a rite of passage that nature forces all women of a "certain age" to take. I am not alone. Although I'm not sure what I'll find, I have everything that I need. I have been preparing for this my whole life.
Lesson#7 Dia de los Muertos
Although her parents are reunited and happy together in paradise, Alice is immersed in grief. She wears a classic Victorian mourning gown. It rains only under her umbrella. Alice holds a cross that has dropped, so it is now upside-down. Her faith is shaken. The cross/their death is a heavy burden. She is now alone, and allowing herself to feel the magnitude of her loss. Lesson #7 You can feel like an orphan even at 50 years old and even having your own children and husband. Grieving is only for the living, and it can turn your world upside down.
Lesson#8 Emperor's New Clothes
With her loss of identity and reality, Alice spends time completely exposed and vulnerable in self-reflection. She takes a good look and really begins to see her new self. Alice realizes that there are pieces missing to her puzzle. The Crab, her astrological sign, pulls at her skirt, as things that cannot be seen pull us into reality. Once as a young woman, I heard Deepak Chopra speak. I remembering him saying that "all the answers lie in here," as he cupped his hands to his heart. It took me a minute to realize that he meant in my own heart, that each of us has everything that we needed within our own souls. Alice will find and pick the new pieces that fit into her puzzle. She has peaches instead of apples in her soul/Garden of Eden, because she is a southern girl from Georgia after all. Lesson #8 Sometimes we outgrow our own beliefs about ourselves. The good news is that in our own personal Eden, the new pieces we desire are provided.
Lesson#9 Starry, Starry Night
The Wolf came to me with the impending full moon. I started sketching at night and finished on the beach, in the morning shortly after sunrise. While I was drawing, I looked up, and a beautiful heron was fishing for breakfast. Giant Blue Heron like to fish in the creek next to my house. I am always surrounded by large (and small) birds. The Crab, my inner nature, salutes the moon, my ruling nature. I embrace my wolf totem, as it protects me, and relax in my happy place, the beach. Alice is finding peace within herself. Lesson #9 When in turmoil, go back to Lesson 1. Be kind to yourself, give yourself a break. It's ok to do nothing, even for days at a time, if you need to find your center again. There is great beauty in honoring yourself.
Lesson#10 Rebirth of Venus
After a series of unfortunate events, Alice communes with Mother Ocean and is reborn scarred, but smarter. In the last 3 paintings, Alice's mouth is getting smeary. As her former truths break apart and she grows, something is happening. The morning I drew this, while still at the beach, I found a feather outside the door to my room. This felt like a gift and a significant sign that I am on the right path. Lesson #10 Keep your eyes open, The Universe/God/Angels will provide signs of affirmation.
Lesson#11 Bee or Not to Be
After stepping on a hidden nest in the ground, I was stung by 3 bees. Unknowingly, Alice has welcomed Bee into her life, having woven her hair into a hive and decorated it with a flower. Alice kneels in acceptance of Bee's wisdom, as Bee sees Alice for whom she really is, even through the facade of her colored hair. She gingerly touches Bee to receive her message- To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. Bee also reminds Alice of the symbology of the number 3: The Trinity; Maiden/Mother/Crone; Beginning/Middle/End. Lesson #11 Mama used to say that the hardest thing to understand about God is "Thy Will be done." This is perfectly illustrated in Nature and reminded to us in Bee's message, "There's a time to work hard and a time to stop and smell the roses, a time to live and a time to die, a time to grieve and a time to get on with life."
Lesson#12 A Bird in Hand
House Wren has been visiting me frequently in my morning hours on the deck. He is quite a chatty fellow. Recently, he landed on my left shoulder, his wings brushing against my ear as he quickly flew away. Wren announces the pulling together of the spiritual and physical realms. Alice is perched high in the tree top, symbolic of her connectedness with her higher self. During the past few months, I have begun to believe that our spirit is connected at and to Source, and that our current physical manifestation is but a small thread of that energy. In other words, we are multi-dimensional beings. Lesson #12 Previously I felt that we were cut off from Source, and that our goal was to be allowed to return. Wren's revelation is that, not only are we part of Source, but that we are all inter- and intraconnected beings through and at Source. Spirit is always with us and delivers messages to us in beautiful and unexpected ways.
Lesson#13 Wonder Woman Has Left the Building
The culmination of this series depicts Alice as the Wonder Woman she has always imagined herself to be. Although she appears to be in a building, the walls are translucent and reminiscent of a Georgia O'Keefe landscape. Alice realizes the importance of her life in nature and the illusion of modern reality. She has hung up her super suit, and gazes comfortably at herself, naked and exposed, the woman she has become and loves. Lesson #13: Although I still want to wear the crown, I do not want to be Wonder Woman anymore. I have nothing to prove to anyone. Amen.
Where Do I Go From Here?
Who came up with the saying "Time Heals All Wounds?" That is total crap. Time might take the embarrassment of a teenage trauma and turn it into your best Girl's Night Out story. Time might make you not care that you were fired from a job 20 years ago. But there are some wounds that Time will never completely heal, nor would we truly want for Time to erase. Tincture of Time will mend the gaping, raw hole in your heart into a battle scar; it will be disfigured, discolored, and sensitive to the touch, but Tincture of Time will allow you to touch it. There is some mystery as to how it happens and how long it will take, but Tincture of Time builds a network of neurons to memories, memories of all types both happy and sad. Memories, like Forrest Gump said about life, are "like a box of chocolates, you never know what you will get." With Tincture of Time continuing to salve your scars each day, at some determined yet undisclosed point, they become a place that you can give love to and be thankful for the fact that they are there.
I am not the first woman to lose her mother, turn 50, be in perimenopause, and fall apart; and, I won't be the last. I am grateful to those who have been there already, and I will do my best to be there for those who have yet to come. I will cheer the woman on who picks up my Wonder Woman suit and choses to wear it, and I will know how to help her take it off and pass it on when her time comes. ~