Reflections in Time

It’s hard to believe that four years have passed since my mother died. When I reflect on the days leading up to her death, my memories are still vivid. I made arrangements to fly to her hometown in Connecticut one week after a planned surgery. Other family members assisted during the surgery, and I would ensure she had a solid discharge plan in place and help her return home. However, in life things don’t always go according to plan; all sorts of cosmic forces come into play. And truth be told, I was not prepared for the unexpected.

The events leading up to her initial surgery unraveled quickly. At age 83, my mother was an independent woman. She had been feeling lousy for a few weeks but assumed – like she always did – that she had a virus. This time was different, though. No matter what her doctor prescribed, nothing seemed to help. Finally, her doctor ordered an X-ray and a CT scan. Shortly after, her doctor called to tell her she had cancer. From there, things rapidly progressed.

My mother had a thoracotomy to remove part of her lung. While that would constitute major surgery for anyone, can you imagine undergoing it as an 83-year-old woman? The idea still sends chills down my spine. Unfortunately, she experienced serious complications post-operatively and 24 hours later, she was back in the operating room (OR) to have her entire left lung removed. While they wheeled her into the OR for a second time, I changed my originally scheduled flight and caught a red eye from California to Connecticut. The next part I remember so clearly: I walked into my mother’s hospital room after she had the second operation and although she was completely alert, I could sense in every part of my body that she was going to die. She told me that she never saw me look so worried in my entire life.

“Grief is a funny thing, as common as cake and ice cream; yet our society doesn’t seem to know how to react to those who are grieving.”

As I sat with her, I watched as her blood pressure bottomed out and, later that night, she coded. Regrettably, no one read her advanced directives. For days, she struggled on a ventilator—her biggest fear in life. After she came off the vent, her body continued to spiral downward. She experienced liver failure, kidney failure, and ultimately, her body completely shut down. Sadly, she was fully aware that she was dying—something no one should ever have to experience.

After my mother passed away, I was handed her belongings, packed into two large clear plastic bags. I remember holding on to what was left of my mother as I took the elevator down four floors, walked through the hospital lobby, and into the parking garage. I saw her purple winter coat and all that was hers through the clear plastic, as did every stranger I passed on the long walk to the car. Even though I carried two large bags, I had never felt emptier.

Tragedy leaves a distinct impact. Every aspect of my mother’s death was tragic for my entire family. Her death didn’t make sense and I felt an innate need to do something to keep her memory alive.

Three weeks later, I came across an article about a handover bag concept from the Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service in Queensland, Australia. Their project was inspired by the Hospice Friendly Hospital’s Program, an initiative of the Irish Hospice Foundation, who pioneered the handover bag in an effort to improve end-of-life care. This concept immediately resonated with me due to the emphasis on humanity and dignity. And it inspired a new idea. My mother was an artist and a poet; I could honor her by incorporating her artwork into the handover bag design. The idea sat with me for a long while.

For months, even years, I was emotionally paralyzed from my mother’s death. I appeared to function like every other individual, but life was different. I had little ability to focus, so the idea of following through on the wonderful concept to honor my mother’s life just floated around me.

My mother’s death was one of seven I faced in seven years. While I grieved, I lost track of the number of people I encountered who didn’t actually want to hear how I felt when they asked. It wasn’t because those asking did not care, but rather the emotional awkwardness. During the first year following my mother’s death, I took great solace from a podcast called Terrible, Thanks for Asking hosted by Nora McInerny. Hearing other people talk about the experiences they endured, their grief, and their resilience was inspiring. Grief is a funny thing, as common as cake and ice cream; yet our society doesn’t seem to know how to react to those who are grieving. One of the most common responses after learning someone has experienced a loss is, “I don’t know what to say.” Many of us are so uncomfortable in that space that we avoid grieving people at all costs.

However, I am amazed and in utter awe of just how resilient the human soul can be. The stories told on Terrible, Thanks for Asking rejuvenated my emotional spirit, reminding me that we all experience loss and all of our stories are valuable.

Slowly, I began putting together plans to start Transitional Bridges, an American-based nonprofit specializing in transition bags for end-of-life care. As I began in earnest, the pandemic hit. Once again, I felt a flurry of shock, sadness, and disillusionment. But there was a silver lining to all of the time spent at home over the last year: the pandemic finally allowed me to honor my mother’s memory as planned. Transitional Bridges is dedicated to my mother, Phyllis T. Highbridge. I know she would be proud.