My Letter

February 3, 2019

There is something sobering and otherworldly about gazing upon the dead body of your parent.

My mother died in 2014 at the age of 89 after enduring relentless emotional and physical pain following knee replacement surgery. She had been in and out of the hospital, and back and forth between the apartment where she resided with my father and the rehab site at their assisted living facility in New England. My sister shared details and carried the heavy caregiving burden; I would call, visit and provide support from afar.

I can remember receiving that fateful phone call as if it were yesterday; my husband and I were spending the weekend in our mountain house. It was the assisted living facility - my mother had collapsed on the floor of her bathroom, she was unconscious and on her way to the hospital. Time stands still as you phone your people and pack your things and arrive at a scene that has been waiting for you all your life. Our small family gathered around my mother's hospital bed and watched her begin to slip away;

I had to drive my father back home and my sister stayed behind. When she called me in the early morning with the news, I watched my body go through the motions of getting out of bed, putting on clothes, driving to the hospital, parking the car, punching the elevator button and entering the room to see the dead body of my mother on the hospital bed. And here's the thing: I knew right away that this was a form, a shell, flesh and bones that supported the life of my mother until it was unable to do so anymore.

My mother, the one who birthed and did her best to love me, was somewhere else. Somewhere better. Free from pain. At last.

Four years later at the age of 91, my father died in his bed at the assisted living facility. I remember the tender, difficult conversation about driving, accepting live-in care, having someone else to walk the dog - holding my breath and watching him dole out pieces of his independence one by one. He did it more gracefully than I could have imagined, while also falling into bouts of confused rage, mostly about his financial portfolio.

During one of my visits, as I wheeled him around the grounds to take in the display of autumn colors, I stopped to pick up a leaf on the grass. In that one split second, he had fallen out of his wheelchair and was lying on the grass. After suppressing my horror, I quickly looked around to see if there was a witness to my careless lapse - there was not.

I heaved him back in his wheelchair and we went on our merry way.

Heading back up to his room in the elevator, I asked him if had ever fallen out of his wheelchair, to which he replied, "No, not to my recollection." Finding the humor in the dark places was one of the ways I was able to balance those heavy times with a flood of light.

When I got the call that my father's health was declining, I got right on a plane, arriving late at night to find him halfway between life and death, the caregiver rightfully alarmed. I climbed into bed with him and held onto his shaking body throughout the night, sending all of the love and support I could muster; perhaps making up for lost time?

The hospice workers arrived first thing in the morning to adjust the medication to ease his journey - my sister and I sat by his bed, sang him songs and watched our final parent slip away to join our mother.

My mother and father enjoyed, at times endured, a marriage of 65 years. Memories of my parents have both softened, and sharpened since their departure, as I've invested time rewriting our family's narrative to afford all of us more grace. Why not? In death they have allowed me to untangle and let go of some of the baggage that had been weighing me down. Struggles with family and duty and my role on the stage of our story. I am forever grateful for the clarity of execution following their passing.

More than sorrowful, death can be tricky and messy if the details are not clear, the paperwork is not in order and the finances left unresolved

Both of my parent's final wishes and estate planning was thoughtfully prepared. My sister and I took a separate but equal role in overseeing the details and celebrations that ensued to honor their lives and tell their story. We can all rest easy knowing that they were honored through gathering and words and song and flowers with family and friends and that their legacy is firmly planted.

This is the gift and wisdom that I wish to hand down to my children: honoring and preparing for death as another step on our life's journey, knowing that our spirit, the essence of who we are and what we've done throughout our life, lives on in those we loved and who loved us. Accepting and embracing death is one of the ways we can lean more deeply into life. Living and celebrating each moment and day is our opportunity.

Lisa Grele Barrie

Lisa Grele Barrie, Community Connector

This letter is part of the Death Letter Project - North Carolina, a means to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, NC.


Michael Palko