NICK HENNEN: Now I See — Life And Living It Truthfully

For my mother, who taught me how to love.

Mom had PPA, a rare brain disorder for which there is no cure. It caused her to slowly lose her ability to recall the names of well, most everything eventually. One important distinction between PPA and other memory conditions like Alzheimer’s was that only very rarely and only inside the last stage did she not know who we were.

She always knew who she was and in her last days, she knew everyone of us, every time.

We found out about the diagnosis shortly after dad passed suddenly (and way too young) to cardiac arrest.

I had thought in my mind I would wait for them to leave this earth before jumping into my own reality of what I was. I thought I was being respectful in doing so. In being a good and considerate child.

However in the last few days I had left with my mom, I felt a unique sense of urgency for transparency — for honesty, and for Truth with a capital T.

The priest came to visit her for a second time, and I felt lucky that this time I could meet him.

Previously, I had taken two weeks off to spend with her and was so grateful to feed her almost every meal and to bond for two whole weeks.

I can only describe this as an extremely memorable, caregiving time. I remember putting lotion on her face, for example. Simple, but not something we often do to our parents.

There were a lot of intimate moments like this. I knew it was the last days, and I soaked in with all my might.

I wanted … no needed to deeply know who she was now (what an incredibly brave survivor), the exact life she was leading, the fleeting lighter moments inside all of it and everything she meant to me across time.

I painted her fingernails and toenails. (Not great mind you, the nurses and mom giggled at my handiwork.) I applied makeup. She rather enthusiastically said it was “not bad!” 😂

I combed her hair. I did things I have never done with anyone before.  I did what she might want to do that she could no longer do herself.

I knew she would never ask for these things, I just had to figure it out on my own, and I did well (I think) because our knowingness for each other ran deep.

We sang hymns, we sang silly pop songs, I laid in bed next to her cheek to cheek and very often she would laugh. She still had so much joy radiating from inside of her.

It was very hard to leave. it felt like the hardest thing I ever had to do.

– – – – – – – – –

Two days before my departure

After spending nearly every waking moment together for 12 days, she suddenly left me to fall into a very deep and creepy “deathlike” slumber.

She would no longer get up for breakfast; she wasn’t interested in lunch; she would nibble just a little bit for dinner and fall right back asleep. She slept and slept and slept. I remember asking the nurses, “Does this sometimes happen?”

“Yes,” they replied, but I didn’t have the heart to ask if it only happens before someone dies, or if it’s something that happened to her now and then. Something that happened all of them. I didn’t want to know.

On the 14th day, I watched her sleep the entire day before I left for my early-evening flight. I had tucked her in and shut the lights out, but I kept thinking it was the last time I would see her. So I kept going back in to kiss her good night and say goodbye one more time.

Finally, I left the building sobbing. I felt in my heart I wouldn’t see her again. I had called and alerted Hospice.

When I arrived in California, all the spring flowers were blooming so beautifully. I could smell the blossoms and the sun was perfect. You know that pristine California sun that kisses your skin? It was like that.

I remember the watching the sunset on the day that I landed home in San Francisco, and it was this most beautiful mixture of pink and red and orange. It was honestly the most magnificent sky I’d ever seen — and I wondered, “Was she out there somewhere? Stuck in between worlds…

I was glad to be home.

I was tired.

No, I was exhausted.

The next day went on as normal. I called the nurse station back in Fargo after work to see if she was still sleeping a lot. No, they said she was back up. OK, I thought “that’s a good sign.”

The day after I was called by a nurse and then family member to say it was time to come home. I flew back to Fargo that next day.

I symbolically ran home.

I raced to her room.

– – – – – – – – –

Back to my Truth with mom. And my eagerness for her to know me more completely before she left this strange and wonderful plane of existence.

I greeted the priest at her door, and he shook my hand. “I’m her son, Nick,” I beamed. “Father Cartwright,” he replied. “Great to meet you.” He took off his sweater and started unpacking some of the items in his zippered kit. “We’re gonna do last rites again because why not?, he announced, placing a beautiful, 4- to 5-inch vintage-looking black and metal crucifix on her chest. It was now just me and one brother next to him, lining her bedside.

He spoke the sacred ritual prayer while preparing to administer Viaticum, the Holy Communion for the dying. “The body of Christ,” he said, breaking the host into two pieces and pressed the first quarter moon-shaped wafer to her lips. She opened her mouth to accept it.

I watched carefully as she surprisingly seemed to be able to swallow it effortlessly. “Is this faith?,” I thought. “Does it heal our bodies enough to let it in?”

I moved the straw to her lips for a sip of water. Every step was a gift. And wow, she managed to take a small drink.

He continued praying while anointing her with oil. She moved her lips placidly and looked peaceful and comfortable.

“Aren’t you glad your boys are here?,” he said his words so genuinely.

Mom raised both her eyebrows and tried smile. I felt quite stunned by how awash I was in this incredibly powerful gesture. I felt enveloped in gratitude.

How thoughtful this man was! And also how important to her so long as her parish priest.

It is also true that the reality of this moment also offered me so much relief.

I didn’t just perceive or sense thankfulness for him. I think I actually witnessed acceptance — which felt a bit predestined. really.

Through meeting him and taking control of my own introduction and his perception of me, I felt like I received approval from my mother and permission from my God and church at the same time and for all time.

I will never, ever forget the way she smiled at me as the priest referred to me as one of her sons. You can imagine how hard it is to smile after a serious stroke, right? But she did it.

Our eyes met. We were both crying. but we were smiling, too.

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