Learning to Float

It is a hard thing to watch a person you love slowly slip away. Mom gave us the gift of a final month to hold her hand, read to her, and share our appreciation for all she shared and sacrificed for us. Each day, we witnessed as Mom struggled and fought her failing body to remain with us. She passed away peacefully in her sleep early Wednesday morning. As the sun rose, it highlighted the crisp blue sky and our snow angles in her garden.

The same is true in dying as in grieving – there is no how to manual. The hospice chaplain, Jim, reminded us that death is different for each of us. No two people come in or go out of this world alike. There is no typical or right way to die and even though we know others who have passed before us, Mom’s path was her own. Emily referenced Heraclitus commenting “it is so true, you can ‘never step in the same river twice.’” It made me think of Mom’s lifelong love of water.

Water was always Mom’s playing field. She grew up in Michigan and swam in it’s mighty waters from a young age. She even raced for the swim team at the city pool. In the water, Mom was able to move freely in a weightless way that her hips didn’t permit when she was on ground. She moved through the water, whether it be in a lake, pool, or river, strong and confident in each stroke.

I don’t remember learning how to swim. It has always seemed like something I have know how to do. Mom and Dad instilled in Emily and I both a respect for and an ability to find joy in water. I remember summer swims at the city pool and having to wear life jackets when we played in the river at the farm. Mom could swim for hours and taught us how to float so if we were ever too tired to swim, we could rest while still staying in water. If there was water, most likely we were in it.

The hospice nurses showed us how to adjust mom’s pillows so her body had the fewest points of contact with the bed. They call this technique floating. Emily, Papa, and I worked together to comfort Mom and adjust her float every three hours to try to alleviate her pain. Her skin fragile and raw. Eventually, this changing of position was the only time we saw Mom’s eyes open. Although open, it seemed she was looking past us. When we needed pillows for this floating we used those Courtney and I had received when Josh was at Denver Children’s and Mom’s teddy bear, Emmawen, to float her arms. It gave us, and I think her, comfort to have these special items with her.

Twice a week Davida came to care for Mom’s hygiene needs. It is during these bed baths that I saw Mom look the most comfortable. The combination of warm water and massage allowing her body to once again float without ever leaving her hospital bed. Watching as her exhausted muscles relaxed reminded me of when we took Josh to swim therapy. He flexed his feet back and forth in the warm water without restriction. I remember feeling both joy and sorrow during these therapy sessions. Joy for the hope that he was also experiencing the joy of water. Sorrow realizing how many moments he was trapped by the limitations of his body. Water provided this same medium for Mom. I remember walking with Mom to see the ocean on our last trip to California. She worked so hard to be able to walk from the parking lot to the beach. Her smile shows pure joy.

This past summer Courtney, Emma and I took a camping trip to Canyon Ferry. As we got ready to leave the house, I helped Emma get dressed into her swimming suit for the trip. Court looked at me like I was crazy. I explained that this is what I thought all families did on road trips when the end destination involved water as it was always what my mom did with us. He understood when we pulled into the campground and within fifteen minutes, Emma and I were in the water.

In the quiet moments with Mom, we played audio recordings of my aunts singing including “Peace like a River in my Soul.” Emily read Mary Oliver’s Upstream and Ivan Doig’s English Creek. When we need something to keep our minds busy to distract our hearts, we turned to the jigsaw puzzles Lee and Bill provided. In one box we opened, we found small sandwich bags with the start of sorting from the last time Mom worked it. It made us smile to know she was helping. Fittingly each puzzle we completed had a water theme. We didn’t finish the ocean section of the last puzzle before she passed. We managed only to complete the beach and a few steps into the waves. This too seems fitting.

Emma asked Courtney the other morning on their drive to school how Grandma was going to get to heaven. He explained how her body would stay here, but her spirit would go. He said Emma thought about it a moment and then replied in all certainty, “so she will fly there.” Clearly, I am no expert on how our souls find their way, but a part of me hopes Mom swam away from this life strong, confident and knowing we would be ok for all the love, wisdom, and strength she shared with us.

4 thoughts on “Learning to Float”

  1. What a beautiful tribute to you, your family, and of course Josh. I don’t think I’ll ever be in water again without thinking about Sally swimming to Heaven. XOXO

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Incredibly beautiful Wendy. Sharing some sorrow and love with you, I will always think of Sally with the fondest memories and kindest of hearts. Sending so much love to you and your family. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your sweet thoughts are just beautiful Wendy … your Mom was special and so are you & all the family❣️ We love you – Aunt Carol & Uncle Ted

    Liked by 1 person

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