This story was written by Laura R. Smith
All the preparation was completed and the last thread of unfinished business was tied. The time had arrived. At least, I knew it was soon coming. Like all of God's plans it happened as it should with everything and everyone in place. Even in death, she was beautiful.
I was impressed and touched by this young woman from our very first meeting. She was open and honest about the short time remaining and what she hoped to accomplish. Her only concern was for her children, Tristen, ten years old, and Clayton who was eight. How could we help them with this transition?
Sitting at the table, she was calm and inviting. Her job now was to teach me about her boys so I would know how to better support them within their own belief systems and understandings. I was touched by her obvious love and devotion to them. She was already doing so many things that would leave them a legacy of her love and precious memories. Photo albums were put together, a final quilt was being finished for Clayton so both boys would be able wrap themselves in her memory with their quilts. Journals were being written to each of them with thoughts, memories and wishes. Most important, Tristen and Clayton were being included in the entire process. There could be no doubt as to their mother's love, what was happening with her body and what their future would hold.
Gillian's body was thin from the ravages of cancer but her eyes reflected a mirror of calm acceptance. A colorful scarf covered her scalp where I suspected beautiful hair once encircled her sweet face. Everyone from Hospice that worked with Gillian always remarked about the peace that radiated from her. It was something you saw and felt whenever you were with her. This was a woman I would like to have been friends with had it been under different circumstances where there was time.
Bob, her sweetheart, sat across the table from Gillian, watching her speak and sharing his gentle insights. His eyes were tender with concern and love. I remember thinking how grateful I was that she had this good man to walk this unknown path with her. Bob ministered to Gillian with love and devotion apparent even to this stranger.
It was easy to tell them both as I left of all the right things they were already doing. I felt honored to be invited to offer my support.
My next meeting was shortly thereafter with Tristen and Clayton. They were wonderful teachers. Using a roll of paper cut off as long as they needed it, they used markers to draw me their time lines, teaching me about their lives. They showed me the good, OK and yucky times. That's where I learned about "Piggy" the chipmunk. They met him on a favorite camping trip with Mom and Bob and fed him a chip.
As the boys were telling me the story of Piggy, Bob was walking through the room.
"Oh that reminds me, guys. I picked this up for you a while back."
He reached up and searched through some papers on a shelf and retrieved a greeting card. When Clayton took it into his hands a broad smile spread across his face. We all squealed and laughed at the big, fat chipmunk that sat on his hind legs.
"Oh, look it's Piggy." And Tristen scooted over to see it.
It was thoughtful acts such as the Piggy card, that I witnessed Bob do again and again. Once when I arrived to see the boys, Bob called out to them, "Cherubs, Laura's here." Clayton and Tristen came bouncing out into the living room where we took up our usual positions on the carpet for our meeting. I learned that was their nicknames from Gillian and Bob. They had even bought the boys nightlights with little cherubs on them.
Each visit I made we had a pre-agreed upon subject to learn about. The boys loved to pull Bob in and have him do some of the same activities they did. Which he always did with sincerity.
Sharing feelings was done by selecting any combination of colored papers to describe how they were feeling at the time. There was yellow for happiness, blue for sad, red for mad, and white for scared. We used them all. It impressed me how comfortable Clayton and Tristen were in sharing their feelings in front of, and with Bob. Many children I work with aren't as clear about how they feel or aren't comfortable doing it in front of an adult. It was obvious they loved this man and he was very safe to be with. No fear of judgments or expectations to be met.
They made collages to teach me what they understood about death. We explored feelings and how to express them in healthy ways. Gillian and Bob had given them permission to be honest with their feelings and showed them great ways to express even those feelings often difficult for a child to express, like anger.
Like their mother, Clayton and Tristen were very honest. About my sixth visit, the topic was "saying good-bye." Clayton made a basket for Gillian out of colored strips of construction paper and decorated it with hearts. He filled it with messages he wanted her to have from him. Tristen made hearts with messages stapled onto them. The messages from both boys were very similar; "I miss you," "I love you," and "Thank you," were a few.
As Clayton finished another basket for Bob, or "Bobbert" as he called him, and another for school, I started to share with Tristen the different times in our lives when we have to say good-bye to people, places and things. Tristen crawled up right in front of me and looked me in the eyes. "In case you didn't notice, I don't want to talk about this." His look was steady.
I was so proud of him for speaking up. "Thank you Tristen. I'm really glad you told me and I respect your need to not talk about this right now." I patted his shoulder and we went on to play with something else.
Not all children can speak up so clearly with an adult. But Tristen was obviously comfortable in doing so with me and felt supported by Bob who observed with a knowing smile.
The messages were delivered to Gillian by the boys and accepted. I didn't need to tell them anything else at that time about saying good-bye and how important it is. They were experiencing it, and that was enough.
We also talked about memories and how they would keep Gillian in their lives forever. The boys decorated a notebook and set about making drawings and pictures of some of their favorite times with Mom and Bob. Piggy was included of course.
One afternoon when we were all sharing our feelings with the feeling cards, Gillian joined us in the living room. Her walk was slow and flowing and a few long wispy hairs floated along side her head as she moved. I felt a warmth spread through me as I thought about how the process was already happening. She reminded me of an angel and I could see her transforming from her earthly state to a new heavenly form. She sat between the boys and listened and shared as they cuddled up to her.
It was a Sunday when I got a call from one of the hospice nurses. Gillian had become semi-comatose and Bob wanted to bounce his thoughts off me about the boys involvement at this point and how we could make it a good experience for them. We talked, but all I really needed to do was to remind Bob that he was on the right track.
Monday afternoon I got over there as quick as I could. It was a little after three when I arrived. Bob told me Clayton wasn't sure how I could help him right now.
"I'm not sure either, Clayton. But how about if we play a game or something?" Both boys knew the time was nearing, and that was enough. So, we played "Rugrats" and Bob went in to be with Gillian who was now comatose.
About 15 minutes later Bob called me into the bedroom. Gillian was beautiful. Her passing was gentle and her expression was that of peace, just as it had been in life.
The next couple of hours were powerful. The boys looked at their mothers body and knew her spirit was no longer there. They touched her and spoke their last words of love to her. Bob held them and told them of her gentle passing and let them know he held her as she left.
When they were ready, I joined Clayton and Tristen in our meeting place on the living room carpet. Clayton shared his wisdom with me when Tristen went to get the stuffed animals Gillian had kept in her bed for them. "You know there are two things no one can ever take away. One is my mom's spirit, because it will live forever. Her spirit will never die. The other is our memories. No one can take those away."
When the funeral home came to take Gillian's body, Bob had put on a home video of all of them together. We watched it in the den. Another loving act from Bob as a difficult process took place.
With little peeks made over his shoulder as his mother was rolled out the door, Tristen told me when he becomes president, he's going to make a law that no one's mother will have to be carried out in a plastic bag. I told him I thought it was a good law to make.
I felt comfortable in leaving when I did. Bob and the boys were busy remembering, and playing. The quilts made so lovingly by their mother were spread out on the floor and the stuffed animals were carried about, tucked under an arm or over a shoulder.
To experience so much love, so much respect and so much peace was a gift to everyone involved with this family. The picture that comes to my mind now as I think about each one of them is from the home video we watched. Bob was recording a day when he caught all three of them, Gillian, Clayton and Tristen, lying in the hammock together. Gillian is gently rocking the boys as they are curled up in blankets, reading comic books and just cuddling. That kind of love will never be forgotten, it will forever be a part of the fabric of who they are. A thread that can never be broken.
I cried all the way home and into the night. And just as I began to slip into a light sleep I felt her presence. I could almost see her. She was floating close to my face. Her hands reached out and she took my face in her hands. Her smile was radiant and she had beautiful, long, flowing hair. I heard—no, I felt her say "Thank you for helping my boys." And she was gone.
As I write this, I recall one of the nurses telling me about one of her visits on Monday, when Clayton said "I want a sign from my mom that she's OK. I want the cat to bark," and then he ran into her room to tell her what he wanted. Well, my experience wasn't exactly Soda saying "woof". But maybe it was Gillian's way of letting us know. It was very real to me, and I'll never forget her or the wonderful love I felt in all their presence.
originally printed in The Forum, a newsletter of the Association for Death Education and Counseling, in July 1996.
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