This song by Jacques Brel has been my family’s theme song for many years, and today it rings as true as it did the first time I heard it, probably in 1966 or so:
If we only have love, then tomorrow will dawn
And the days of our years will rise on that morn
If we only have love, to embrace without fears
We will kiss with our eyes, we will sleep without tears
If we only have love, with our arms open wide
Then the young and the old will stand at our side
If we only have love, love that's falling like rain
Then the parched desert earth will grow green again
If we only have love for the hymn that we shout
For the song that we sing , then we'll have a way out
If we only have love, we can reach those in pain
We can heal all our wounds, we can use our own names
If we only have love, we can melt all the guns
And then give the new world to our daughters and sons
If we only have love, then Jerusalem stands
And then death has no shadow, there are no foreign lands
If we only have love, we will never bow down
We'll be tall as the pines, neither heroes nor clowns
If we only have love, then we'll only be men
And we'll drink from the Grail, to be born once again
Then with nothing at all, but the little we are
We'll have conquered all time, all space, the sun, and the stars.
(Song by Jacques Brel, "If We Only Have Love")
I am a believer. I was raised to believe in love. I was raised to believe that love conquers all. These were not just empty words in a book that I was taught, growing up. I was raised by a living, breathing example of this. I witnessed the transformation of my mother from a beautiful, but desperately miserable “doer”, a mother struggling to raise a family of 7 children in hard times, doing everything she could do to provide for that family’s needs, with a husband who loved and despised her at the same time (a father who seemed to have nothing but contempt for me). Then, at age 9, I witnessed the most remarkable transformation of this woman, and I became the grateful recipient of the tremendous love that had remained locked beneath an addiction out of control that she had been battling my entire young life, up to then.
When I was 7, Mom had attempted to take her own life. As the family member unofficially assigned the role of bringing light and laughter to that household - I was the family mascot in every way, and I took that role very seriously - I considered this an utter and miserable failure on my part. Yes, I had let my own mother and my entire family down by failing to bring enough laughter to ease the tension of that home enough to keep her from trying to end it all. It was my fault. I carried that burden in my heart and on my back.
When Mom got well, the year I turned 9, everything changed. Her chronic asthma just went away, along with a whole host of other ailments that had baffled countless medical professionals for years, all of whom kept prescribing more and different medications to “cure” her. She eschewed all of the drugs and booze and doctors, and embraced love, and life. She made sure I knew that she had my back, that no matter what the world might do or say to me, no matter how much my father treated me like I was freshly stepped in dog shit on his shoe, I knew that she loved me. She made sure of that.
A more powerful lesson a child can never learn, and I learned it well. I have seen the transformational power of love turn thousands of lives around, including my own, since that initial powerful demonstration I witnessed in Mom.
It was a year ago that I was with Mom in the doctor’s office when he said the inevitable words that changed Mom’s remaining days – “Now, Rosemary, it is time to have the “End of Life” discussion.” Up to that moment, we were all engaged in waging war against the many health conditions that, at this advanced stage of her 88 years of life, were piling up on Mom. We were waging that war on all fronts, one battle after another. Mom was determined to feel better, to embrace life, refusing to accept that it had to be like this. When it came to living, Mom was a fighter. She fought hard to embrace life in all of its wonder and glory. But, it was becoming a losing battle.
For 4 months there had been nearly daily doctor’s visits, her life turned into an endless drama of going to this one for the heart, that one for the lungs, the other one for the legs, another one for her shoulders - it went on and on. She was so tired, and so miserable, and facing each day with more doctor visits, more fumbling with the oxygen and the leg wraps and the pain, and all the treatments. My primary mission, when I went down there to be with her for the month of July into August, was to try to arrange for as much in-home care as I could, without having to move her into the “Assisted” side of the Assisted Living Facility. Mom needed to be in her home, her two bedroom apartment in the facility, with all of her stuff, to feel most comfortable, most alive, and my mission was to make that possible.
The moment Dr. Young, her Pulminary Specialist, broached that subject and suggested Home Hospice care, Mom and I both knew we were hearing the truth. I detected a noticable change in her demeanor, a lightness in her being, as her eyes lit up, and she seemed to relax her shoulders and even smiled. We all calmly discussed what needed to be done next, as Dr. Young said, “With most patients, I would have been having this talk a year ago – but with you, I knew that you weren’t ready for it yet, and thought that you would do everything in your power to keep going, and you have. But, now it’s time to think about the rest of your time. It’s a matter of months, now, Rosemary. Your lungs are just too scarred and your heart is too weak to go much beyond that.” As we left his office, I asked her, as I pushed her in her transfer chair, “How do you feel about all of this, Mom?” “I’m a bit shocked – but not surprised. I just need to let it sink in.” That was exactly how I felt, too. When I called brother Chris to let him know, he had the same reaction. We all agreed this was the way to go, and Chris had the connections with the best Hospice Care outfit in that part of South Carolina, so by the next day, it was all set up.
That day began the best end-of-life time that Mom could possibly have had. I will be forever grateful to Dr. Young for his frankness and honesty. I think it was perfect that I was the one there for that talk, because like Mom, I had learned the value of surrender in my own recovery from addiction, as had she, and we both experienced a surrender in that office that allowed Mom to live out the rest of her days with a vastly restored dignity, with increased comfort, and with tremendous peace, despite the pain. Nobody manages pain better than a good Hospice Care. No more daily doctor’s visits. Everything she would need would be arranged through Hospice. About once every two weeks, we’d make a doctor visit, but that was so much more manageable.
We had time to be. Time to play Mah Johng and Scrabble. Time for her to play bridge with the ladies. Time to go to the beach, which we did twice, oxygen and all (she hadn’t been to the beach in over a year, despite living a mile from it). Time to live. Time to love. Time to die – in her own way, her dignity fully intact. She got to be present for her last two months. The greatest gift of my life was to be able to be with her through most of it, and to be there for the very end of it.
Were it not for the love that came into our lives, when I was aged 9 and Mom was living a life of quiet, miserable desperation, it all would have played out so much differently. She probably wouldn’t have made it past age 50 or 55, and I probably wouldn’t have reached age 30, with the way my own addiction took off at a rampant pace in my early 20’s.
I might add that, love also healed my relationship with Dad. He and I became best of friends several years before he died, as we cleaned up all of our own hatreds and animosities towards one another and found ourselves on the same wavelength at the end of his days.
(Last 3 photos – Mom with brother Ken at brother Jim’s wedding last June; Mom on the beach with my wife Kathy and sister-in-law Dorothy, 9 days before she die; Mom moments after her final breath)