A Life Well Lived!
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no "brief candle" for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
George Bernard Shaw
This is a story about the power of scent, my mother and her final hours in this world. Several weeks ago I walked into my parents home to discover that my 86 year old mother had suffered a massive right brain stroke. My 89 year old father was in the hospital at the time, having just endured gall bladder surgery. When I saw my mother I knew. When the paramedics took her from the home that she’d built lovingly with my father over 60 years ago I sobbed, brokenhearted with the sureness of knowing that she would never return. There is a smell to death.....it is surely the fragrance of the flesh becoming earth.
The next day I found myself in a still and deeply saddened state, confused about what actions to take next. Then I read Flora’s deeply moving post about Houbigant’s Demi- Jour.
I was suddenly flooded with feelings, remembering my mother and all of her influences on me. She loved pansies and violets and when I was a little girl I played in her jewelry box where she kept the little bottle of “Attar of Violets” that had been her mothers. It is still the perfume that I define all fragrance by. I would greedily open the little bottle and take a deep breath, loving every moment, feeling very grown up. With her passing I have become the keeper of that jewelry box and the bottle of violet perfume is still there. It is still beautiful but the fragrance is fleeting. it is at least 100 years old, but just as thrilling, forever a mysterious elixir! My mother also adored lovely lavender perfumes, her first real job was as the Yardley English Lavender girl for the May Company, a beautiful old Cleveland department store. Her other favorite was Shalimar and she wore it abundantly with her opera length pearls and silk.
That same day Chaya replied to my comments and my experience of caring for my mother was completely altered because of her kindness. She reminded me that my mother was still alive and that I had a chance to help her heal, regardless of the outcome. We had six wonderful days with my mother before she died that Friday. Although she never regained consciousness, I decided that day that that if she was going to die that she would have the best dying ever.
For the next six days, my sister and I filled her room with her favorites things. My husband brought her a Bose sound system with which to listen to her beloved Cleveland Orchestra and her favorite National Public Radio! I anointed her upper lip with Sali Oguri’s gorgeous “Persephone” and it filled the room with the most delightful fragrance of deep rich chocolate and pomegranates.
We continued this all week, even spraying the curtains in the room and her blankets with her current favorite, l’occitane’s “Vanilla”. Her friend’s brought beautiful flowers for the room and I bathed her everyday with French Lavender and roses.
I put on her makeup, fixed her hair and gave her at least 3 massages a day with fragrant oils , gorgeous creams and spent hours doing reiki, soul retrieval and energy work with her. Everyone participated in the celebration!
My sister brought her favorite French blanket and 4711 cologne, my nephew brought her favorite cd’s and my son Alex was steadfast by her side. My brother in law meditated often in her room, filling the space with a continuous peace.
We served cookies , M & M’s and drinks in her room for the enjoyment of all of her grandchildren, nurses and friends. I learned so much about how to live through her dying. I learned that even though my mother was deeply comatose, every time I touched her body she responded with utter relaxation. Every time I perfumed her with something wonderful she would take a deep breath and sigh. I learned that the best way to have her well taken care of was to care deeply for the people who were caring for her. Her nurses came into the room often to talk and relax. Even though it was obvious that she would not recover, they never stopped treating her well. I realized early on that the suctioning and comfort care my mother was receiving was frightening to the younger nurses and they commented that everything that we did allowed them know my mother better and that they were transformed by the experience of caring for her in such pleasantly fragrant surroundings. In all honesty, I really enjoyed myself and I don’t ever think about those 6 days without smiling. Friends and family came to see her and in the intimacy of that space were able to say goodbye without fear. It was an extraordinary process, one which I will never forget.
During that week my mother got phone call after phone call and we held the phone to her ear so that everyone could talk to her, knowing that although she wasn’t conscious she somehow heard every word. When her doctors determined the following Friday that there was nothing further to be done, they discharged her and she was taken into hospice in the nursing home where my 89 year old father was currently recovering after his surgery. She had barely been there for 45 minutes when the nurses came to get me because she was dying. I was with her when she took her last breaths and was able to kiss her and tell her what an incredible mother she’d been. It was then I was able to say “I love you Mother, Thank you so much. It was such an honor”.
My sister had been in mom’s garden during that time , picking flowers to bring to what we knew would be her last room. We covered her body from head to toe with the fragrant blooms, yarrow and roses, daisies and comfrey and her favorites, the lovely stargazer lilies that she planted and tended with such loving care. We placed her small cloth dog in her arms and covered her with a beautiful French blanket that we’d placed on her in the hospital and two cards from dear friends. I called the funeral director and told him to pick her up but not to remove any of it. My mom was cremated the other day in nothing but a cardboard box with everything that we’d sent. No Funeral, no embalming , no grotesque maquillage. Nothing but her and her flowers because that was the way she wanted it.
Chaya and Flora’s words helped me to remember during my deepest grief that the most important thing was to honor the essence of her. My mom was a Cleveland society maven with a very public face and the community outpouring of sorrow for her passing is enormous and sometimes too intense to bear. We held an enormous party at a beautiful manor house which we filled with gorgeous flowers, fine wines, bagpipers and beautiful foods. Over 500 people showed up with cards and beautiful words of tribute, but what I know is that we were able to grant her deepest, most intimate final desire and she went peacefully into the fire like the Viking queen she truly was. We scattered her ashes on Labor Day along the beautiful River Road amidst the sunshine, flowers and the birdsong that she loved. I placed her Barack Obama button in the hollow of the old willow tree that grows by that bend in the river. I know her...she’ll be needing it.
The night that she died I curled up against my husband, hungry for his warmth and desperately missing my mothers laughter. Suddenly there was a break in the energy, the night less still. I felt a cool softness caress my face and I woke with my nostrils drenched with the scent of her vanilla. I have smelled it since in the oddest places and times, always before a thought of her. It has become a touchstone for me, my mother surrounding me with the native wisdom that we are far vaster creatures than we understand. Of all things that she has shared with me, it has been her most generous gift.
Barbara Lowenstern Schreibman 1921- 2008