A Death in the Family

I have now written more posts that follow on to the story I present here. All of these posts can be found under the category Death in my Family.

One of the last nails in the coffin for me and my faith in Christian Science was my mother’s death. Yes, I’m using the very un-Christian Science word–death. She died. That’s it. I cannot, nor will I put it any other way. I believe/hope that there is an existence beyond death, but I really don’t know. Nobody does. Fair warning, dear readers, this one is long, and it may get a bit hostile. It’s also deeply personal. This is the first time I’ve publicly shared the story of my mother’s death.

Mom’s death was very unexpected, so much so that I wasn’t there near her when it happened. Although she was 80 years old, up until around four or five months before she died, she was a very active woman, participating regularly in water aerobics and a local seniors’ walking/hiking group. She always looked forward to my visits home, because then she’d have a regular walking buddy living right there in her home. Dad was not so mobile anymore, and she would get easily frustrated walking with him because he could not walk very fast, or far.

I first began to suspect something was up in the latter part of the year. That year was the rare Christmas during the time I lived in Boston when I didn’t come home to spend it with my parents. We decided it would be more fun if I saved my money and extended my usual trip out in May for Association. Mom was all excited because I could go hiking with her and help in the garden. The hiking was MUCH more appealing to me than gardening, but I enjoyed my time with her no matter what. For various reasons, most of which I really don’t understand other than that we just had conflicting personality types, we had not been overly close when I was growing up, and even into my early adulthood. It was only in the previous 10 or so years that Mom and I had begun to develop a much closer relationship.

I usually talked with my parents once or twice a week on the phone during my years in Boston, and by around late November or early December, I began to realize that for probably at least a month, Dad had been casually mentioning that Mom “wasn’t feeling well” on the odd occasion. He didn’t really say much more than that, except for occasionally asking for supportive prayer. Each time, I just figured it was a minor, isolated incident and that it would just pass.

The next clue came in December when I received my Christmas care package of Mom’s usual baked goodies I grew up with. Now, when you’ve grown up your entire life eating something you love and crave, you notice when something is not quite right. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but some of the items just didn’t taste quite the same as they usually did, or maybe the texture was just a bit off. It was really very subtle, but I noticed it anyway. Something just wasn’t right. Again, I just put the thought aside, figuring I’d probably gotten the first batch, which sometimes didn’t turn out as well. After all, this was stuff she only made once a year. Also, I didn’t want to be mentally malpracticing her–yes, I know that sounds crazy, it does to me now in retrospect, but as a Christian Scientist, it was a very real concern.

It was just before Christmas as I recall, when Dad finally fessed up to me that Mom really wasn’t well, and had not been for around a month or so and he laid out on the phone for me all that was happening. He told me that he suspected something was up as early as the summer. She had not been eating much, and what she did eat usually didn’t stay down, and she was in constant pain and discomfort. Her abdomen was also apparently swelling. He said it was as if she had swallowed a basketball. I asked him if they thought about going to see a doctor, and he said he had suggested it numerous times, but each time, she said no, that she wanted to seek healing through Christian Science–a choice that seemed out of character for her.

Now Mom, while always a fairly dedicated Christian Scientist, had been the more lukewarm Christian Scientist of my parents–neither of whom had been what I’d call “radical reliers“. I remembered in the early 1990s she had regularly seen a doctor for a period of time about some sort of medical condition she suspected she had. She had never discussed this with me, and to this day I don’t know exactly what it was, although based on a few things I accidentally came across at the time, I suspect she was concerned about breast cancer. If that’s what was suspected, I do know she never actually had the condition–that’s not something that would have been easily hidden from me. Dad never talked to me about it either. Yes, secrecy–especially regarding physical issues is a maddening hallmark of Christian Scientists. They just do not like to talk about it–that would be giving it “reality”. It’s all about that fucking denial! As I think back on it all now it all just pisses me off to no end. Even to this day, I feel weird sometimes even just talking about allergies, which by the way are kicking me in the ass right now. It’s all part of not giving “reality to matter”. I look back now and all I can thinks that it’s such bullshit.

So, Mom’s decision to forgo medial treatment or even just pain management in favour of exclusive reliance on Christian Science seemed out of character to me and also to Dad, I think. Where did this sudden “radical reliance” come from? It would be a few years after her death and also Dad’s death when I would begin to deduce where, and that’s a topic for another post. Both of my parents had become uncharacteristically radical in their total reliance on Christian Science–even in the face of its obvious failure.

By January, Mom’s condition was deteriorating. Dad couldn’t look after her on his own anymore, so around about the beginning of February, they travelled to the nearest Christian Science nursing home, a five hour drive, with a one and a half-hour ferry ride for a chaser at the end. They stayed there together for most of February until Dad had to return home to take care of things. During this time, Mom and I talked on the phone daily, and I could hear the pain in her voice. I ended every conversation by telling her I loved her. I just had a gut feeling that in case that was our last conversation, I wanted those to be the last words I ever said to her–I wanted her to always know how I felt about her. This was a big deal, as it had been rare for either of us to verbally express that feeling to each other. It just wasn’t the way of our relationship. I always knew she loved me, but she had a hard time ever saying it, and some of that rubbed off on me. I think she always knew I loved her too. I just had a hard time saying it. To this day, I still don’t say “I love you” easily to anyone–just ask any of my ex-girlfriends–even though I do feel it very deeply and show it in other ways. I would cry alone in my apartment after most of those conversations, wishing I could be there with her. However, anytime I suggested coming out to visit, I was politely pushed back, and I didn’t force the issue. They didn’t want to trouble me. That’s part of the Christian Science way.

One of my cousins, who is not a Christian Scientist, visited Mom regularly, as she lived in the same city as the nursing facility. Mom was like a second mother to my cousin, and they had always been very close. Years later, she filled me in on how ugly Mom’s physical condition really was. Her abdomen was grotesquely swollen and she did not eat at all in her last days. This was in stark contrast to what Dad would tell me based on what he would hear from the Christian Science nurses at the facility after he left, and Mom’s condition rapidly deteriorated. To give an example of some of the more ridiculous stories the nurses would tell, they reported to Dad that one nurse during the evening had sat up at the piano with Mom and she asked him to play hymns for her. According to my cousin, at this point it would have been impossible for her to even get out of bed, let alone walk down the hall and sit at a damn piano! What bullshit! Maybe it happened in some Christian Science-fairyland fantasy, but definitely not in the real world that we all inhabit here! My cousin later told me it probably was better for me that I had not seen how Mom was at the end, and I agree. My last memories of Mom are of hikes we took, and her as a vital, and active woman with a bitingly sharp wit when the occasion demanded–she rarely suffered fools for long, except if that fool was Christian Science. The last time I ever saw my Mom alive was a little bit less than a year before she died. I’m fine with the last memories I have of her.

Although my cousin is no longer a Christian Scientist (she attended Sunday School on and off, but left the faith immediately after she graduated from Sunday School), she was supportive of Mom and her practice of Christian Science, and had always been very close to her, having lost her own mother (my Mom’s sister) to untreated (yes, thanks to good ol’ Christian Science again) cancer nearly 20 years earlier. She had always viewed my parents’ practice of Christian Science as more reasonable and realistic than that of others. Recently, she and I began to talk more about my parents’ last months of life, and her perspective from the ringside seat she occupied filled in for me some details about how my parents became uncharacteristically radical in their reliance on Christian Science–something I was mostly blind to thanks to my own indoctrination before I finally left the faith.

In March, when it finally became apparent that Mom’s condition might be terminal, Dad and I talked about me coming out to visit, and we worked out the logistical details. The next day when I got to work and arranged for time off, I got on the computer to make my flight reservations to fly out about three days later. I vividly remember my call to Mom that morning right afterwards to tell her. She seemed really happy, and was looking forward to visiting. As with all of out other conversations, I told her I loved her. She said she loved me, more than I could know. A few hours later my phone rang, and by the area code, I knew it was Dad, and I had a very bad feeling–he rarely called me at work in the middle of the day, even through this crisis. He asked me if I was sitting down, and his voice was breaking. I asked if he could hold on for a moment while I went to a more private room to talk. He told me that Mom had died just moments earlier. Even now, over four years later, I’m tearing up a bit as I write this. Dad and I cried together on the phone. Grief shared, 3,000 miles apart. Mom died on March 17–St. Patrick’s Day.

My trip out turned into one of helping Dad with Mom’s final arrangements. We scattered her ashes in the ocean within view of two places she loved in her life, British Columbia and Washington state. Besides Dad, my cousin and her family were there, as well as Mom’s younger brother. I could sense his scorn over the circumstances of her death–after all, he had lost another sister in a similar manner almost 20 years earlier–needlessly suffering in pain waiting for a healing that never came. I have lost contact with him now. He never expressed his opinion, but I could sense it. I know that he never cared much for Christian Science, and he had wisely ditched it by the time he reached adulthood.

As we drove away, Dad told me, “I’ve changed my mind about where I want my ashes scattered; instead of Mt. Temple, I want to be with her.” He had always wanted to be buried on Mt. Temple, a favourite place of his from his youth in the Canadian Rockies, near Banff, Alberta. Little was I to know that I would be fulfilling that wish less than a year later. He never recovered emotionally from her death, and became like a ship without a rudder. Along with his mental state, his health began to decline during the latter part of that summer, leading up to his own death that December. Mom’s death absolutely devastated him. Where I had always seen two very independent people as I grew up and on into adulthood, I now came to realize that my parents were much more dependent on each other than I had ever realized. When Mom died, a part of my Dad died with her.

My mother died in excruciating pain, with what appeared to be a massive tumour growing in her abdomen. Since she was 80 years old, and died in a licensed care facility, no autopsy was required by the authorities, and none was requested by Dad. So, I do not know what her physical ailment was. My cousin and I figure it was maybe some sort of cancer, perhaps ovarian cancer or stomach cancer. While I can’t say that she died prematurely–like so many others in Christian Science do, she did not have to suffer in her last days as she did. Even her sister who died years earlier of untreated cancer that had metastasized throughout her body due to reliance on Christian Science had at least gone to a hospice where her pain was abated through medication. Mom didn’t even have that. I can’t imagine the pain she endured, or why she chose to endure it. Somehow, she had become a “radical relier”–something she had not been in the past. Radical reliance on Christian Science condemned my mother to an excruciatingly painful death.


5 thoughts on “A Death in the Family

  1. Thank you so much for this moving account of your mom’s unfortunate death. I’m sure it was difficult to write but it is a tragically familiar tale told by many of us that grew up in this religion. It is comforting to listen to other’s stories but at the same time infuriating! I really appreciate you starting this blog which allows us to express our feelings and have a remote “talking circle”.

  2. Thank you for sharing. I am sorry for your loss. I recently lost my father after a prolonged series of illnesses (for various reasons I have chosen not to blog about it). In some ways I feel fortunate my mother did not take the “radical reliance” route with regards to my father’s care, however, I wish she had listened to what the doctors told her and followed their directions a bit more closely, although in the end I’m not sure how much of a difference it would have made.

  3. Thank you for your kind comments! I guess I’m at a point where I’m far enough away time-wise from the events that the emotions are no longer raw. A few years ago, no I never could have re-counted the story as I have. Also, the fact that I’m blogging anonymously helps me feel less ‘exposed’. I still miss my parents. And to ‘kindism’ who’s just lost your father, I’ve had other friends who’ve lost one or both parents who tell me that the grief passes, but you never stop missing them. That’s definitely been true for me. The grief has long passed, so I am able to write and tell the story, without feeling like I’m exposing a raw wound. Miss them…always will. But, that doesn’t hurt or make me cry. Most of the time, it’s a fond memory, triggered by something as innocuous as when I go grocery shopping at a store they went to. Talking about this stuff helps a lot. I’m happy to have a ‘talking circle’ right here, anytime.

  4. Your story of your mom is almost identical to the way my hubby’s mom died. Hugely swollen abdomen, in incredible pain for months, going to a CS home…….. And….. my hub’s older brother was developmentally disabled. He had a good life until he developed diabetes. My class-trained sis-in-law got him to a Dr for the diagnosis, but he was so scared of his mother he shook and trembled and said he wouldn’t take medicine……..Going to the Dr was so stressful, it almost killed him. He sweated buckets and shook in his shoes.

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