Mindfulness in Death

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Mindfulness in Death

I was raised in Kansas City by a mother that was in bed most of my childhood and a surgeon father who was fun, loving, and rage filled. When he was really pissed, he took it out on my bottom and back with a leather belt. I had 5 brothers and sisters. It was interesting to grow up in a beautiful split-level ranch style home filled with people and yet feel all alone.

When my mother didn’t get up to bathe me, brush my hair, hold me when I was scared, comfort me when I was sad, and celebrate me when I was happy, my seven-year-old self tried to make sense of it. The story my seven-year-old self created was that I was unworthy. I wasn’t even good enough for my own mother to get out of bed. 

I took the story pebble of unworthiness and placed it on my head and lived under that story through elementary school where I would get in fist fights and act out. I would hang out all day by myself at the mall. Mr. Marshall would give me 8 free nachos at Taco Via, then I would play Pong at the Atari Store with the manager, Mark. I would finish up at Tospy’s Popcorn where Jill would toss me a free cinnamon popcorn ball. In the 4th grade I was crowned Miss Junior Overland Park at that very mall I called home.

I lived under the unworthiness pebble as I ran fast and hard in college with sex, drinking and drugs. I did the same when I moved to Hollywood. I could party harder, run faster, and joke more than anyone I knew. I often ran so fast I didn’t have time to catch the names of the guys I was making out with in the bars. 

I blamed my behavior and my unworthy feelings on my mother for neglecting me and being unkind. I blamed her for sucking as a mother and teaching me nothing to prepare me for life, motherhood, or marriage. I blamed her because I    did not know how to be in a relationship. I blamed her that I drank too much. I blamed her that I was promiscuous. 

When I turned 30 I met my husband. I knew from the minute we met on the airplane, this was the guy I was going to marry. I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh it’s you! You are finally here. I have missed you so much.”

As soon as our relationship was off and running, I didn’t know what in the hell to do.  I started to get drunk and pick fights. David was puzzled and asked, “What are you doing?” I said, “I don’t know.” He suggested we see a therapist.

We did. After the first session, the therapist asked if she could see me by myself. 2 years later, doubling up twice a week, and 30 years of crying unleashed, the armor that I had created from my childhood was melting. 

As I melted and continued my self-exploration and healing, I was surprised what I found. I was sensitive, compassionate, funny, and creative. Who knew! Before I just thought I was a tough tomboy who didn’t care about or need anything. 

I continued to heal and as I did, something interesting happened. As I began to understand my own hurts and not just blindly living by them, I started to understand my mother’s hurts. As I had compassion for myself and my past behaviors, I started having compassion for my mother’s. As I understood my vulnerabilities, I understood hers. 

I was shifting from blame to understanding. From understanding to compassion. From Compassion to forgiveness. When I forgave and loved my mother for being who she was, just as she was, I was set free to love myself the same. 

My mother lived in Kansas City in a retirement home. We had moved her there after my father passed because she was pretty much bed ridden and he had taken care of her. I lived in Los Angeles and saw her once a year when we went back to KC for a Chiefs game, to see family, and eat at Taco Via. 

One year I went back to attend a game with my husband, David. On the way to the airport, I ran by the retirement facility where my mom was living. She was in bad shape. She had had some paranoid delusions the staff was trying to poison her so she tried to flee in her wheel chair. Because of this, they moved her to the lock down ward. When I went to visit her it looked like everyone was comatosed and about to die, while she was just sitting in the middle of them smiling. Shocked I said, “Mom, what in the hell is this death circle?” She said, “Tell me about it. Get me out of here!” I didn’t have a lot of a lot of time before I had to leave for the airport. I gave her the food I had brought, some toiletries, and flowers, then I had to head out. It was heartbreaking. It was the first time I felt rattled about leaving her.

When I got back to Los Angeles on Sunday night, I was still feeling upset about my mom. Monday morning I dropped my older kids at school and headed home with my 3-year-old daughter, Eve, strapped in the back. Out of the blue she said, “I want to talk to your mom.” I said, “Grandma is in heaven, remember? She died.” I thought she was referring to my husband’s mom whom we had recently seen. Eve had never met my mom. She said, “No, I want to talk to your mom.” 

I said, “Ok Eve.” and called her facility. After a few minutes, they got her to the phone. I said, “Hi Mom. It’s Leigh.” She said, “Please come get me!” Eve said, “Ok Grandma, where are you? Mommy, go get her. Grandma what street are you on? We don’t know where to turn. Mom go get her!” My mom said, “Come get me.” And I said, “OK”. Two weeks later I moved my mother to a retirement home in Los Angeles that was close by me. 

As I continued evolving, I got to the point with my mother that I realized she did her job of parenting me so perfectly that I am who I am, doing what I am doing today, because of her. She neglected me just right to set me on the mission to remind myself and others that We Are Not Alone. We can never be alone. And that the stories we create in childhood are not real. They are just a thought that we created when we were little, but they are crippling us today, keeping our adult selves from fully living. 

When I became a mother and I wasn’t sure what the hell to do with my kid, I thought, “What exactly did I want from my mother? What was the biggest thing I needed? What did I wish I could have gotten from her?” The answer was very clear. She taught me so beautifully that the two most important things a child needs is to be seen and heard. That’s it. That lets us know we matter. That lets us know our worth. I really got this to the bone by experiencing what it feels like when you don’t feel seen or heard.

One day on the playground at my kid’s school, a dad asked me if I wanted to be a part of his Mindfulness Movement Documentary. I wasn’t quite sure what it meant, but I said, “Heck yes, I’m in!”. After agreeing, I went home and googled Mindfulness to see exactly what it meant. It means giving all of your attention to the present moment with no judgement. I decided to do a 33 Day Mindful Moment series on Facebook Live to really understand it as I was sharing with others who were interested in learning as well. What I discovered during the 33 days is how I had been sleep walking and multitasking for 18 years of parenting which basically means doing everything ½ assed. My kids were used to talking to my shoulder in the car or to my back while at my computer. I had many projects started and not completed. I felt hurried all of the time and pulled in so many ways. I was living my to do list. 

As I practiced Mindfulness, I saw my children’s eyes in a new way and their heart. I saw a tree glisten for the first time on a walk I had done a hundred times. I heard the need in a neighbor’s voice because I was paying attention. 

But the most beautiful experience I had practicing mindfulness was with my mother as she died. 

She had been on life support for 6 days. They put her in an induced coma while they tried to stabilize her infections, pneumonia, clear her lungs, treat the flu, etc. She had a lot going on. After the 6 days, they removed her breathing tube. The doctor told me “We have gotten her as stable as she is going to get. We could keep doing this to her or we could send her home and call hospice when she needs it.” 

I went back in her room and said “Mom, I’ve got good news! They are going to remove your feeding tube today and tomorrowmorning you get to go home!” Sher shook her head no. “I’m drowning”, she whispered. I said, “You’re drowning?” She shook her head yes with terrified eyes. I said, “I’ll be right back. I ‘m going to find a nurse.” I went into the hallway and started crying. I realized she knew what was going on. She knew she was dying. As I was crying, I received a text from my friend Renee that said, “Be strong for your mother. Let her have the experience she needs to have. Be a battery of love.” I realized, at that moment, that I was riding my wave of emotion. I had dug my fingers into the feeling of sadness and was holding on for dear life. But as I observed my weeping self I realized, this is HER moment, not MY emotional moment. I closed my eyes and took three deep breaths. I prayed, “God, let me be a soul sister to my mother, not a grieving daughter. Let me show up as a powerful battery of love.” I took another deep breath and walked back into her room. 

I pulled the chair up to touch her bed, took both of my mother’s hands, and got face to face with her. She said, “I’m dying.” I said, “Yes you are. You are dying. We all are.” She made a terrible face and I said, “Are you scared?” She said, “Aren’t you?” And I said, “Hell no! All of this learning and running around on this planet is exhausting. I can’t wait to go to heaven, float on a cloud, have a pina colada and kick it with God!” She smiled. I said, “Mom, you have been talking about going home to Jesus since I was little. The time is finally here! How exciting. And Dad’s there. I bet he will be pushing pass Jesus to pick you up first!” We were hand in hand, face to face. Tears were streaming down our cheeks. I said “Mom, I want you to know, you did your job perfectly with me. I learned every lesson you came here to teach me. I got all of it. And I am happy.” She smiled and whispered, “I am happy.” As we looked into each other’s eyes she said, “You are my angel. You are my sister.” And I said, “Yes, I am your sister.” 

I held her gaze for as long as she needed. If I could describe what it felt like during those moments between us, it would be something like this: it felt like our souls were communing. 

After a while she closed her eyes and I rubbed her head. When she opened them again I told her that I had a favor to ask her. (My husband was out of town and it was 11pm.) “I want to go home and sleep, take my kids to school in the morning, then come back at 8am. Could you please wait and not die tonight so I can do those things?” She smiled and shook her head yes. I said, “Seriously mom, don’t die to night."  She whispered, “OK.” I walked over to the dry erase board at the foot of her bed, wiped it clean and wrote in big bold letters, DO NOT DIE. She smiled. I kissed her forehead and left. She didn’t die. When I got back in the morning she was still alive! I was so happy. 

She died 2 days later. 

I have to tell you, had that fella not asked me to be a part of the Mindfulness Movement Film and had I not committed to practicing Mindful Moments for 33 days straight prior to her death, I  believe I  would have missed the most beautiful moment of our life. 

If I may I leave you with this, forgiveness is not about saying what the other person did was okay. It simply means that you choose to no longer suffer when you think about the memory of it. Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. Forgiveness is freedom.

One more thing, notice the lessons the people around you are showing up to teach you. Everything is for your learning. Every encounter. Are you awake to see it? Are you getting the gifts that are coming to you daily? When you are mindful, when you are all in, you don’t miss a thing. So when it’s my time to die, I will have gotten everything this life came to teach me. 

All the best the world has to offer,

Leigh

Leigh KoechnerComment