by Jacqui Woodward-Smith
In memory of Ronald Henry Smith, 14th September 1929 to 17th August 2007 and for ‘She who births us, and waits for us at the end of a life, to take us to another shore’1
And when life can no longer hold you let the red and white springs sing you home …2
I thought long and hard about whether to write this article; death is such an intimate, personal thing that I thought perhaps it would be a betrayal of my father, who I loved more dearly than I can ever say. And yet, when I think about the days and months before his death, about the honesty, openness, dignity, and humour with which he approached his final moment I know that he would say that it was ok. That if it helped others to be less afraid then his death should be shared. Ultimately, his final journey was his alone, and I can only relate my experience of it, so perhaps there can be no betrayal after all. The secrets of that journey have gone with him and I can only share what I know. From my own perspective I do know that death should not be hidden, as is so encouraged in our society, and that the strongest memory I have of those last hours, and the days following it, are of the savage beauty and fierce love to be found at the heart of the Crone.
My dad, Ron, was diagnosed with prostate cancer following a stroke in 2004. I don’t think that I had ever realised what a strong and determined man he was until I saw him fight his way back to health after the stroke but that was also the first time that I ever saw him cry and perhaps the first time that I really saw him as a human being and not just ‘dad’. In a way, I think that there are few things that have shocked me more than seeing my father cry but, through his recovery, we did develop a stroner and more honest connection, for which I am ever grateful. During that time he had many strange visions and in one he saw me shape-shift into a heron, which made him laugh, but made me think of the bird that guards the liminal spaces between life and death. It was then that I first began to consider the role that I might, as best as I was able, play in midwifing his death when the time came.
I saw him battle that stroke and win and he approached cancer in the same way; with dignity and a determination to be well. He was a fierce protector of his family and he would have considered it a betrayal of us to give in, no matter what the personal cost to himself. In the years to come I often wished that it were otherwise and that he would let go, but that was not his way. As time went on and I saw his health failing I, feeling the brush of the heron’s wing, found the courage to talk to him about death and what we both thought it would be like. He became more and more open to talking in a way that he never had, about the past and memories of his own parents and siblings, about his dreams and disappointments, and about how proud he was of my brother and I and I told him that I loved him many times (which was something that we had never really said). During this time my brother began to research our family tree and dad cried when he saw the names of all the relatives that he had never known but hoped that he would meet some of them when he died. He was also disappointed that no serial killers or highwaymen had revealed themselves! Over time I saw the masks that he wore melt away like autumn leaves and I saw the kind, funny, strong, wounded, and gentle man beneath. It was an honour to share that time with him.
Eventually, in July 2007, he was admitted to hospital with acute kidney failure and, although his kidneys improved, he was told that, as the cancer had by then spread to his bones and lymphatic system, there was nothing more that could be done for him. He received this news with courage and good humour (as he put it he had “both feet in the last chance saloon and Marlene Dietrich was singing ‘Boys in the Backroom’”!), and I think a degree of relief because the responsibility he felt to carry on fighting had been removed. He then went about giving us his final messages (mainly about looking after one another and telling us how proud he was of us) and preparing for death.
A week before he died I attended the Glastonbury Goddess Conference in honour of the Crone. It seemed so perfect to me that we would be journeying with the Crone this year and I learned much about Her nature, and my own, in that week. I had felt for months that our family was being held in a liminal space waiting for death and, through my own intuition and talking to others, found that to be very like the time of waiting for a birth. Both death and birth are transitions into another state of being and it was as though all my attention became focussed on that one thing. When I left for the Conference and said goodbye to dad in the hospital I thought that I might never see him again but I knew that we had said all that needed to be said (despite that fact that I would rather have been able to say those things to him over and over again until the end of time). At the opening ceremony I read out ‘Northern Star’, the poem that I had written for him at the time of his stroke and, by phone, asked the nurses caring for him to tell him that many people had cried. He was a man who never felt ‘seen’ and I wanted him to know that he was seen and mattered before he left.
Often as a priestess during the conference I found myself holding the energy around the doors in ceremony and reflected on my role as gatekeeper for him as he came closer to death. I felt unprepared for the task but hoped that my priestess training and some of the energy of the conference would stay with me and get me through what needed to be done. In the end though I think that it is love that helps us through; there really is nothing more that we need. Before I left the Conference I attended a ceremony where priestesses embodied the Goddesses of the Wheel of Brigit-Ana and gave oracles. I went to Cerridwen and asked Her to give my father a gentle death. Her reply has stayed with me; “he will have his own death with its own dignity” and those words seemed to free me from feeling that I was responsible for making it ‘alright’ and allowed me to let go of expectation and react to what was happening around me, rather than constantly worrying about what it ‘should be like’.
After the Conference I went straight to see dad and we talked about my experiences and his poem being read; he told me again that he was proud of me. It was a warm and lovely afternoon and, looking back, it was the last time that we shared that connection before he began to let go and journey into death. The next few times that I saw him were more difficult, as he was becoming irritated with life in hospital and frustrated that he was no longer able to help with some difficult issues that were happening in our family. He began to close down, becoming angry and uncommunicative and looking frailer by the day. I was saddened by, what seemed to be, the loss of the warm connection that we had found but reminded myself that it was his journey and that my role was as a witness. I had always felt that he would struggle to die, that he would find it hard to let go when the time came, so perhaps that ‘winding in of the threads of connection’ was exactly what was needed at the time. Whatever the reason I trusted the wisdom of his dying.
As a final gift I took a plastic box, which I labelled ‘Ron’s Box of Love’, into the hospital with some pens and paper and asked everyone to put their ‘love’ into it. On my last few visits I, with dad more often asleep than not, spent my time writing thoughts and memories on slips of paper and placing them in the box. My niece and nephew also placed things inside, as did my brother and even one of the nurses caring for dad. It felt important to spend the time expressing our gratitude for all the things he had given us, even though he was perhaps unaware of us doing so (after he had died his nurse told me that she had read some of the notes out to him and that he had smiled). One night in bed, after a particularly difficult visit, I pulled my ‘crow cloak’, which I wear to work with the energy of the Nine Morgens, over me and I heard their voices. They told me that the Death Mother was circling but that the time was not right for Her to descend. Instead they said that dad was “with the earth one”, learning about the experience of being in a failing body and how to let go of it. I also saw a vision of beautiful autumn leaves decaying back into the earth and felt comforted. The Morgens helped me to see that dad’s journey was unfolding as it should and I began to see the gifts that even something as seemingly terrible as cancer can hold in allowing us to fully experience letting go, if we have the courage to do so. I reflected on the added pain and fear that might come from a sudden and unexpected death and felt grateful that my dad had been able to, as much as possible, experience a gentle end to his life.
In the following days I returned to work but also made another short trip to Glastonbury, where I collected water from the red and white springs and communed with the landscape to gain further strength for the days to come. The morning after my Glastonbury trip I packed my bag for work as usual but also felt that I should pack the sacred spring water and some other items from my altar to Cerridwen (which I had created on my return from the conference). I had only been in my office for a few hours when I received a phone call to say that I should come to the hospital; dad had developed a chest infection and he, and those caring for him, had made the decision not to treat it. It took me two hours to get to the hospital and, by the time I got there, he was virtually unconscious, probably because of the drugs that he was being given. My mother was there, later my brother came, and we all sat together, not saying much but glad to have one another. Eventually mum needed to sleep and my brother took her home before he had to return to his own family. He said that he would return in the morning and so dad and I were left alone.
It is almost impossible to describe that night, although I still remember every moment. Dad had been moved into a side room that morning and so we were more or less left alone, the nurses only coming in a few times to check his drip. As soon as mum and my brother were gone I set up a simple altar on a side table. I felt right to create a sense of sacred, despite being in the hospital. If we had been at home I may have been more creative (lighting candles etc) but perhaps that simple collection of objects was all that dad would have wanted; he was a man who appreciated simplicity. I called to the Death Mother, Cerridwen, asked Her to be with us and sat wondering what to do then. I held his hand and told him that I loved him, that he had done all that he needed to do and had kept us safe, that he was brave and that I was proud of him, and I told him that when the time was right he could let go, that he would know what to do. I know that he heard me because I felt him squeeze my hand and a tear rolled from his eye. I repeated the same things several times during the night and also told him all the things that I had been too scared to say, knowing that this would be our last chance in this lifetime. Often I sang to him quietly but most of the time it felt right that my only role should be as a fully present witness. I wanted him to know that I was there but didn’t want to interfere.
What I learned was that death is hard work and is something that we do, not something that is done to us. The Death Mother is our partner in the dance of death and we do have our role to play. Dad was busy that night and was constantly moving his hands. I didn’t hold his hand for much of the time because it felt important that he should be able to move as he needed to. He appeared to be making something and mumbled that he had to go to work, a place perhaps where he had been most himself and had felt most creative and appreciated. He had been a toolmaker and a few days later I mentioned some of the movements that he had been making to an ex-colleague and she gasped and said that they were the movements that he would have made at one of his machines! A few times he appeared to take some food and ate it, at one point seemingly picking some fruit from a tree. I was reminded of Leslene della-Madre’s account of her mother’s death; that her mother had burrowed into the pillow as though searching for the breast.3 It seems that there is something that sustains us even in our dying and it was quite beautiful to watch. Dad worked, and I witnessed, for many more hours; he was sometimes peaceful, sometimes busy, and sometimes set his jaw with the determined expression of a small boy. I cried many times but I smiled many times too. He only opened his eyes once more and looked at me sadly, not as father to daughter but as friend to friend. I felt that that was when we truly said goodbye and I smiled at him for one last time.
Several hours later, when his breathing had remained the same, I began to think that he would live for another day and eventually slept for a few hours. When I woke his breathing was slightly shallower but still strong and I sat singing to him softly for several more hours. He continued to work with his hands and appeared to be having a discussion with someone, his face showing questioning or approval of what was being said. I began to sense that he might have become ‘stuck’ somehow; he was a strong man who had fought all his life to do the right thing and to protect his family and, although he had accepted death, it seemed that some part of him was not ready to go. It felt right to call all the goddesses of the Wheel of Brigit-Ana, which I work with as a Priestess of Avalon, into the room. I called the Mothers of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth and Maiden, Lover, Mother, and Crone, with Brigit-Ana in the centre. I asked each of them to bring their individual gifts to dad’s last moments and to help him let go when the time was right. I told them that he was a child of their soil, that his feet had walked their sacred land all his life, and asked them that they care for him and show him the way one last time. Finally I called to our ancestors and particularly to his mother, Annie, who he had spoken of so often in his final months. I asked her to come to him and take his hand. I told him again that he was brave, that he would know what to do when the moment came to let go, and that all our love would go with him to be joined with the love of our ancestors in the Otherworld; from love into love. I began to sing but, even as I began, he gave three breaths and died. The room was completely still and I felt a deeper peace than any I had ever experienced before. It was as though there was a presence of a great and luminous darkness that was both light and dark all at the same time. I believe that, at the end, the Goddess, who is Mother of us all, and his ancestors came to show him the way. There are things that I would have wanted to be different; he had wanted to die at home, perhaps there was too much sedation, perhaps there was more that we needed to say to one another, perhaps I could have been better/different/more but these are just questions and don’t matter now. All that matters is that his was a good enough death; Ronald Henry Smith died bravely and well and I was, and am, proud to be his daughter.
I sat with dad for another hour before I called the nurses and the great feeling of peace remained with us. I felt privileged to have been allowed to witness the death of another human being. Sometimes I also felt angry; if the Goddess could have taken him so easily why couldn’t She have let him stay? But I knew that all was exactly as it should have been and that She had come with love and compassion and taken him back to Her womb, which is ever changing and ever the same.
When the nurses eventually came I asked whether I could help them wash his body and was able to bless him with water from the red and white springs before he was wrapped in a shroud and taken away from me. My brother came and we went home to tell mum; life took over once more and I was deeply comforted by the feeling of family togetherness that we had for those few days. Eventually dad’s body was brought to the funeral home and I again requested to wash his body. I had expected them to say no but they seemed pleased and gave me everything that I needed. I was left alone with him and was able to bathe him and rub peppermint oil into his body. I also washed, dried, and combed, his hair, which felt like such a deep and tender act of love that it makes me cry just to think of it. When he was placed in the woven willow coffin that he had requested I was able to visit several times to sit with him and fill the coffin with fresh herbs, my mother offered a yellow rose, my brother photos of his children. Just before the lid was sealed for his funeral I marked dad’s brow with red ochre and wished him a gentle journey in the Cauldron of the Goddess. His coffin was decorated with daisy flowers and greenery, as though we had gone out into a meadow and collected them that morning. Rosemary was woven into them for remembrance. Someone who saw his coffin said that it reminded her of a Moses basket.
After the funeral I, and several of my dear friends and fellow priestesses, watched his coffin being committed, as he had requested, to the flames and the creative and transformative fires of the Goddess, and loudly sang ‘We all come from the Goddess’. It all felt very ancient, very right, and somehow comforting, and I like to think that dad would have been pleased (and probably highly amused).
I never believed that I could sit with someone in their dying, that I could wash their body after death, that I could stand and watch them taken by the fires, but I found that I could and I will be forever grateful to my father for allowing me to learn so much about both life and death. I wasn’t able to do this because I am a priestess but because I loved him and because I know that none of us can ever be whole until our lives, and within that our deaths, are touched by the Sacred Feminine, who has been so long denied.
I was ‘high’ for several weeks after dad died; as though the stardust that clings to those who have just given birth was also clinging to me, but now I journey with grief and mourning and sit in the cave of the Morgen Crows as they tattoo the story I shared with my father into my skin; I won’t pretend that it doesn’t hurt. I don’t know how long I will stay with them but I do know that everything has changed and that I, like my father, have been through an initiation whose effect is not yet clear. There is much pain and fear in dying, there is much sorrow, but, if we can learn to see through that fear, if we can question all that we have been taught, if we can sit with the Goddess in our dying, then something deep and wounded will be healed; just wait for the brush of the heron’s wing.
©Jacqui Woodward-Smith, Samhain 2007
Leslene della-Madre, Midwifing Death: Returning to the Arms of the Ancient Mother (Plain View Press, 2003) p.59.