Finally, a Step Without Feet: Dee Morrell, 1950-2021

Mom and me, circa 1980.

 

I’m astonished at how much can change in the turn of a season.

In late January this year, my mom died.

It had been Christmas, just before. But it didn’t feel like Christmas. My mother-in-law had died just two months before; my parents and my children were separated from each other by hours and hundreds of miles. Our usual rhythms and rituals of togetherness were interrupted, by demise and an abundance of pandemic caution.  

I saw my mom for what would be the last time on this side of the veil earlier that month, spending about a week in Georgia to look after her and my dad, while he had a minor-but-needed (and long-delayed) surgery. 

Our week together was mundane, but it was sweet. More tender, I thought even at the time, than our sometimes-sparring relationship could be. But perhaps mom and I were both mellowing out with age. Our differences were no less pronounced, but more translucent and love-worn with time. The mysterious autoimmune struggles she’d been experiencing these past three years seemed to sweeten her disposition, even as they sapped her energy and impacted her appetite.

I ended up getting one more night-time tea, and one more breakfast with her than originally intended, as the night I left to make the drive back to Asheville, a tire inexplicably blew out, just a few miles from my childhood home. When I called my parents to assure them that AAA was coming and a donut lay in my trunk for quick installation, cheerful voices greeted me on the other end of the phone, eager to see me again, as always through my life. Anytime, day or night. 

But I was concerned on Christmas morning, just a week or so after my return, when my dad sounded so fatigued over the phone. After he spent much of the week between Christmas and New Year’s in bed, I urged him to get a Covid test, and walked him through the steps via his nearest drugstore. The rapid antibody test was conclusive; he was positive.

After a supplement intervention suggested by my functional medicine friend Zachari, my dad recovered quickly, finding the energy and stamina to clean out their gutters! I’d encouraged my mom to get tested too, early on, but she had no interest. Her own long-term mystery illness had left her virtually house-bound, and even the thought of leaving was too debilitating to consider. Eventually, though, my dad’s early signs of extreme tiredness had begun showing up for her, too; a test of her own confirmed what we’d dreaded: She was Covid-positive as well.

But beyond the fatigue, my mom felt okay…until she didn’t. Their home pulse oximeter consistently registered excellent readings for her, but early one evening, they plummeted from around 98%, where they consistently floated, to around 70%. Her breathing, of course, became labored, and I knew it was time to bring her to the hospital. 

She didn’t want to go, but eventually relented. I felt torn. I wanted to make a return trip to see my parents, but — having an immune-compromised special-needs child — I didn’t want to risk acute Covid exposure. But when 24 hours on a BIPAP machine didn’t seem to help her oxygen increase on its own, and a doctor particularly lacking in bedside manner told my dad to “prepare to say goodbye,” a glance from Jasmin conveyed a solidarity I never wanted to see: that of adult children losing their parents. One knowing embrace later, I knew I needed to be there. I made plans to stay with my aunt, and with each mile passing on my late-night ride, prepared for the un-preparable. 

I don’t often know what prayer does, or who (Who?) it’s for, but I believe in its power. Whether it changes God, changes us, or alters us both in its alchemy of call-and-response, I reached out to friends — proximate and virtual — to pray for my mom. Thousands of you who connect with me on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook began praying; Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan; people belonging to multiple faiths, and lapsed-everythings with no idea in what or how or if you believe anymore. My whole family felt enveloped in your love, confident that it reflected the love and ability of the Name beyond every name.

My first full day in Georgia passed with urgent phone calls to nurses, my dad, the day-time doctor-on-duty, and the night-time doctor-on-duty. Though I was nearby, I wasn’t allowed to truly be there. Covid cases were at an all-time high, and hospitals weren’t taking any chances. Could they give her Regeneron? How about Ivermectin? Would they give her Trizomal Glutathione? Oh, she can’t swallow on her own? Mainstream and experimental and supplemental remedies swirled through my Enneagram-Five analysis, but were constrained by convention and my mom’s weakening mortal frame. 

Finally, only one medical option was left: Intubation. My dad was allowed to see her in-person, to talk over this drastic option; she was simply breathing too rapidly with the BIPAP for her nervous system and lungs to sustain. She wanted a second opinion; she spoke via speakerphone to my aunt, who’s a Doctor of Chiropractic; she confirmed that this was my mom’s best option in a world where other options had run out. From what I understand, my mom was scared but brave; she told my dad that she loved him, and her family — including me and the grandkids. She then slipped into a more peaceful sleep than perhaps she’d known for years. 

My second full morning in Georgia, I got the call I never wanted to receive: I could come into the ICU to see my mom, because she was going into organ failure. What they hoped would happen with intubation, didn’t. I held onto my aunt and cousin Melanie. Then, it was time to go.

35 minutes later, I was scrubbed-up with what felt like bare-minimal PPE, but I was grateful that there was apparently enough for me and the ICU care workers. They had me sign a waiver before crossing the threshold; beyond this point lay pivotal connection and danger. 

I stepped into a room of blinking lights and whirring machines; an industrial-strength air scrubber, its dense plastic and churning metal, teleporting enemies out at a microscopic level, while the cold window pane invited natural light, a promise of illumination just out of reach. Here was my dad, holding a hand that held his for forty-seven years of marriage. Here was the mother who raised me, so still on her elevated bed, mouth slack receiving the life-sustaining plastic tube, poised at the precipice between this life and the next.

My dad was alternating between vocal beats of ultimate care, telling my mom just how very much she was loved, and resolute imprecatory prayer, telling Satan just where he could f*** off. 

I joined the hand-holding and the love-sharing; after a few minutes, I suggested we try singing some of mom’s favorite hymns. 

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
and mortal life shall cease:
I shall possess, within the veil,
a life of joy and peace.

Her brow seemed to flicker with recognition. 

I scrolled through my phone to call up beloved passages of Scripture:

Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us… (Hebrews 12:1)

‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Lord.’
(Matthew 25:23)

I brought my face close to hers, her hand in my hands; in spite of tubes and wires she was feeling more solid, more deeply present, than her often sprite-like energy left her occurring to me through much of her ordinary, waking life. It’s okay to let go, mom, I whispered through tears. It’s safe to let go. The angels and your ancestors await you.

I have found, by being surrounded by dying far more than I’d want to these past two years, that the gift of acceptance of what’s happening is one of the most profound gifts you can give a person in their final moments. It carries a quality of unconditional presence between the ‘dying’ and ‘living’ beloveds (in air-quotes, because aren’t we, always, some mixture of both?). I believe this simple embrace of what-is forms an imaginal bridge between realms, making it easier for our dear ones to cross over.

And it indeed seemed to be time. I took out my phone again. This time to make the call to family, who were each gathered in one of two places; mom’s sister, brothers, and mother in Georgia, and her daughter-in-law and granddaughters in North Carolina. Each on speaker-phone, mouthing their final words to this corporeal instantiation of mom, as best they could. Words of cherishing, and even minor threats to hopefully incite dutiful rebound from the jaws of death. (You’d better get better; there’s a pot of lentils for you in the refrigerator! I recall one relative saying. This has probably worked, for at least one mortally-wounded Italian in history..!)  

Again, mom’s brow moved subtly in recognition. She heard those who so cherished her, pleading and expressing their final hopes. 

And then, for awhile, it was just me and dad.

After a few minutes or an hour (who knows?), the ICU doctor on-duty came in, the one with the terrible bedside manner. 

“We can give you more time with her,” he said, considerably softer now. “But it’s just the machine keeping her alive at this point.” 

My dad was still, valiantly, hoping for a miraculous turnaround in my mom’s condition. I appreciated this yearning; it was precisely what I had spent the past week asking for — to God and whomever would listen. And: I hoped this wouldn’t compel him to alloy his hopes for heavenly intervention to these plodding machines. 

“I think we should go ahead and release her from the machines now, dad,” I began. “If a miracle is going to happen, this won’t be able to stop it. And if the miracle doesn’t go the way we want it to, her struggle will be over.”

I talked a big game, but I was scared. I’d never experienced anything like this before. Dying was one thing, but suffering was another. What would happen when these machines ceased their labors? Would I be able to bear witness to agonizing final moments?

To my eternal thanks, I don’t yet know the answer to that question. They turned off the device that was breathing for her; I don’t know if she took even a single breath on her own after that. But she didn’t struggle. It looked like she was drifting off into an even deeper sleep.

It was one of the holiest moments of my life; there was no escaping the immediacy of right then, and there. I felt like a bridge between my father and mother, and perhaps a ladder between earth and what stretches beyond. I felt called to step up, as a rapidly-initiated Psychopomp, blessing the spaces between us, welcoming the Grand Adventure that awaited my mom’s essence. 

My phone came out again, this time to find a stanza often attributed to the Persian poet Rumi, which I’ve never been able to source. I recited it over her, between hot tears brimming like overfull-soil after a hard night’s rain:

This is love:
To fly toward a secret sky
To cause a hundred veils to fall each moment.
First to let go of life.
Finally, to take a step without feet.

They disconnected mom’s machinery around 2pm that Wednesday afternoon, January 20th; by 2:05, her bodily vitals had ceased. 

She let go. She was in flight.

And this earthly chapter was definitively over.

My mom, along with my dad, are among the kindest people I’ve ever known. Her care, humor, and hospitality are legendary.

I’m grateful that my dad and I were able to surround her with love, prayers, and singing, there in her final hours. She made her crossing with evident grace and peace. 

This doesn’t negate the pain, of course. Sorrow arises, these past two months, in the in-between moments: Miles on the country roads I like to drive, between Georgia and North Carolina as I help take care of death’s logistics. Meeting other losses, pain, and conflicts (because life and loss do not slow down for anyone, it seems). And feeling winces of bittersweet recognition when looking through old photographs, handling beloved dinnerware, or finding her hand-written notes flying out like escaping butterflies, from beloved 19th-century evangelical devotional tomes and Dom Deluise Italian cookbooks. Looking at my childhood fireplace mantle at her red urn, summarizing seventy years on this planet with enameled, ashen finality. 

And still, if I’m completely candid, I feel a vein of gold running through the cracked marble of my heart. It isn’t only my orthodox Christian confession that believes that death doesn’t get the final word; the Easter confidence that Christ’s outtrickstering the Last Enemy vouch-safes the resurrection of creation and cosmos. 

No, it’s also my animist-and-ancestral-influenced spirituality that perceives the truth of this, ironically making real what more settled, civilizational religion is often too squeamish to verify for itself. Intuitive seer friends, like Heba and Rebekah, peer beyond the veil at my request, reporting back that my mother is to use a phrase Daniel Foor has brought back to the modern West among the well ancestors. Healthy. Vibrant. At ease. I won’t share more than this here, as the details are sacred, and corroborated across these subtle-awareness witnesses. But I am confident in the continuity of consciousness – both in general, and for mom in particular.

Still, I don’t wish to spiritually bypass. I know, from participating with my dad in my wonderful friend Tamara Hanna’s Love and Loss grief group, based on The Grief Recovery Handbook, that I will likely cycle between times of relative equilibrium and fresh feeling; that these oscillating states are welcome, and that I can nonetheless complete any troubling ‘open loops’ I might be experiencing with my mom and her death. 

Yes, I’m astonished at how much can change in the turn of a single season. Please keep my family in your hearts as we move forward, living mom’s legacy of boundless kindness in fresh ways.

PS: If you’re inclined to and are able, please consider contributing to my mom’s memorial fund. This will help us cover expenses related to her memorial gathering, which is still upcoming, and this vital Grief Recovery process for my dad and me. You can learn more – and read mom’s obituary – right here.

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