In this edition of the Healing Series, we explore Carol’s beautiful and unusual story!
“Carol was an advocate for the world long before I even understood what it took to be an advocate. She has done environmental and humanitarian efforts in several countries and regions including Antarctica, Rwanda, East Timor, Bangladesh and the high Arctic. In between, she also has raised two amazing kids that have understood the concept of privilege since they could talk” ~ Karla
“…scientifically, this is particularly interesting because these stars, during most of their life, are relatively stable. But now we know right before they die, they… change in brightness. And we think that that change in brightness is related to the explosion itself.” – Astronomer Ryan Foley of University of California, Santa Cruz on the Young Supernova Experiment Transient Survey
I grew up in small towns in Northern Ontario and Toronto and I’m grateful for having lived in both places. These days, with humanity on the brink at our human hands, I’m increasingly enjoying nature, including stargazing. It reminds me of winter nights playing outside with cousins when the Northern Lights danced in the sky.
Years later, my time working for the virtual Museum of AIDS in Africa taught me more about living and dying than I knew at the time. I met and worked with incredible people who had lost so many loved ones, too many people, in the AIDS pandemic that ravaged the African continent and elsewhere.
That experience has helped me in these past few difficult but precious months as we learned of my mother’s terminal diagnosis. One special lesson was learning the power and healing properties of objects. Memory boxes too, whatever you fill them with, or however you hold memories, in grappling with a loved one’s death, whether sudden or foretold, memories are powerful and magical.
I write to figure my feelings out; it’s almost involuntary. I started this supernova story before I knew the end. I guess this is a story about my mother.
Mom had been in palliative care for over a month longer than her palliative doctor and his ‘calculator’ had expected. We knew she was in her final month, or weeks, or days, but none of us had any idea how long she would continue living.
Driving to see Mom one early January day after her diagnosis, I heard on the radio about the death of a massive star. Astronomers had recently observed a supernova explosion, an occurrence that takes place every second or so in our vast universe. But something about this particular dying star was unique, and as I listened, the story about the dying star interweaved with my overwhelming feelings of love for my mom.
At first, astronomers from two observatories in Hawaii had thought the exploded supernova was very young. But follow-up observations, which meant going back through time into the imaging data, revealed that the brightness of the huge red star had been fluctuating for a few months before it exploded. This meant that it wasn’t such a young star after all.
Stars don’t go gently into the good night. They range in brightness at their last moments, suggested Carol Off, the interviewer speaking with Ryan Foley. The astronomers theorized that the stars initially change at the core before exploding. Now they had evidence thanks to this huge star that was 10 times the mass of the sun! They were able to watch the last few days of its life. And then its death.
This interstellar story returned to me as I held my mom’s thin hand. Her fingers were so delicate, as was her translucent skin. We knew her core had begun to change, but her brightest moment I’d yet not seen or captured.
It wasn’t so long ago that my mom was a strong and vibrant woman. She was a retired teacher, writer, voracious reader, avid traveller, walker, music-lover, volunteer, mom, grandmother, wife and friend. Together, we had observed so many changes that her illness had wrought upon her mind and abilities. When she told me that she had “lost the letter: G,” I had to fight back my tears.
As her illness took a tighter grip on her, she grew harder to speak and her words grew harder to understand. Her consonants would disappear without warning. Soon my mom couldn’t speak at all. But she could still write. I cherished the notes she wrote me, I lost myself reading her journals and loved reading her letters to her.
My last Sunday with her was an incredibly special visit for me. My brother had a remarkable visit too, in its simplicity. Just normal family stuff. After her carers at her senior citizens’ home washed her, I blew-dry my mom’s beautiful, thick salt and pepper hair (more salt these years). We sat and I read out her old letters that her mom had written to her from Annan, near Owen Sound, where my mom grew up on a farm, complete with notes detailing who was who.
Later, my mom napped while the late winter afternoon sun panned across the sky. When she awoke, she moved her still working arm and her hand caressed my arm.
After that Sunday, I was walking in a store when I suddenly felt a radiating explosion of warmth throughout my body. I’d never experienced a sensation like that before. It felt like my chest was bursting with something immense, inexplicable, warm, powerful, potent and portent.
It was love. It was my mom’s love. She was the supernova and at that moment, I knew that her star would die soon. Standing there, I was overcome with sorrow, but also a kind of understanding. I later told my dad what I had experienced.
Six weeks later, my mom’s final days were incredibly difficult. It was difficult for her and difficult for us to watch her fight this illness and struggle for more life. So, on the night of her death, it was with trepidation that I summoned it. Or, rather, I agreed for death to visit my mom that night. My face close to hers, my voice full of love, I whispered: “You are so loved. We are fine and full of your love. It’s okay to go.”
I didn’t foretell or contribute to her death; I uttered the words in a kind of acceptance. I will never know if she heard or understood me. But I know of others who have also done the same thing.
In the dark of the night on February 22nd, 2022, my mom passed away, aged 85. I feared and still fear death and its mysteriousness. After Mom’s passing, I still don’t understand it, but I think I know it a little better.
Marjorie Devine lived a full and incredible life, and I am grateful for her every day. What strikes me most is simultaneously feeling like she has vanished, but also like she is everywhere. I hope this everywhere feeling lasts forever, and I wish that we could talk about death as a part of life. It would help us all.
Having friends and family members share their experiences of loss has helped me a lot, as each one is unique. My mom had helped me to collect memories of her: stories, recipes, her Dior rose pink nightgown and dressing gown in perfect condition that she gave me, possibly from her honeymoon? A beautiful, carved box she got while living in Japan that she gave my daughter.
Oh, and her gems of wisdom. Perhaps the most important gifts, tangible or ethereal, are the surprise ones. The ones that arrive after death.
“I suddenly felt a radiating explosion of warmth throughout my body.”
About Me: Carol Devine is a humanitarian practitioner and writer living in Toronto. She tutored Karla in high school French (but they mostly just hung out). Decades later, thanks to Karla, Carol has one of the most fun and intriguing jobs ever, in Romania. www.caroldevine.org
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