The Greatest Adventure of All
Three weeks before she passed from this world, my ninety-year-old mother, Louise Viola Swanson Wollenberg, began what she called her “greatest adventure of all.” It all started thirty-three years ago.
When I was twenty-seven years old, my mother came for a visit to our small rented home in Scotts Valley, California. One morning, she approached me and said, “Joyce, can we sit down together? I have something important to ask of you.”
I remember every detail of this moment as if it were yesterday. I even remember the brown jumper I was wearing, and the way I kept twisting my five-year-old wedding ring upon my finger as she spoke. She spoke firmly but gently, “When it’s my time to die, I want you to be excited for me. I’m not afraid to die. I feel that death will be my greatest adventure. When I lay dying, I want you to help me prepare for that great adventure. No matter how old I am, please know that I’ve had a good life and I’m grateful for all of it.”
I sat motionless, just staring at her, feeling that this wasn’t real. It just couldn’t be possible that she had just spoken those words. My mom was only fifty-six years old, active and in perfect health.
I looked at her with a shocked expression and said, “Mom, I could never be excited for you to die. That’s impossible!”
She smiled at me with compassion and said, “You’re my daughter, and I know you’ll find a way. I’m counting on you to be excited for me when I die.”
Throughout the next thirty three years, I contemplated her request. Sadness and an awful heaviness would flood my heart each time I thought about my mother dying. And then when I thought about her request that I also be excited for her in her dying adventure I would have the same thought, “No, that’s impossible. I couldn’t possibly honor that request.”
However nine years later, I found myself fully honoring my mother’s request as she lay dying in her little apartment above our garage. Hospice had moved a hospital bed into the living room of this apartment where she had lived for fifteen years. The apartment was right next door to our family home, and held many happy memories of family gatherings for Saturday pancakes and birthday parties. My parents had shared this home for seven years before my father died. The last family celebration that he attended was their own sixtieth wedding anniversary.
One day as I walked into the apartment, my mom excitedly announced, “My angel came to me very early this morning when I woke up. I’ve always believed in angels, but for the first time in my life I actually saw one! She was radiant like the sun, and the whole room was filled with love and light.”
My mother’s face was still shining as she continued, “My angel told me that soon it’ll be time for me to come back to my original home. She told me that I would be having wonderful and important experiences in the days before I died and she would be right here with me throughout the whole process. This is much more exciting to me than our trip to British Columbia or even my cruise to Sweden, my homeland. This will be my greatest adventure!”
Back home, I called our three children and asked them to come home for an important family meeting. That evening, sitting around our dining room table, I told them of Grandma’s request that we be excited about her dying process. At first our children, like me so many years ago, were aghast at such a request, but then they began to understand that this was very important to their grandmother. We all committed ourselves to approach her bedside with enthusiasm about her next great adventure. We decided that if one of us was feeling sad or burned out, we would get help from the others.
As we looked at each other that evening, we really had no idea of how deeply the next three weeks would impact our lives. They would be altered forever. We would never view death in the same way. As we gave my mother her final gift in honoring her dying process, she gave us her final gift of opening a window into eternity and allowing us to have a peek.
Over the next few weeks, our feelings soon turned into inspiration and awe as we each felt our lives being transformed by her dying process. None of us – Barry, Rami, Mira, John-Nuri or I – will ever be the same. We were allowed to be a witness to a sacred event, students in a miraculous schoolroom, as my mother communicated in her last three weeks all she was experiencing in her dying process.
This book is about one family’s journey toward transformation, and the inspiration we all felt by witnessing the great and intimate passage called death. It is also about the conscious path of caring for an elderly family member. This book is about overcoming fears, doubts and self imposed limits. Indeed, it is about acquiring the courage to love more fully.
With stunning clarity, she communicated to us in those last three weeks about where she was going, who she was seeing, how she was feeling, and the final instructions she was receiving. She saw and spoke of things that she couldn’t have possibly made up. I sat, notebook in hand, and recorded it all, even though it would be three months after her death that I first had the idea to write this book.
Each of those final days, as she prepared for her greatest adventure, our whole family learned more about life and death, love and pain, confusion and certainty, and our excitement for her grew as well. My hope is that my mother’s final gift, communicating and sharing the experience of her dying process, can bless your life as it has ours.
The above is an excerpt from our newest book, “A Mother’s Final Gift: How One Woman’s Courageous Dying Transformed Her Family.” (available from Ramira Publishing, Aptos, CA)