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Backstory: Most Bittersweet Synchronicity


Published December 28, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

A freshly slaughtered meat bird at New Village Farm - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • A freshly slaughtered meat bird at New Village Farm

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2022.

As a child, I had persistent nightmares about death. They weren't gory or violent, but that didn't make them any less scary. The dreams consisted entirely of me floating endlessly in space, forever alone and bored, a state of being that frightened me more than almost anything.

In this and many other ways, my late mother and I were very similar.

From her retirement as a university librarian through her early eighties, she remained active, busy and connected: volunteering at her synagogue and in a local school; walking and chatting with friends; and reading, always reading.

Melissa Pasanen (back) with her mother and siblings circa 1973 - COURTESY MELISSA PASANEN
  • Courtesy Melissa Pasanen
  • Melissa Pasanen (back) with her mother and siblings circa 1973

She cultivated in my two siblings and me a deep love of books from an early age. During our childhood growing up in London, Mum volunteered for a children's literacy nonprofit, and she read aloud to us during most suppertimes, which took place before she and our father had their dinner.

I have vivid memories of her recounting tales of the furry, burrow-dwelling Wombles of Wimbledon Common, who stewarded the environment and upcycled litter left by humans long before recycling became common practice. When we were a little older, I remember Mum bringing to life the compelling characters and message of Watership Down.

The last few years leading up to my mother's death on November 10 were riddled with physical and mental challenges, but perhaps the cruelest was her gradual loss of the ability to read. My brother, sister and I encouraged her to listen to recorded books, but she found it too difficult to pay attention to a disembodied, unfamiliar voice. So, during visits, it was our turn to read to her.

In mid-October, after being hospitalized for a bad fall, Mum came home with hospice support. I planned what I knew would be my last trip to see her in Maryland, where she lived with her husband.

Ironically — or, perhaps, fittingly — at the time, I was reporting and writing an article for our first-ever Death Issue about an educational farm in Shelburne where youngsters learn about the life cycle, including death.

"Our culture just has a lot of bad habits around loss and grief," the farm's owner, Michaela Ryan, had explained to me. Chief among those is that we avoid talking about death, she said.

In Maryland, my mother was confined to bed, consuming liquid and puréed food only by the painstakingly hand-fed teaspoon. She slept a lot. During periods of wakefulness, though, Mum still appreciated short essays and poems being read to her. And sparks of our spirited, forthright mother remained: She did not hesitate to clearly indicate if the material bored her.

One morning, after I'd read a little to her, Mum asked if I would share something I'd written. When I briefly described my most recent article and asked my mother if she'd like to hear it, she nodded yes without hesitation.

I read it in three installments over the next few hours to accommodate her capacity for absorbing it. She seemed to listen carefully, and, when I finished, I asked if she wanted to talk about her own death.

It had become increasingly hard to understand her, but I made out her question: "What do you think happens next?"

"Well, we really don't know," I hedged, holding her hand, "but I think you will drift off to sleep, and it will be peaceful."

And, thinking back to my childhood fears and our similarities, I added, "I don't think you'll be bored. I think there will be a million wonderful books to read."