“… it is the oldest sound there was… souls flying away…” Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
The night before my Mom stopped speaking, her sense of humor was fully intact. We’d been looking at photographs together. Me sitting on the edge of her bed with a laptop. Her well propped with pillows and covered only with a sheet, her feet out, newly polished toenails. When she closed her eyes for a little rest I sat in a chair at her bed side, still sorting through photographs. Randomly I asked if she’d like to see one of a Canada goose. With closed eyes, she wryly replied she didn’t want to be goosed. That was five days before she died.
Much later that night, Bill rounded the corner to enter her room, stagger stopping at the sight of me. To his credit, he put his head down and forged his way into the room any way, taking her right hand. Bill was my Mother’s husband of 24 years. He’d gone missing for weeks after she was hospitalized. I could have blamed him that she was here and not in her own bed. For his own reasons he could blame me too. Half hour later, their murmured conversation long gone silent, he and I yet to make eye contact – she turned to me and brightly asked if I’d go get her a donut. Anything. She’d barely eaten in months. Sugar cookies were brought in by Natalie, her nurse, a while later – offered to her first, then me, next Bill. I watched as mom’s delicate fingers pinched a morsel from her cookie and place it in her mouth. Thoughtfully, she put the cookie down reached over and took my hand in hers then did the same with Bill’s – in that moment, she was more than the bridge between us, she was a healer bridging the gap. He left shortly afterwards. I watched her peaceful face for hours, marveled at her graceful hands again and again as she half-slept. I half-slept too, holding a fragile hand.
The next morning there was not a cloud to be seen in the Arizona sky. Birds chirping in the distance refusing to be drowned out by the noise of a back-hoe across the street. We were in the Joan and Diana Hospice Home, the windows were big, the curtains open wide. On my last visit, Mom had asked me to read her poetry so I was armed with my favorites this trip. Instead of poetry though, she asked if I’d read to her from the bible. Of course. What? I’ve never read the bible, me either she told me. I opened it arbitrarily and began to read. Off and on throughout the morning she slept. I kept reading, often pausing to look at her gentle face, thin and pale, jaw and cheek bones much too prominent. Her breathe soft.
I whispered to her some time later I was going to go get a bit to eat could I bring her something from that great Mexican restaurant on 4th Street. She wasn’t hungry. Fact was, she hadn’t been hungry in a very long time. How about a shot of tequila then I offered. Smiling at me broadly with both her chapped mouth and piercing hazel eyes no thank you I don’t want tequila! Unbeknownst to me, those would be her last words. Talking would take up too much precious energy. She had gone within – some place only the dying know, some place internal, someplace were words were no longer necessary.
In the days that followed, I don’t know how many times I told her I love her, that we all do. I don’t know how many times I told her how grateful I was she was my mother, that we were all grateful. I don’t know how many times I tried to comfort her with my impossible promise that we’d all take care of one another. A pitiful lie that I desperately wanted to be truth.
Natalie had checked my Mother into JDHH a few weeks earlier. Soft spoken and tender-hearted, she like the others on staff, Denise, Sue and Meredith, are angels with skin. She encouraged me to make calls, tell everyone time was of the essence. Family, friends, co-workers, everyone called back to speak to her. Holding the phone to her ear, I saw her expressions registering emotions of recognition, she heard every word. Every call was meaningful.
Pastor Rita came to sit with us a little each day.
Bill came for some portion of each day too, even staying over two of these last few nights. We talked about benign meaningless things, passing time. One night he told me he had so much regret, so much he wanted her to know. Tell her! She may need to know! She might be waiting to hear your words! I left him with her. From the hallway, I couldn’t hear the words – only his miserable grief choked tears strangling unknown confessions. Then he disappear again.
I stayed as close as I could. Maybe too close I feared, easing away at times to give her some space. When I couldn’t yield any longer, I lay near to her again. I needed to. I prayed in my way. Her expressions again registered the words, acknowledging with raised eyebrows, an attempted smile. Understanding. I lay my cheek against hers. I sang made up lyrics. Again and again – I love you. We love you. I couldn’t say it enough.
Each day subtle shifts – she slipped deeper into herself. Her breathing changing daily. That’s one thing that stands out, the way her breathing continually changed in the next treasured few days. Shallow and nearly imperceptible. Slow and steady. Gulping and erratic. She remained sweet and peaceful in her closed eye silence.
I was reading aloud Mary Oliver’s Redbird, every page except the poem Iraq. For some reason I felt the need to spare her words of war, even Mary Oliver’s poetic take. Just after 2pm she gagged unexpectedly. Alarmed I jumped up to find her eyes wide open, wild with fear. Another gag followed. It seemed to taste awful and she fought it. I believe she knew it was Death’s way of calling . A dose of morphine. Then the breath known as the death rattle began. I’ve heard this breath before, though this time it was different. I too was put on call, her life, the scantiness of what remained palpable. My tears spilled over, my strength for her momentary gone.
Rita asked permission to come, offer last rites. And kindly, she didn’t want me to be alone. We each prayed – she, a Christian called Christ and angels, anointing Mom with oil. I called on her Ancestors, her allies. The room filled up with spirits, a cavalcade waiting to take her home. I called Bill.
He came. Rita left us alone with her. Nurses in and out, in and out. Then again, he was gone.
About 11 o’clock Meredith settled into a chair to keep watch on Mom and hold vigil with me. The death rattle persistent. Pause. We’d watch closer. Me never letting go of her hand, me telling her we all loved her again. And again. Her breathing resumed. Meredith had worked with Mom at the Gardens, an elder care facility. Several of Mom’s caregivers had been co-workers at some time in the last 8 years, they treated her with such love, respectfully tending to her. Her dying was also their loss. Pause. Her congested breathing continued in rasps and tears and pauses. Still she was working things through, another breath, not yet complete. Dying takes courage. Dying is a miracle, like birth and life.
Moments before midnight the death rattle stopped. In its place were fewer than a dozen normal breaths. With them came the look of serenity on her relaxed face. In those precious few moments she looked as though she’d found whatever she needed. To me it looked like peace. She surrendered into the arms of those waiting to take her over, across the veil and into new form. She was stunningly beautiful.
Time of death was called at 12:01am, October 2, 2013.
Meredith left me alone for as long as I needed. I washed her body. Brushed her hair. I put her wedding ring in a box. And wrapped her in a beautiful hand-made shawl that some unknown and kind volunteer had sewn for a stranger who just happened to be my mother. Her name was Toni. She was tenacious and funny. She loved unconditionally. I called my sisters, and Bill again, my son, her sister and brother. I called Meredith who called the coroner. A candle had been lit.
I drove on auto-pilot to the first hotel I could find with a vacancy sign. Collapsing on the bed in my grief, the loneliness and loss flooded in. That was the first time she came to comfort me from the other realm.
“Time eases all things.” Sophocles
I am ever grateful she allowed me to witness her crossing. Ever indebted to her unceasing love. She is still loving me. Loving us. And we are still loving her, it hasn’t eased.
All My Relations…