On Sunday, I hovered between frailty and despair, remembering that Sunday a year ago, I was flying with my sons to Colorado, praying constantly that she wouldn’t die before we all got there. I was eight days from losing my mother forever, but her departure felt imminent.
Last July, I embarked on a unwanted journey into the valley of death. It was both holy and agonizing. There’s a part of me that wants to retake this journey a year later, to re-experience her and my role in passing her into the next life. Instead, I feel numb. I have pictures, but I can’t look at them. I feel as if my finger is in the dike, and if I pull it out, the dam will break. But to stay here, holding still, is equally dangerous.
This week, I tip-toe through remembrance: sponging water onto her tongue, brushing Chapstick over her cracked lips. I recall sitting with her for a week, inadvertently matching my breathing to hers, watching the slow up-down of her chest, hearing the harsh intake of air. Again I watch her body struggle with mortality while her soul longs for eternity.
I remember my helplessness. I sit and read, and I talk a little, I play her favorite hymns. Would I do it any differently, if I had the chance? It’s a persistent, haunting question.
I lie in bed with her and hold her. I wonder continuously if she is fully aware of me and if she can feel my love covering her as she hovers between consciousness and unconsciousness, in this state of starving and dying. It feels cruel to let her suffer, but hospice assures me that prolonging death is crueler still. Her body wants to die, and I must let it. I mull over these thoughts for the trillionth time.
Even today, I think of a thousand things I wish I had said, but they are mostly for my benefit. If I were back there again, by the bedside, in the bed, would I still choose to talk about what she meant to me or what I want her to know about me, about how I’m doing? I have more to say now because there is more that she has missed. I am constantly changing. I am more like her, and I wish she knew that.
I can picture myself analyzing her furrowed brow, the lines that crease between her eyebrows. It’s pain, the nurse tells me, and she gives her more morphine. Then Mom’s face relaxes; with the drug numbing her body, she is unable to look at me or squeeze my hand when I ask her something. I trade my comfort for hers. As a mother, I imagine she made the same choice a million times. I wish I could tell her that I understand that now. I understand the depth of her love for me. (Why is that so hard to see when people are alive?)
Responsiveness slips away. Her pallor is graying, and blood pools under the surface of her skin. The weight has fallen from her bones, leaving her skeletal and fragile. In the end, she will have lasted ten days without food and water.
Her will to live astounds me. I think she doesn’t want to leave us here alone.
I feel the same way about her.
I ask the nurses to help me bathe her and change her sheets and pajamas. It feels like an invasion of her privacy, yet I believe I’m the best person to do it. Some of the nurses are warmer than others, so I wait for the most experienced, the most empathetic, and we work together.
“You don’t need to help,” they say. “We’ve got this.”
“I want to help,” I say, and my words catch on my tongue. “She’s my mom.” I am blinking quickly.
In and out. Her breathing labors harder each day. Thursday morning brings the death rattle. Thursday night, the relief of a coming armistice. Friday noon, total surrender.
So even in her final week, my mother teaches me about life. She teaches me how much love hurts, how to serve with compassion, how to lead someone you love to the places you’re both afraid to go. She shows me how to let go by letting me love her away from me.
I’m now two days out from her death date, and I am paralyzed with memories and alert with wishfulness. And I’m quite terrified of the date.