The hospice nurse had thought my mother would pass away sometime around Easter of 2016 and had prepared my sisters and me for this probability. As it turned out however, she lived an entire year longer. Our mom’s deepest desire during her final years was to stay in the home she loved, and fortunately we were able to provide that for her thanks to the dedication of my sisters, several caregivers and the hospice team. I also did my best to help by flying into Santa Rosa every four to six weeks and staying for several days to a week, relieving others on the team, and doing other practical duties related to her finances and keeping up the house. When her health had begun to seriously decline, during the latter half of 2015, she had stopped sleeping in her bedroom, but spent mostly sleepless nights in her recliner in the family room. At the time, we expected she would return to her bedroom at some point in the future, not realizing that from this point forward her world would slowly narrow, at first to just the family room and the kitchen, then to just the family room, and then step by step she would draw further and further into a world predominantly of her own.
She was very unstable on her legs, and often needed to rest because her lungs had been compromised, due to an allergic reaction to mold in her house. Over the years her lungs had scarred from this reaction, but by the time the doctors finally understood the cause and the source, and after we had removed the mold from the house, the scarring had progressed to a point of no return, and it was only a matter of time before it would finally kill her. In the meantime, her lung function slowly and steadily declined. We moved an oxygen machine into the family room so she could receive greater levels of oxygen as the condition worsened. One late night she fell down on her way to the kitchen, and unfortunately she wasn’t able to call out loudly enough to get assistance, so it took her several hours on her own to make her way back to her recliner. After this traumatic experience she refused to leave her chair again, and we were more careful to have someone sleep in the family room with her throughout the night.
For several months she persisted in staying in her recliner around the clock, and she resisted all manner of recommendations, and persuasions encouraging her to move into the bed that we had brought into the family room for her. Caring for her in the reclining chair was very difficult, but she didn’t want to move. She had purchased that chair many years earlier, and it was comfortable and obviously very important and familiar to her; and though we had made the bed in a way that was very inviting, she wanted no part of it. It was very hard to watch the mounting health issues she was facing: the swollen legs, the bedsores, and the difficulty breathing, along with the troubles and trials of regular daily hygiene. Solace for us, and for her, came by caring for her, and practically speaking, with the assistance of small doses of morphine which she took each day.
There were so few things I felt that I could do to help her, I couldn’t heal her, I couldn’t reverse the course of her condition, I couldn’t really do very much in a material way at all, but the few things I could do I did with all my heart. When I was with her I felt a heightened level of attention, and my muscles were slightly tensed as I awaited any request she might make; sometime she might ask for some juice, or she might need a tissue, or to have some moisturizer rubbed onto her legs, or lip balm applied to her lips. Any of these requests were my opportunity to do something, finally, and I jumped at the chance. I never poured out a simple glass of juice with such attention as I did then for her, trying to make sure it was the exact amount she wanted, perhaps the right blend of different types of juices that she liked, into the cup that I knew she would like, and then holding it for her at just the right angle so she could place the straw in her mouth without too much trouble, or eventually placing it in her mouth for her, when she no longer could do that herself. I felt like I had been given a huge honor when I could hand her a tissue and then wait until she finished with it and could throw it away for her. I didn’t of course always feel this way, sometimes I was tired, or bored, or wanted to do something else, or just needed a break to get away from the sorrowful intensity, but many times, quite often actually, I did feel this way, because I loved her, and felt deeply that I owed her so much for everything she had done for me in my life, and simply because she was my mom.
At first I didn’t like rubbing moisturizer on her legs because they were in such bad shape, with the swollenness and the sores, but then I remembered it had been barely two years earlier while I had been visiting her that I had a nasty rash on my right calf and she took care of me and helped healed it. This seemed fitting to return the attention and the caring. As I did so, I reflected how quickly fading this time with her was becoming, how quickly our entire time had passed, though it was forty-seven years or so that we had spent sharing this life. Rubbing her legs would likely be among the final acts that we would ever have together. With this thought I began to enjoy it, and I began to infuse it with all of my attention and care once again. And when she asked me to apply lip-balm, I trembled a little as I touched her dry and withered lips, because they were beautiful to me, and I knew, as I rubbed them with my finger, that these lips which had kissed my boo-boos when I was little, and had spoken such sweet kindnesses to me throughout my life, would soon be departing, and I would have them with me no more.
I reflected on our past together and all the things she taught me, the things we enjoyed together, the comfort I felt in just knowing that she existed even if I wasn’t near her, and that if anything in life got too bad, or too difficult, I always had her, and could trust in her support, and in her loving embrace. I remembered how she had calmed me when I had missed the bus after months on the road and was hitchhiking back home from Alaska, after so many difficult nights without shelter and with little food, and how desperately I yearned to get home, and when my hope was faltering she steadied me. A simple phone call and a few minutes of hearing her voice was enough to give me renewed strength, and the courage to continue. I remembered all the times I had picked up hitchhikers myself, or had volunteered to help someone, or gave money to someone in need, and how all of these kindnesses had been inspired by her example; the love she gave, the gift of her time to those who needed to talk or needed a loving shoulder cry on, how she had opened our home to all of those various people in need during my youth, and had extended herself in so many ways in the service of others. I learned about beauty from her through her love of classical music, her admiration for nature, and her gift for weaving. I always knew that if I found myself in a place or situation strange and uncomfortable, I could look to her and we understood each other. There was always an unspoken understanding between us even if words escaped us.
And so it was again, on my final visit with her. She had barely spoken more than a word or two at a time, for many months, and most of our interactions had been silent ones: holding hands, combing her hair, rubbing her legs. Although, one afternoon I picked up the hymnal she had beside her bed, and opened it to several of her favorite hymns, and sang them to her. By this time she kept her eyes closed most of the time so it was hard to know if she was awake or asleep, conscious of my singing or not, but still I sang to her. I was happy to be able to sing her a lullaby as she prepared for her eternal rest. It was early March, 2017 and I would be returning to my home soon, and though nobody knew for certain how much longer she would live, it seemed clear that she was close to the end of her life now. In a rare moment she opened her eyes and looked deeply into mine. She had clear blue eyes. Sweet eyes. I looked also into her eyes, and we spoke to one another, silently, from the depths of our being. She was saying goodbye. She wanted me to know that she loved me, which of course I knew, and she wanted me to know it would be okay, that she would be okay and that I would be okay. She gathered a great deal of energy to say these things, even if they were said without words and only through the language of her eyes, and it was energy she barely had, but this was her final farewell, and I knew she wanted to give whatever she had, to tell me these things, to help me; it was her final sacrifice of love for me.
When the time came to leave and return to my home, she was being cared for by her caregivers, as they were giving her a sponge bath. She hadn’t opened her eyes again to me after that last silent conversation, and I knew it wouldn’t be a good time to interrupt her, so I quietly left the room, picked up my bags and departed to the airport. Part of me wanted to say goodbye one more time, to touch her one last time, but I refrained because she had already chosen the perfect way to say goodbye when she gathered the strength to look into my eyes.
A few weeks later my sister called in the early morning to let me know that our mother had departed this life. I had been prepared for this, I had read numerous books about death and dying, I had prayed, I had visualized, and I had imagined, for most of my life, everything about this moment. It was the moment I most dreaded, that most worried me and filled me with apprehension; and now here it was. After I got off the phone I stared at myself in the mirror and I cried. Here standing before me was the world’s newest orphan.
(to be continued)