During the few days my mom spent in hospice care, we took turns visiting with her, making runs for food, and sitting quietly with other family members. I was stretched out in a big, ugly chair reading when my brother leaned through the door and said, "Mom wants to talk to you." I gave him a confused look and he responded, "She just needs a minute." He had a crazy look in his eyes and they conveyed a sense of urgency I had never detected in him. When we were kids, he was terrified of being late for school, and because he was the oldest, it was his job to walk my sister and me. To ensure we arrived on time, he ushered us out the door. Justin had urgency in his eyes then too but that day in the hospice was more intense. More pleading.
I crossed the hall and saw that my mother was alert and serene. I put my hand on her forearm, and my fingers rested upon her paper-thin soft skin. That day had been a very good day. Less than 12 hours before, my mom had emerged from hallucinations around 3 am and asked my brother for ice. Justin, who never left the hospice, almost fell out of his chair when she so quickly snapped back to reality.
Later that morning, it was my turn to sit with her. I was wearing a nasty wintergreen short-sleeved sweatshirt from Goodwill. Before drifting off to sleep she said, "You look so nice in that color." A big, genuine smile spread across her face and she looked tired. She was trying so hard to brighten a room with such a gloomy atmosphere. (For the record, I am wearing the sweatshirt now. I have always made unhealthy attachments to old clothes. This one is going to be particularly hard to shake.)
An hour later the mayor of the city came to say hello. I was sitting by my mom’s bedside reading. Or trying to read but doing anything to remove myself from the reality of the situation. I ignored him, not realizing or caring who he was. After an awkward minute of questions and monosyllabic answers, my sister came in the room. She was wearing a beautiful purple shirt and immediately recognized the mayor. Always so gregarious and sweet, Katie's presence relaxed me. "Oh! Mr. Mayor!" she exclaimed. "How nice to see you! How nice of you to come!" My sister’s friendliness quickly swept up my anxiety and the awkwardness hanging in the air.
After a few minutes, my mom began explaining that if she felt tired, she could ask people to leave. "My doctor said I shouldn't get too excited," she joked. My siblings and I were filing out behind everyone else, and she said sharply, "I didn't excuse you!" She wanted a few minutes alone with her children. She was always in charge.
I am grateful to say that she gave us the opportunity to say anything we needed. I have read a bit about losing a parent and I recognize this opportunity as unique. Some parents whither away over weeks or months, while their loved ones watch in confusion. Before the patient really grasps the severity of their situation, they are too debilitated to pose this question. On the other end of the spectrum, death can move swiftly and not allow this opportunity. Because my mother was an immensely smart woman, she recognized her approaching death and made time for this question.
“Is there anything you want to say or talk about?” she asked. I can’t remember who went first so I’ll deliver this now in birth order. Justin, who is currently getting his PhD in one of the most complex mathematical sciences, thanked our mother for supporting him as she did and always being his biggest fan. Katie, who gave our mother the most number of grey hairs in her teenage years, asked if she was proud of her. I, the daughter who was always described as the quiet one, told her that I’d be ok.
Just a few hours later I was standing next to her with my hand on her forearm and she was proposing another question. Katie sat at the foot of the bed and Justin flanked her other side. She explained about her health condition, as if we hadn't picked it over thoroughly in the other room out of earshot. Her words blurred together. My vision blurred. Someone handed me a tissue. She wanted us to have an understanding of what was happening to her. "I think I'm going to die soon, and I just wanted to make sure this was ok with you."
NO! Of course that's not ok with me! Are you kidding? The only thing that would be ok with me is for you to get your ass out of this bed and make a full recovery. This is stupid. This whole thing is stupid. I don't want you to die. Who am I going to be without you? No, this is not ok with me.
I didn't say any of these crass things. I nodded, unable to do anything else. Doug came in the room and she asked the same question of him. Leaning forward in his chair, he let a pregnant pause hang in the air as he studied the tiles on the floor. “You’re gonna be missed by a lot of people,” he offered in his subtle Midwest way. His brown eyes were shiny and bloodshot and I commended this kind response. In the previous two weeks, Doug hadn’t said much other than, “It just fucking sucks,” and “I’m sorry you’re losing your mother,” before embracing one of us or lighting a cigarette.
When she had spoken to the four of us, she rearranged the blanket on her legs and continued, “I’m not sure what’s going to happen logistically. My legs feel heavy and I know it is time.”
The next morning Justin called me around 5:30 in the morning. Leave it to mom to make sure we were all up before the sun. Less than a mile away, I was the first one to the hospice, and Justin met me at the door. "Maggie, I just wanted to warn you. Mom has already passed,” he explained cautiously. “She died just minutes after we got off the phone."
I nodded and walked down the hall. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye as we walked, unsure if I was in shock and waiting for me to start wailing.
But I didn't. I knew this was eminent and I wasn't ready to cry about it yet. She had granted me the opportunity to say what I needed to say. I wasn’t expecting to watch her cross over to the other side. I didn’t need to say goodbye one last time. The tears would reach me when I would listen to Motown or the Beatles en route to and fro her siblings’ houses, when I’d need an opinion about making a big decision, and when I wish she were having another discussion with me long after the dinner plates had been cleared.
Waiting for Katie to arrive, I sat in the room with the big ugly chair and flipped through a photo album she had made. The front picture was from Mother's Day, when Katie had made her own edible arrangement.