It felt wrong to marvel at the feel of my mom’s hair in my hand as she lay dying. One of my sisters had buzzed her hair down to a quarter of an inch the month before at my mother’s request. I was expecting that it would have grown but it hadn’t. It was white, velvety, and smelled of lavender from the last time I washed her with a cloth. I could only smell it if I leaned in to hug her, otherwise there was just hand sanitizer and hospital cleanser that had permeated her pores over the last three months. Something about all of it reminded me of giving birth. The smell of her room. The fear of the pain. The endless waiting for it to be over yet the dread that once it is the unknown lies ahead. Except this time I’m not bringing home a baby but leaving my mother behind forever. Even in those last moments I couldn’t accept that I would be walking out of the room without her. When I wasn’t transfixed with staring at her I was breathing in time with her oxygen machine.
Months of hoping that she would somehow rally back to her old self had ceased as a possibility as my sister and I sat across a conference table only two weeks ago speaking to her doctors. I told myself that I was prepared after the many doctor appointments over the last years of her life but nothing prepared me for the cold interaction as if we were discussing the terms of a car loan. They didn’t say the words “she’s dying” because it was assumed as the outcome after listing off the many injuries and ailments that her body could no longer support or endure. Blood clots in her lungs, heart and brain. Scarring in her lungs. Sepsis in her jaw and blood. Any one of those could bring someone down but she had fought until the very end.
Ann and I had talked about the guilt of leaving her alone and the pain of letting go, “We’ve done everything we can for her.” It was the truth of it and all we were left with was holding each other while we cried. We were losing our mother and there was nothing to do but wait. I was thankful to have my sisters back in my life and mused at how people come in and out of your life at the most inexplicable of moments but some right on time.
My sisters and I traded off seeing her up until the last moments over those months. Family came to visit to say goodbye. She talked about the holidays and was hopeful up until the summer. Her least favorite season which always depressed her. By the time the heat started she was begging for things to end. That was one of the hardest moments, seeing the hope die in her as she realized that she was going to as well.
Yet that person, the mother I knew, and her life were gone years ago. I wasn’t sure what exactly I was waiting for any longer and couldn’t accept the reality of her death even though that was all I discussed in meetings and phone calls on her behalf since the winter and now here I was watching her life end. It wasn’t hypothetical any longer. It didn’t follow a checklist from the AARP site about hospice. It didn’t matter who I called, who I screamed at, or what paperwork I filled out. I was helpless to intervene or advocate my way out of this. Angry at the world that this was all I could do for my mother. Hold her hand, stroke her face, and help her hold her stuffed animal cow, “Cowie”, until the last moments. Listen to her last gasping breaths as she slept in what I hoped was a peaceful drugged haze away from the agony brought on with consciousness.
It wasn’t a life that she wanted for a very long time now and it was selfish to wish her back to living it once again when it’s become one of constant pain. The lies that we tell of ourselves on social media were not all that unlike the delusions that my mother clung to in an effort to merely make it through the day these past months. If you were to ask her she would say she had a great life and no regrets yet the moment she was angered you were given recitation of her heartache, disappointments, and regrets. Yet both were true. As hard as it was to accept, I knew that was the truth for her.
There was just the waiting now. I asked the hospice nurse to help me make necklaces of her thumbprint. We played her favorite music, Roy Orbinson. We took turns snuggling with her and grooming her to make sure she was comfortable. Gave each other time alone with her to pour out our hearts but she didn’t wake.
I looked at her now and with every passing hour I could see changes in her physically as her body shut down one more element of the enigmatic magic that she was to me. Her face looked serene at moments unless her brow furrowed. That was the sign that she needed more medication again and I would page the nurse. They would increase her dosage, her brow would smooth, and her face would return to it’s pensive state that resembled her countenance as an infant. The same mischievous tilt of her chin. The nurse palms my shoulder and explains, “We can remove the oxygen now if you’re ready or you can once you are.”
The air filled my lungs and I bit the inside of my mouth. It was if she handed me a loaded gun. She smiled behind her mask and nodded slowly in understanding. I nodded back in acceptance. She was telling me it was time. The feeding tube was gone, the machines were turned off, and the last semblance of intervention was her cannula line for her oxygen. I knew it would have to be me to remove it for my mother. It would be disrespectful to allow anyone else to do so and I wanted to be sure that I had a chance to say goodbye yet again. I turned the dial on the tank back to zero, made sure the alarm was off, and gently removed the plastic tubing from her face. She exhales deeply and my hands freeze next to her body still holding the cannula line and resume my movements as I hear her breathe in shallowly. Her body relaxes and I wonder how much awareness she has in these last moments. I talk to her, tell her she won’t have to wear that stupid thing anymore as I massage her hands and feet with her lavender lotion, and share stories with my sister.
If only her eyes were open so I could see them once more. The green, brown and amber of her hazel eyes that sparkled with wit and delight or stormy like jade when angered. The thought rises in me like a bubble in the water of a diver reaching for the depths. Unstoppable once released. I cry once more. I think to myself, “I haven’t cried this much since I was in labor.” The sounds that I hear don’t resemble myself. They remind me of her and the pain of memories ache in my chest of the times I heard my mother cry. It’s taken me half a lifetime to come to terms with everything I witnessed in my life and I still can’t forget the lament of my mother from those events. It echoes in my mind as I sleep and it’s part of myself as I weep for her now. My body is betraying me by allowing itself to sound like her cries.
She breathes out one last time and we hold our own waiting for her to gasp or continue but she doesn’t. I hear my sister behind me. She says something but I’m willing myself not to blink so I can take in what is left of our mother’s existence but I have to look away. Her eyes are closed, she’s still, and the world is still moving outside the windows despite the loss of her. It angers me that it does.
My sister, Layni, and I try to gather ourselves and our things after the initial shock. The nurse enters and let’s us know that they’ll give us time and be in to collect her once we’re ready. Some time passes and a doctor enters, apologizes for what he’s about to do, shouts her name at her, checks the time, checks her pulse again, leans in with a stethoscope, then makes his condolences before beginning to exit. If my mother was alive she would have been equally appalled and amused is what I tell him. That it would have reminded her of Monty Python. He chuckles with me nervously and shares that he’s amazed at loved ones like us. That most can’t bear to stay till the end and leave long before. I told him we couldn’t bear to leave her alone but really I know it’s to appease my own sense of guilt over being helpless to save her. They ask if we want more time and I reply, “All of her time is gone.”
We look out at the view from her room once more. The sun is beginning to set so I’m not sure how long it’s been since 6:30 pm but I suddenly feel leaden with exhaustion. All three of us had joked about how mom wouldn’t have appreciated the view even if she had been conscious because she hated heights. Thirteen floors up with a corner view of the air tram and the waterfront in a room that looked like a hotel suite with nurses that were attentive and kind. It was the least they could do for her after the inadequate care she had received for most of her life. The irony being that she would have preferred the ground floor and her own patio to sit on so she could smoke.
Now I’m left with memories and an assortment of possessions that she wanted me to treasure. Some are silly like the three-legged porcelain cow that has a message on the side “Happy Birthday to Moo!”. I hold it and wonder who gave it to her and chuckle because I know she cherished items like these because it would have undoubtedly made her laugh. Others I unearth from the boxes and flinch from the memories as if they were on fire. The rest I struggle to remember who made or gifted them and allow my mind to wander back to those times when I can stomach to do so.
Disenfranchised grief is what they call my predicament. Grieving in isolation. She didn’t want a funeral or an open casket as custom would dictate with Catholicism but to be cremated and have a memorial after the pandemic. She was worried about any of us getting sick from gathering together and didn’t want it to be a somber occasion of strangers giving us condolences. She wanted to be remembered and celebrated.
Every week I watch the CBS Sunday Morning show in her honor. Eat a piece of dark chocolate every day like she did. Rewatch the movies we enjoyed together but I can’t bring myself to watch the reality tv shows that she loved. But I drive the long way round for the scenery when I’m able to. Share stories with the kids and try to scan photos when my hands cooperate so I can create a memorial video for her. Donate to the women’s shelter in hopes that it helps someone start over again like my mom always wanted to.
It’s finally fall and it pains me that she’s not here for the holidays. The pandemic has stolen so much from all of us but especially those that have been kept in lockdown indefinitely like the elderly or those that are immunocompromised. It was dangerous for me to visit her like I did but I knew I had to for my own sanity. Just like I know that I need to spread her ashes but I can’t bring myself to do so just yet. I keep a list of all the spots she wanted me to visit and tell myself I will once the pandemic passes. “There’s no timeline for grief,” was the unhelpful wisdom of the grief counselor. The only advice that’s helped was that from a friend, “You do what you need to do and just remember that she loved you.”