She’s home now, back in a familiar environment so that she will be comfortable. The hospital bed sitting in the middle of the living room, with furniture moved aside in strange combinations to allow for space, does much to disrupt that feeling of familiarity, though. I can tell from looking at her, as she gazes around the room with the knowledge that this is where she will pass on, that she is not as comfortable as she’d anticipated when given the choice to stay in the hospital or come home. That moment of revelation is pushed aside as her visitors arrive.
Mom sits on the edge of her bed, a Cheshire smile spread across her face. Only those who truly know the depths of my Mother’s heart can discern that carefully crafted grin as a fake. These people have come from other towns, counties, states, and even the far corners of the country to be at her side. Despite knowing that she will soon peacefully pass in a restful sleep, she somehow has the energy to visit with these people. She does so not for her sake, but for theirs. She knows they need this closure and she seems determined to give it to them. That’s the type of woman she is; living her life to help others, right down to her final breath. And like the line from one of her favorite songs, she continues to “smile her best smile and laugh like it’s going out of style” because, for her, it is.
Somehow she’s made it through the night. A new batch of visitors is here today and they are laughing with Mom over their favorite stories from years past. This continues all day, despite the occasional dose of morphine I deliver to ease her pain. People come and go until it’s finally just the family waiting eagerly for ‘Survivor’ to start. You see, in our house, watching it together uninterruptedly is a tradition. It seems like even impending departure won’t stop Mom from upholding tradition and so we take our cue from her.
As that familiar theme song begins, and as the gathered group quiets to enjoy the show, I think back on the years. I fondly reflect how, over the past ten years, our sacred ‘Survivor’ tradition has usually included a hot, homemade meal and a heady anticipation for what will happen on the show. The phone is unhooked and the rest of the world is tuned out for an hour every week while we immerse ourselves in some family bonding around the tube. Even when geography later kept us apart, negating the ability to share meals during the show, we still found ways to continue enjoying it together.
Having moved away for college and then, later, to start my corporate career on the opposite side of the country, just knowing that twelve hundred miles away, in a living room I’ve known intimately since I was a baby, Mom was sitting in front of the TV laughing at the latest island hi-jinks made me feel close to her. After each episode, we’d call each other up and animatedly talk about what happened. Even when illness eventually robbed her of the ability to speak, we’d still excitedly text back and forth discussing our favorite moments and condemning or congratulating the tribes for voting people out the way they did. It was like being home again and maybe that’s why I continue to love the show, even when it seems a little old now.
But tonight, as the episode plays out and ends on a major “Oh my God, what’s going to happen next?!” cliffhanger, the feeling is different. People are talking excitedly about the episode. As they speculate what will happen next week, engaging Mom in conversation about how things will play out, I realize that she won’t be here to see the result. Suddenly the walls break apart in my head and it’s all I can do to dam up the tears and look composed. I can tell from a brief moment of eye contact with her that Mom has figured this out too but has decided NOT to remind everyone. While they carry on discussing the future, I keep my mouth shut. People have a hard time comprehending death. I don’t blame them for being accidentally insensitive; I just wish Mom (and selfishly, me) wasn’t reminded almost every moment that she’s not going to be around for what’s next. That smile of hers remains in place as she continues speculating with the rest of them, but I know what’s really going on inside her mind. She knows that I know, and I feel a kind of specialness for understanding her so well.
The days go by, each one seeing Mom’s activity level diminish more and more. Because her pain level has been increasing with each day without dialysis, Mom understands she’s riding out of this life on the Morphine train. For some reason, she has asked me to be her Conductor. There is a desperate quality to her communication as she instructs me to provide a balance between controlling her pain level and giving her the lucidity necessary to say goodbye. I try my hardest to do as she says but there comes a point where that balance just isn’t possible anymore. Thankful for the days we’ve had together at The End, Mom slips into mostly perpetual sleep.
I know that it won’t be long now. The doctors predicted this would happen. As instructed by her visiting nurses, I continue to deliver her doses. One of the nurses tells me that, at this point, the medicine has built up in her system so much that she will not wake up again. As a family, we’re instructed to listen carefully to her breathing. When it becomes irregular and short, we’ll know that the time is near. With a heart too heavy for any young man to have to bear, I settle in for the last leg of Mom’s mortal journey. Everything is quiet…so quiet…and her breathing doesn’t seem as strong anymore. I turn on the TV, unable to bear the silence.
Some time later, I realize something is different. I see warm, brown eyes staring back at me. Mom is somehow awake. I don’t understand where this full lucidity has come from and I don’t care. I’m suddenly at her bed side, holding her hand and listening to her last words to me. She tells me how much she loves me, how proud she is of the man I’ve become, and that she doesn’t want me to be sad. With a warm hug and a kiss on my forehead, she holds me for the last time and we say goodbye.
Knowing they need these precious few minutes of Mom’s final clarity just as much as I do, I then call for my sister and adopted-brother. They come running, my mom’s little Maltese dog Remmy cradled in the nook of my brother’s arm, fearing that Mom was passing only to discover—like me—that they had one more chance to be with her. As they speak their final words to each other, and as Mom lets her lovable little puppy lick her face, I can’t help but think of a verse from another of Mom’s favorite songs:
“I have to go now. My time here is over…. Time will ease your pain. Life’s about changing, nothing ever stays the same. How can I help you to say goodbye? It’s OK to hurt and it’s OK to cry. Come let me hold you and I will try.”
Growing up, I remember Mom growing sad every time this Patty Loveless song played on the radio. When she’d watch the music video on Country Music Television, she would even cry. She always talked about how she hoped she’d have the chance to be there for us when it was her time to go. I think Mom somehow found the strength to do exactly that. She came back one last time to deliver this message in her own way. I could not be more thankful.
An hour later, while I take a short break from my vigil to update people on Mom’s condition over the phone outside, I’m summoned back into the house in a panic. Mom’s breathing has become short and irregular. I get there in time for one last breath to start but never stop. Holding her hand, it’s almost as if I can feel the life rushing out of her and up. The mechanics of her body have ceased and her skin begins to lose its warmth. She is gone and I am lost. I know that some day, I will find my way back. But that day is not today…