When you return to your mother at the hospice, she is visibly changed. You are with her on one of her worst days; the whole day she is grabbing at her clothes and you, trying to get out of bed, frantic to go, not at all lucid. On your last visit, you were able to be of some comfort. You talked to her about the Elizabeth Kübler Ross book you had been reading on the afterlife and what the supposed steps are when your soul leaves your body. This seemed to help allay her fears somewhat, as she admitted that though she always thought of herself as a woman of faith, facing death in close proximity fills her with fear and doubt.
You talk to the doctor that evening at the door to her room and suddenly hear her voice, her real voice, her logical, commanding voice, say, “Guys, I’M over here.” As if to say, why are you talking about me as if I’m not here? And you say something to her and she again responds as her old self. This lasts for 2 minutes and then you see it slip away as she goes back to sleep. You are able to tell her before she goes that the whole family is doing what she raised you to do, being strong. And that you will continue to do that after her death. Because she is worried that it will all fall apart without her. And it may. But you’re not about to tell her that. You sob. Because you are thinking this may be your last real conversation. Tomorrow it may be back to nonsensical words. And you already miss her intellect, even the scathing bits.
The doctor tells you it’s time to let your mother “slip into the fog” so she can prepare herself to die. You know that and you also know that although you are the youngest daughter by many years, you will be the one to have to tell your sisters again it is time to let go. To stop talking of what the grandkids are doing and who had what for lunch and just let her be. That the most loving act is in the letting go. It sucks, letting go.
And then in addition to letting go, you must leave. The realities of life are encroaching on this somewhat sacred space. Your husband must go back to work. Your kids cannot continue to be shuffled from place to place, as this is all taking a toll on them emotionally and they want their mother. So you wonder how you leave as your mother is dying.
You never pictured it like this. You struggle with it. And you leave. After asking God to speed your mother’s journey and bring her to the light, you blow her a kiss and leave the room. As you say goodbye to your sisters, you ask again for a sign. And miraculously, a family of four deer are bounding, literally leaping, through the snow in the woods outside the window. There aren’t words for the knowing, but you know. This time you do not think it foolish to interpret the sudden appearance of four-legged creatures as a sign. And this time, you are grateful despite the exhaustion.
In the car, you still break down. You sob as you have never cried before and you can’t stop. You know you have to drive and you know the plane leaves in a matter of hours but you can’t go yet. It’s a physical hurt. You do what you haven’t been able to do in the days leading up to this, which is break. You break open, with no pretense of having any strength left. And then you drive. Amazed that something as mundane as driving is necessary when your mother is trying to die. It doesn’t seem right.
When you go back to Chicago and your kids, you celebrate Christmas. You bake cookies and wrap presents. Santa comes. New Years is quiet. Ten days later, you get the call just as you’re preparing dinner. You know what your sister is going to tell you because you miss the house phone, and then your cell is going off. And then your house phone is ringing. And then your cell. You’re trying to wash the raw chicken off of your hands as fast as you can and yet it all seems so slow as you think: No. No, no, no. So you call back for the news that you already know. And then your husband walks in the door and you sob. You sob a lot. Somehow, you thought you’d know. You thought you’d feel her spirit pass or she’d give you a sign. But no. She’s just gone before dinner on a Monday night. And now you’re not hungry.
The days that follow are a blur. You will never, ever forget the kind woman in Von Maur’s shoe department who told you she didn’t have those gray tweed pumps in your size. You started to cry, with your boys watching again. And said they were for your mother’s funeral. She made it all happen, found you a size 6 in Kansas of all places, and let you sit there and pull yourself together while she did. You silently wish her the karma that’s coming her way, tenfold. You will always love the friends that brought meals without asking. The ones that sent cards or e-mails. You will never again ask what you can do for someone who’s hurting; you’ll just do. That you learned. It’s not right to put the burden of decision making on the grieving. That you now know.
Despite the raw grief you are feeling, you think your mother must still be near in some capacity. As your sisters try to find stockings to finish your mother’s final outfit, all they can seem to find in her size is a thigh-high pair. One protests, “She hated thigh-high stockings because they always fall down.” In a moment of black humor, you all laugh because someone says pointedly, “She won’t be standing up in the casket. I don’t think we have to worry about the fall-down effect.” You cannot help but feel your mother is there to share the laugh and shake her head at the irreverence for death her daughters are showing. You are sure she is happy to see you all laughing rather than arguing, after the stress of recent weeks.
You give your mother’s memoriam because you can. Because you’re the writer and the only one who thinks she can get up there and hold it together. You resist your sisters’ efforts to have a son-in-law read your words because you remember your mother’s iron will. She chose how to die. She knew it would be painful. But she did it on her terms. You have some of that iron will. You know it will be painful but you get through it respectably well. You know that would make her happy.
In the weeks and months to come, you realize that you cannot continue to live with the knowledge of how fragile it all is. That a split second changes it all.
There’s the moment before the cancer diagnosis and the moment after. Just seconds apart, but your worlds before and after are not even remotely in the same universe. The moment before a child is hit by a car and the moment after. The moment a marriage is still viable and the moment one of the parties realizes it’s irrevocably changed. If you live each moment of your life with this knowledge of the fragility of it all, you can I’m sure live a rich life. You can also go a bit crazy. Humans are not wired for that much uncertainty. This I know. It changes you. Some parts of you forever and other parts for a short while. It washes over you whether you face it or hide. There’s wisdom in letting it have its way with you and moving on a little wiser. Stronger in the broken places. And respectful. Respectful of what’s not ours to fully understand. Until it happens to us.