Two months into a world without my mother. Hard for me to find the words. But these words finally needed to be written:
I lay sprawled across my mother’s dead body.
I wouldn’t let them take her, those stiff men, absurd in their starched suits, waiting in my mother’s weedy gravel driveway, by the black death van, which had been escorted by a pristine white death car….
They couldn’t take her.
I had been peering at them through my mother’s blinds. I let the slat drop. I realized I was wailing. Because it didn’t make sense to take my mother from her own house. “This is her house!” I cried out, into my mother’s room. Into the April morning, cruel and mocking in all its crisp cool brightness slicing sharply though those blinds, across me and my dead mother, in the hospital bed….
The hospital bed. A glacial presence amidst the warmth of the familiar, a fragile antique rocking chair now broken from too many nurses sitting to fill out their charts; my mother’s desk, the letter slots packed with my old birthday cards, checkbooks and yellowed cat notepads; photos of me, brittle starfish and shells she’d collected along the beach, lining her bookshelf.
My mother’s aide came in. The undertakers were threatening to leave, she said, trying to keep her voice even, but I could hear the angst – which only annoyed the crazy-grief-stricken-middle-aged child clinging to her mother’s frail bones, bones sheathed in loose bruised dehydrated skin.
With her fingers, the child combed out strands from her mother’s gray hair. The child held the gossamer strands up to the window light.
The child had thought about getting up for a pair of scissors, to clip some hair to keep once her mother’s body was reduced to ash. But that would mean having to get up off the hospital bed. Leaving this moment. Leaving her mother.
I’d been lying there for two hours. After my mother died, I’d found such relief in finally being able to hold her, as she was free now of the pain of just touching her shoulder in an embrace.
I studied her right hand, splaying her fingers. The hand that once held all her paintbrushes, her nails always rimmed with aquamarine blue; the hand that had sketched her cats, or the crooked cherry trees out her sunroom window, when confined to her house after she lost her license.
She was wearing a plastic fake gem ring her ten-year-old grandson had bought for her. The one, later, I would insist she be cremated wearing, I’m not sure why. Maybe because when I’d paid beforehand for the cremation, I was unreasonably baffled by the funeral director assuring me the cremains “would be all bone, no teddy bears.”
Her circulation having ceased, her fingers seemed bloodless now, translucent.
Beautiful in their translucency.
I lifted one eyelid–I needed to see her blue eyes. “You’re beautiful,” I told her.
I kissed the birthmark on her forehead which she’d always viewed as a mark against her.
“It’s not,” I said. It’s as delicate as a paper moon.
You’re beautiful mom. You never understood, knew, how beautiful you are.
She’d died somewhere between 3-4:30 am, and lying there at dawn, I had whispered, “Hear the first birds, Mom?”
When my mother had called me the previous morning, I don’t remember what I was doing. Some mundane task, walking around with the phone as I usually do.
But I remember exactly where I was standing when she spoke these words: “Sandy, I’m dying.”
I remember stopping and standing still. I was in front of the windows facing out onto our yard and dogwood trees, the scalloped birdbath.
I remember I made light of her words, laughing a little. “And how do you know you’re dying?”
“I just know.”
I just know.
I remember this conversation word for word because it would be the last lucid conversation between us. I don’t remember our saying how much we loved each other, but her aide–who had held the phone, as my mother was suddenly too weak to hold it herself–said we did, that we spoke words of how much we “loved, loved, loved” each other.
I asked her aide if I should drive out there.
She was in tears, as my mother had just put out her hand to thank her for all she’d done. This determined, opinionated woman now sounded unsure: “I don’t know.”
We didn’t know whether she was actually dying. She had shown no signs beyond a sudden weakness, and a swelling of her left hand which her doctor attributed to her atrial fibrillation.
By the time I was on the road, she had rallied, was sitting up drinking pear juice.
“She had me fooled again!” her aide texted me, as my mother had “fooled” us a couple of times, especially with her unexpected recovery from aspiration pneumonia.
When I got to her house, my mother was still sitting up in bed, but her color seemed off, a shade of yellow.
And then she had what seemed to be a seizure. Her eyes rolled up into her head. She began speaking gibberish. She vomited what looked like black bile.
“I’m sorry,” her aide said. “She’s going.”
My mother had known. But by this time, she seemed to have forgotten what she already knew, asking, “What’s wrong with me?”
She began to weave in and out of coherency, speaking gibberish until she found a word:
We talked. Her aide rambled on about the cats, how Sam ate too much and was getting too big.
“Keep talking.” she commanded.
As long as we talked she would not die.
I pulled up the broken rocking chair to sit beside her hospital bed.
And I sang.
I sang the song that had “inspired” her: “God is watching us, God is watching us, God is watching us from a distance.”
She closed her eyes. Her breaths deep and rapid. Her face tense, mouth open.
She began counting. Up to fourteen, before starting over.
Sometimes she’d only get as far as two. One,two. One, two, one two…
I would count with her, feeling how she clutched at lucidity. Clasping it as tightly as a steel bar, though her grip was already loosening as she struggled against her increasing weakness. She would strain forward, as if trying to get up. “What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with me?”
Full sentences began to fail her. As did her strength, with each dose of morphine, when she’d cry out, “pain pills! Pain pills!”
For relief from her pressure sores, we rolled her onto her right side, sliding a pillow under her hips for support.
I’d never been able to imagine myself anywhere else as my mother lay dying, but literally at her bedside. I assumed we had always been too close for me not to be there when she actually passed.
But the way her dying finally played itself out, afterwards, now, I realize I had imagined a scenario in a bad supermarket novel: At her final breath, I’d be holding her hand, and I would feel her spirit flow through her hand into my body.
I did not imagine what our last moments together would really be like, a disjointed, nonsensical conversation punctuated by random words: socks, coats and half a bike.
“How can you have only half a bike?” I asked.
“A half,” she insisted.
“Where’s the other half?”
We could have argued over this half bike as we could over what was the shortest way to drive home.
But then she thrust her blanket, balled in her fist, at me. “Here.Take it! The coat!”
I reached for the blanket. “Ok. I have the coat.”
When the blanket wasn’t balled in her first, she was reaching her hand out from beneath it to anxiously slide it up and down my arm, tucking her fingers under my shirt sleeve, searchingly. “Socks. Socks!”
I had lost by then my own words.
And she had stopped the counting.
We continued the morphine, and started liquid lorazepam.
She seemed to drift off to sleep around 11pm. Her aide told me to go to bed. “This isn’t how it’s done.”
This isn’t how it’s done.
How should it be done?
I had no idea.
So I went to bed, and her aide woke me at 4:30–My mother was already gone.
I’d missed the moment.
“How could you not wake me?”
“I checked on her at three,” her aide said. “She was the same. Then I checked…now.”
And we both looked at my mother. Eyes closed, her face sallow, her mouth open and drooping to one side.
It was only much later when I would realize that my mother would have planned it this way. She would have told me to go to bed and get my rest.
She would have been worrying over me.
And the child, in the end, finally relented, gave in to the undertakers waiting in her mother’s driveway. She allowed them into her mother’s house, the starched men with their shimmering ties perfectly aligned, who promised to treat her mother with “the utmost dignity and respect” – the men the child told to just do what they needed to do, and “fucking leave.”
After all, they were stealing her mother away from her, zipping her into a black bag, rendering her faceless, carrying her out on a stretcher discretely through the side door, as their veterinarian year ago had carried out their dead cat after putting him to sleep, his kidneys failing….
They slipped her mother light as a feather, into the back of the shiny black van, and the child climbed back into the hospital bed. Onto the air mattress that inflated and deflated, and cresting each wave, she cried out for her mother.
Mommy! Mommmmyyy!! She wailed, growing smaller and smaller, more frail herself, in the void of the rented bed, rising and falling on the waves, crashing over and over…
Emptied of her mother. Left empty-handed.
A lawn mower started up somewhere. Miraculously, a life outside her mother’s house continued.
And now every morning I listen for those first birds. Their singing now laced with the passing of a moment. Of a life.
Of my mother.