That old familiar lump in my throat appears, my chest tightens, breathing becomes a chore. Memories that are forever etched in my mind play over and over, like a broken record.
I am sitting in my parent’s bed, reading King Lear to my mom while she rests. Even though she is exhausted and fighting cancer, she still listens, still helps me understand what the play is talking about.
I am standing in front of a crowd, wearing a cap with a tassel. And my mom is in the audience, the last event she was ever able to attend. I was giving a speech, but one of the only things I can remember was that my mom ate. She came to my graduation, and she ate. Later at home, she curled up on the couch and my dad handed me a card. My mom had made this card, worked tirelessly to make me something beautiful when she could hardly walk anymore.
I am sitting in the living room. My mom can no longer speak. It is clear that her life is hanging on by a thread. How much longer?
My dad never leaves her side, feeding her spoonful’s of ice chips when he can, kissing her lips often to see if she will respond. She does not speak, she does not open her eyes, but she returns the kisses. She recognizes my brother David’s voice when he comes in, all the way from Pennsylvania. Her smile, bigger than what any of us could muster.
“Well, now we know for sure who the favorite child is,” my sister commented to lighten the mood. All of us are now here in the living room, my two parents and their five children. So we sat and waited, talking about anything and everything. I don’t remember what we talked about, just nice things that my mom could listen to if she could still hear us. My dad intermittently reads scripture, sings hymns, recites old memories, all punctuated by the ice chips and the kisses.
At some point in the evening, someone suggested homemade ice cream sandwiches. We have the cookies, so I drove the five minutes to the country convenience store to pick up a half gallon of vanilla. Back at the house, putting together the ice cream sandwiches is a wonderful distraction. Carry them upstairs, hand them out to anyone who was able to eat, and continue talking.
At some point, we decided to put on a movie. I don’t remember when. But we put in the Jackie Robinson movie, 22, because mom loved it. It was meant to be comforting background noise but was honestly rather irritating and distracting.
Even later, again I don’t remember when, mom began to stir. We tried to ask her if she was uncomfortable. It was hard to tell if she heard, impossible to tell if she understood. It was decided that she might be more comfortable in bed, instead of the chair she had been in for at least twelve hours. My dad and my brothers gently moved her skeletal body from her rocking chair to the wheelchair we had borrowed for her. Suddenly, she threw her head back and her eyes opened. She was having a panic attack, or the pain was too much. We couldn’t tell. We thought she would die right then, so we gathered around her and sang a hymn. But she held on. My sister asked what she needed again, if she was in pain. And somehow, mom managed to look at Jessica and say, “I need you to sit me up.” Those were the last words she uttered in her life.
We moved her back to the chair she had been sitting in and strove to make her comfortable. Her minimal responses began to dwindle. She wasn’t able to eat ice chips anymore. She barely reciprocated when my dad gently pressed his lips to hers. But we continued, continued to talk around her of things that she would know, things that she would want to hear.
Because she was no longer able to swallow the ice chips, my dad and sister took turns moistening her mouth with a small green sponge on a stick, something designed for end-of-life care, something so small and mundane, yet so important. It was around this time that her breathing became labored. We all knew what this meant. From this point on, we were all concerned for her comfort, as it was clear that she was mentally gone. My sister, Jessica, called the hospice nurse.
“Can we give her a larger dose of morphine? We can’t tell if she’s in pain. And her breathing is really labored.”
The answer was yes. At this point, there was no such thing as “too much” morphine. Comfort was the highest priority. And so, we sat, still with the movie 22 playing in the background, listening to our wife and mother struggle for air, slowly suffocating.
It reached a climax around 9pm. I don’t remember why, but we all gathered around her and touched an easy-to-reach part of her body. I held her left foot, clothed in a red compression sock. Outside it was dark and starting to rain. Her breathing broke our hearts, and we all began to weep. My dad cried out to God, “Please take her, take her home.” At this, a bolt of lightning cracked the sky, and she breathed her last. Our sobbing cracked our hearts as my dad placed his hand on her chest. She was gone.
I don’t remember if I was asked, or if I suggested, but I went down into my room to retrieve the real stethoscope that I had been given as a gift many years ago. I brought it upstairs, and my sister pronounced our mom dead, 9:15pm, June 9th, 2016. What happens to the body after someone dies? Especially if someone dies at home? That is an excellent question. It is customary for someone from the funeral home and someone from the hospital to come collect the body, have it embalmed, and laid to rest until the family is ready to plan a funeral. This is not exactly what happened while we were all together this night. It was my mom’s wish that she not be embalmed, or handled by any staff at the funeral home. So my dad asked my sister and me to prepare our mother’s body for burial.
My brothers carried her now limp body into my parent’s spacious en-suite bathroom and laid her on a small mattress. My dad—despite his bad back, and achy body—laid on the floor and cradled her head in his hands. My sister and I filled an old ice cream container with warm water, grabbed some washcloths, and began. We removed her nightgown as gently as we could and began to wash her emaciated body. This was not our mother, at least not the mother we knew. Instead of bubbly with long beautiful hair, a beautiful smile, delicate hands, gleaming eyes, pleasantly plump hips, she was a shell of her former self. Her hair was mostly gone, her teeth were showing through a tight expression that had formed on her face. Her bones protruded, her breasts had all but vanished, her hips showed signs of pressure sores. But we washed her, I. mostly speechless, unable to accept that this 90-pound creature was once my mother. We took some of the essential oils she had been given to help combat her illness, anointed her body, redressed her, and the boys placed her on the bed.
By now, it was nearing 11 pm, and it was time to call the hospice nurse and the funeral home. They arrived close to midnight. The nursed officially pronounced her dead. The two people from the funeral home went up the stairs, put her inside a red bag and carried her down to their waiting stretcher. We all kissed her goodbye before they zipped up the red bag, and they drove off with her body.
After midnight, after some plans and some memories were shared, we all went to bed. I don’t remember if I slept. I don’t think many of us did. The next morning, we visited the cemetery and chose the final resting place for her body. Walking through the cemetery, I remember texting my boss and saying I couldn’t work for the next few days because my mom had died the night before. It was all very clinical, very neat and tidy, very matter of fact. After the cemetery, we visited the funeral home and decided to bury her the following day.
It’s Saturday, the day my mom’s body will be lowered into the ground. Before that, a select few people come to view her in her coffin, in a private room inside the funeral home. The graciousness and respect of the funeral home did not go unnoticed. By now, her face had relaxed and she was almost smiling. She was wearing a dress my dad had bought her, a beautiful dress. With it, she was wearing a headscarf that said, “Harley Davidson,” and a necklace my brother Jeff had purchased from Tiffany’s years before. When we all finished saying our goodbyes, finished kissing her one last time, the coffin was closed.
At the cemetery, there was a short sermon, and then we all spoke briefly. My dad, my aunt and uncle, my grandma, my four siblings, my brother’s wife and daughter, and two old, dear family friends. Her body was in a box, and the box was lowered into the ground. After that, we left. After this intimate burial service, we returned home and reminisced. We tried to eat, we tried to laugh, we tried to forget. I tried to forget the horror of her last night. I still try to forget.
The one comfort I have is this. She is in heaven praising her Savior. Only her earthly body lies beneath the earth. Only the people who remain are still affected by the pain of her death. And someday, I will see her again.