I’ve been thinking of Mom’s death a lot lately. At odd times: driving down the road, in the middle of dinner, reading in the shade. It doesn’t really matter where I am. Her image will flash before me and I’m overwhelmed. Not by grief or longing, though, but shame — mostly. I write about it now, because I think it’s important. I loved my mom dearly. We were best friends as I grew up, confidants. I felt a great deal of strong feelings towards her: gratitude, embarrassment, love, anger. I suspect this is common. I knew I had to be there for her in her final 6 months of life, that I was sure of. What was to follow though, was a surprise to me.
I had thought of the journey towards death as a heroic one. I envisioned love and forgiveness to saturate everything; I expected to be like an angel of mercy — holding mom’s hand and offering comfort. Instead, I was annoyed. I was irritated when I had to get up in the middle of the night. Why did she have to go to the bathroom so much?? I was agitated by lack of sleep and by the deep seeded desire to RUN, anywhere and fast. Death had begun to creep in around the edges of her eyes. The light that was there was disappearing fast. And I couldn’t stand to look at her. I could see the decay, smell it, it was everywhere. It was all I could think about when I was with her. I became detached, like a nurse — loving, but direct. I administered meds, helped change her, and performed countless other awful chores shared by my sister, but I rarely sat with her, held her hand or cried with her. Sometimes I did. Especially at first, but later — when death became more visible and frightening, I retreated. Except once. Thank God for this one moment — or I may not ever forgive myself. It was late (or early am) and mom was restless. I was sleeping on the floor next to her (It was my turn that night). She was crying and groaning in her sleep. At first, I was irritated. I was sooo tired — all I wanted to do was roll over and fall asleep. But I couldn’t. All of a sudden I realized that she was really dying. She was laying there in the dark and she was terrified. So I got up and laid down beside her, wrapping my arm around her body and holding her hand tightly in mine. I cried with her. Then I sang her favorite songs until she fell asleep.
Disease is such a thief. It robbed her of almost everything by slow degrees. I couldn’t bear to witness it, and in the end — when every breath came in ragged desperate chokes, I wasn’t there holding her hand. I was in the other room, texting I think — trying desperately to not smell the decay or listen to the dying that was happening so close to me. That’s what haunts me the most. My own cowardice. I know I did my best, and I have forgiven myself for the times I fell short. For the most part, my life is truly blessed, and I am happy. But sometimes, I see a dead animal in the street or read a book that describes death in some way and I am brought right back to that place, confronted by my own frailty and fear. But I think I have learned from it, which is why I write this letter. There can be love and faith, and hope — even in the face of all that destruction. I remember sitting by mom’s bed about a week before she died. She had just given my sister her ring, and in a rare lucid moment, had shared with her love and pride that can only be passed from mother to daughter. I was sitting by her bed, holding her hand. She was sleeping and I was crying so hard because I thought my moment had passed. Praying, I begged for some hint that she was still there, and that she had something to say to me — something to pass on that I could carry in the chambers of my heart. She squeezed my hand suddenly and made a slight motion for me to hug her. Pressing my cheek to her cheek, our tears intermingled and I tried to content myself. But then she said, “you are my story and my song”. That was it — the last time she ever said anything lovely, but it meant the entire world. Despite death’s ugly hold, despite my fear and reluctance, there was a brief moment when love won and revealed itself, even if only for a moment, powerfully.
There are many things in life to be ashamed of, to fear. But there are much more to cherish, love, and hold on to. Whatever things are true, good, and lovely — think on these things. In the end, they are the only things still standing. In time, the memories of the pain and death will fade — but I will always remember the words of hope given to me in a time of need by a woman overtaken with death, but consumed with love.