My wakeup call was a text from Beth. She had checked on Mom before a training class. Mom was still holding steady.
I rolled out of bed and stumbled through the unlit bathroom. The skirt I hadn’t worn from yesterday lay mangled beneath last night’s ripped jeans and I thought about when I was a kid, I hated wearing skirts and dresses.
I was a tomboy and my thicker legs always looked like tree trunks beneath the canopy of a skirt hem, legs like those of my Grandma DeLuca. I chose to don pants. Still did. When reaching for comfort, I aimed for the hangars with pants. In the writing world, those who plotted out their story were called plotters, and those who operated by instinct were called pantsers. I was the latter in writing and in life.
I wasn’t ready to decide attire for the day, so I slipped into running gear, poured my coffee with eyes partly closed and scurried out the door for my morning walk. My legs felt heavy as an elephant’s, so I trudged around and around Washington Park, hoping my sleeping Music Hall muse would wake. I stayed in close proximity to my street, though my fear of separation from Mom had dissipated thanks to Stephanie’s wisdom the night before.
Once back home and out of a quick shower, I seized the skirt, shook it out, and writhed my way into it. Decision made.
Though rare, I brushed some powder across my brows, growing thicker in my lack of grooming, and hung my favorite earrings over my lobes. I lugged all my bags, one filled with headphones, nail clippers, nail polish, things I had always carried to for Mom, for our “spa” days, along with my bag of electronics. I didn’t know how long I would be sitting that day.
When I arrived at Arden Courts, Janice was running a warm cloth over Mom’s forehead to bathe her. I went off to seek solitude in the bathroom then strolled outside. I wanted to absorb the energy Mom always took in those mornings as she and I ambled through our day. Though we had always tread on the same sidewalk, our experiences were vastly different, as Mom clutched my arm for dear life and I grimaced in return.
The sky revealed a certain blue steadiness. Not a cloud anywhere. I walked back towards Mom’s courtyard and I caught a glint of what always caught Mom’s eye – the shiny tin roof vent.
I headed to the bench, our morning bench where we sat in the summer sun beneath the eaves, catching only rays on our legs and the chimes rang as the breezes picked up.
When I entered Mom’s room again, there she was, cozy, restful, this time wearing her favorite shirt. The shirt was the color of sunset, a blend of oranges and pinks and a few sequins tossed in for glimmer. Janice had tracked down the article some time that morning, or it had appeared as if by divine intervention.
I knew then that would be the day my mother would die.
Despite how much I hated doing so, I lifted up the sheet to observe Mom’s feet, they were no longer dappled with purples, but now were deeply so.
Also, Janice had turned on some Sinatra music on the CD player. Silly me, I had erred the day before in not turning his voice on full blast.
Mom’s coloring had returned to her lips and she appeared comfortable even with her erratic breathing.
Deb, the hospice nurse, arrived shortly after. In between chatting about her chickens, she fussed with taking Mom’s vitals.
And in one exchange of looks, we both knew.
After charting her findings, Deb broke through the silence. “I asked the nurse to change her meds to every hour,” she said about Mom receiving Roxanol. I nodded in agreement— and understanding.
Sitting in my skirt, a whoosh of cool air circled the room, sending a current of goose bumps through my legs, making me wish I had dressed in jeans. The breeze had snuck in from an open window.
Soon, the activities director, Becky, joined in and we cracked jokes about care homes installing garage doors in resident’s bedrooms, like they have in craft breweries nowadays, so anyone could easily gain exposure to the outside elements.
Seated in the rocker, I twisted toward the sunny window where the blue skies were like a teaser and directed my gaze back through Mom’s doorway, evaluating. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could roll that hospital bed right through the door for Mom to get outside?”
There was an awkward moment of questioning until Deb said, “We can do that. If that’s what the family wants.”
I was family. It’s what I wanted.
In a matter of minutes, five staff members, including Janice, swarmed in. They wrapped Mom in her sheets as if she were in a papoose, and cradled her in their arms as they slid her across the bed and into the reclining wheelchair, while I handed off pillows for the various gaps between Mom and chair.
I knew where to wheel Mom. The exact spot where the sunlight breached the magnolias and the birch, where the sidewalk split into a “y” and every time, Mom tugged one way and I tugged the other, because my way was the long way and Mom’s way led to the dead end.
Seconds later, Mom was outside in the sun, and I settled the chair between patches of light and shade, with her face still visible to the sun. I texted my siblings and my husband. Mom is outside.
Mom is outside, I chanted to myself as I selected my Sinatra playlist to shuffle through on my iPhone. Caregivers and staff stopped by and marveled at the sheer genius of such a simple gesture.
The sun’s intensity was extraordinary that day, tinged with enough heat to make me believe I could live outside forever. Mom, too. But soon, the sun’s heat on my face seared through to my insides and therefore Mom probably wasn’t comfortable either. I maneuvered her chair back into the flecks of light through the trees.
A nurse came by to administer Mom’s medication at 10:00 a.m. And Beth arrived, as if on cue.
In the space between idle chitchat and quiet buzzing of bugs, and Sinatra singing Blue Skies, Deb hushed us. “Annette and Beth. Hold your Mom’s hand.”
Mom’s breathing had been labored and slow. And now halted.
We waited. And waited. And waited. My heart pounded. Mom’s belly didn’t rise. Her chest didn’t fall.
Deb called out the time of 10:33 a.m. As Beth and I had grasped Mom’s hand in ours, Sinatra’s words wove their way into the moment. “…the tears were hard to hide/And we just couldn’t say goodbye…”
There beneath the calm blue skies of a summer day, my mother was set free.
Freed from the confines of the wheelchair, the dark recesses where her mind might have wondered lost, from what society might see—an aging woman with dementia, and freed to reunite with a presence greater than herself.
After Mom’s last moment in the earth’s sun, family and staff gathered in the courtyard with the chaplain to lift up her in prayer. We said the Our Father and the Hail Mary. Then, I shared a story about the first prayer I learned from Mom.
Mom’s firstborn, David, had died two days after his birth. So when we knelt as a family to say prayers before the sewing machine turned altar, we recited the Our Father, the Hail Mary and a little prayer Mom had devised. Please, Baby David, watch over us and help us to be a good, kind and loving family.
I repeated the prayer over Mom’s body, one I imagined now reunited with Baby David. The chaplain noted Mom could now complete her final act of mothering. I thought otherwise: Mom was being re-membered with her firstborn.
In my mother’s final weeks, I wrote in a journal entry, “What does victory look like? Victory will be Mom leaving me.”
Victory. My mother had won the battle with her dementia through sheer muscle memory, by programming into those around her what was important in her last days.
Before they carried Mom away, I reached for her soft cheeks, the ones I would never stroke again. The ones I had nuzzled up to time and again whenever I greeted or left her.
Yes. We had made a pretty good team. Mom was outside one final time. And I wore a skirt, and that breath of breeze that had wafted around the room that morning and given me chills led me to the hope of Mom, in the sun.
But I wore something else that day. Something more sublime.
A smile, inside and out.
I couldn’t have persevered through Mom’s dying or later described the events that transpired without breaking into a smile. If others thought me rude, disrespectful, or insincere, I didn’t care.
I was joy-filled.
Whether there was another life for Mom was up for debate, but what I had witnessed was a beautiful death.
And while I would miss the warm shivers up my spine when my mother hugged me or the residual ache I felt in my wrists from her fierce grip, Mom would live on in my joy.