I didn’t know what to wear the day I thought Mom would die.
Summer had kicked in, but the rains had popped in and out over the past two days. I first slipped into a flimsy Target skirt made from t-shirt material that you roll up and toss in a suitcase and somehow unrolls wrinkle-free on the other side of the TSA line.
If Mom was dying, I should wear a skirt. Propriety, at least the appearance of it, had been important to her, to anyone her age.
The day prior, I had parked for hours at Mom’s bedside after noting her disposition had changed considerably. Mom tugged at her ears in a weird Carol Burnett sort of way. She pushed out any food I tried to offer her. No to pudding? No to cookies? That was a drastic change. Swallowing became a chore for which she wasn’t getting paid. Her agitation, with eyes mostly closed, had moved to a new level, to rival her aggravation of raising five kids in the home.
And when I left for an appointment with my hairstylist – Mom would have approved – and returned, my mother’s agitation had reached new heights. We had been managing the pain from her fractured hip, but perhaps not.
Her caregiver, Janice, transferred Mom from wheelchair to bed after lunch to see if the change might offer her relief. After several more hours and a few consultations with me, the caregivers called the hospice nurse instead.
As Mom squirmed around in bed, something else was happening. There was a process that occurred when the heart no longer pumped blood effectively to the extremities, in particular the feet and hands, and the skin became discolored. It was called by another name, but I called it dappling. Dappling sounded more creative, heavenly, less medical and cold.
The nurse suggested I call the family—it was finally time.
But was it?
The next day was the skirt day. Fully-dressed, my skirt flew up as I shuttled between downstairs and forgetting to water the flowers, to my office and bedroom, which were both on the second floor of our Italianate-style town home, dashing off emails and writing notes in between blow-drying my hair. Like any human, I feared letting go of my other life acknowledging that soon I would have to let go of Mom’s.
Then, a shot of rain came down, just enough to water the petunias and coleus and other miscellaneous flora barely surviving my inattention. It was God’s, or Dad’s, the gardener, way of saying, “Be with Mom. I’ll take care of the plants.”
I scrambled back and forth in the hallways to locate chargers and plugs for all my electronic devices. Cords dangled from my arms like an octopus. What was I thinking? Of course, I would write through my mom’s passing.
Of course, I wouldn’t.
Traipsing back through my dressing room, I spotted up a pair of folded jeans atop the laundry basket. When had I even done laundry? Or had Mark? To save myself the task of hanging them, I snatched them up. I yanked off my skirt and wriggled my way into comfort. I needed a new approach. If Mom was dying, I needed my work jeans, my writing jeans. The skirt lay crumbled on the ground, as if marking the outline of someone no longer there.
In Mom’s room, I sat for another round of twelve or fourteen hours. I’m not certain how I had the patience or tenacity to stay for so long in a room where Mom’s life had been downsized, one containing all the belongings she needed or required within a claustrophobic space of 12’ x 12’, with a half bath to boot. She had traveled a long way from Lincoln Street and the soaring home she was once kept pristine.
For a while, a rosey blush covered Mom’s face, though she was no longer eating or drinking. Lakeisha, her hospice nurse, gave Mom a sponge bath, rubbed a lavender-scented lotion into her skin, and, after we had searched high and low for Mom’s favorite salmon-colored, flowered, sequined top, dressed her in a bright pink shirt.
One shirt. That missing shirt had represented everything about Mom, yet we couldn’t find it anywhere. Pink would have to do. Plus the latest selection was adorned with a sheath of lace that resembled Italian tatting and I found it humorous if not synchronistic. It would be a perfect shirt to die in, if it were to be that day.
At the end of the evening, after the dinner hour, Mom’s agitation increased. Her breathing became labored. It too had a name. Cheyne-Stokes breathing. Everything about dying now had a name.
Was this it? Should I call Beth? Where was she? What time did she say she was coming back?
Counting, I kept track of Mom’s breathing and her last medicine administration. Mom needed more, more of something. Stephanie agreed. She tracked down the nurse supervisor who called the doctor for a new set of orders. An hour later, after Mom was repositioned, she rested, surrounded by pillows, on top of a marshmallow bed.
Now present for the hour, Beth hesitated to leave. I did too, until Stephanie finally declared, “If you’re meant to be here, when your mother dies, then you’ll be here. If you’re not, its not meant to be.”
No one had ever counseled me on “how to leave” before. But it was true. If Mom needed permission from the living to leave, so too did the living need to permission to depart.
It came my turn to say goodnight.
The problem was, I had already professed what needed to be said the night before. I spoke to Mom about her baby son, the one she only held for two days, her birth father, Devin, Dad, and everyone whose life had meaning to her but had died. I’m not sure if that comforted Mom or not, but she was the one who toted us to the cemetery every Sunday, so I had that evidence as backup.
That night, I altered my goodbye theme from death to life, from the others to Mom and me.
In my mother’s more cognitive state, she occasionally uttered phrases like, “Hey, I like you.” “Hey, that’s funny.” Or, “I don’t like you.” But my favorite, the one that played in my ear, was “Hey, we’re pretty good team.” In Mom’s voice, she would hit a pitch only described as angelic and laugh at her perceived joke.
I was seated on Mom’s right side in her rocker, which had been wedged between bed and wall. Sinatra hadn’t sung all day, a welcome relief. Instead, I had played Women In Jazz, the Inkspots, Ella, and some old Nancy Wilson. But I queued Frankie up once more.
Then, I whimpered through tears. “Mom, we’ve made a good team. Of course, nothing like you and Dad, but still, we did all right.” I rubbed her now bony hands and placed her one mottled hand over my tanned one, waiting earnestly for her death grip where she might crush my fingers between hers and my wedding band. Her hand remained motionless.
“Mom, if you’re really listening, and I believe you really are, because I’m speaking into your good ear, then know this.
“We’ve been on this path for a long time, and its been filled with so many joyful moments and amazing views. We’ve walked the Oregon Coast together, we’ve walked Italy, Seattle, vineyards, Cincinnati, and Amherst.” The list was endless. “And of course, here. All the miles we’ve walked.” And I imagined we had covered many on those 2.5 acres of quiet set back from a bustling Galbraith Road.
Mom sipped in several breaths, and held another few. The blanket rippled as she breathed.
“This path separates. You can see it up ahead. We have to separate.”
“Nothing, nothing will be more perfect than where you will be walking.”
I was departing in two days for my son’s college graduation and the Oregon Coast. I had joked all week, if my mother died while I was gone, I would kill her. I never said that aloud. But we had journeyed to that far edge together and I wanted to be with her ’til the end.
“And my path? I’m going to Oregon. Again. You know, I was always leaving you for Oregon, even if in my mind.
I lay my head next to Mom’s in some twisted yoga pose. A scent of lavender emanating from her neck tickled my nose. I gazed up at the ceiling. “But on your path, Mom, I see the rays cutting through the trees. It’s your sunshine. And you can go, Mom. Go find the sun.”
I parted from Mom that night with a lightness in my heart, convinced I had offered a way forward for both of us, a key to unlock the gates of whatever coveted land lay ahead.
At home, I dropped my jeans on the floor next to the skirt. I was too tired to pick up anything but my feet and hoist them into bed. I lay awake for a long time, watching the streetlights flicker, listening to the city buses whoosh by, waiting for the proverbial 4 a.m. wakeup call that never came.
To be continued.