Mom made it easy for her doctors to deliver bad health news. I was with her on one of her scan days when her doctor had to tell her the treatments for her liver cancer weren’t helping. There was such care in the look on her face she gave him to ease his burden of informing her, probably the least favorite aspect of his job but also something he does frequently. She picked him up or she was picking her husband and me up. That was St. Patrick’s Day and on the way home we stopped at Mavis Winkle for dinner and then hit Steak and Shake for Shamrock shakes. I told her despite the bad news I enjoyed celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, and she said so did she.
The doctor offered her a next medication less likely to work and more likely to include side effects. She wanted opinions from all of us but promised to made her own decision. We didn’t give them lightly, not entirely sure our mother would be capable of deciding to discontinue treatment if her children and husband wanted her to continue. We were unanimous in wanting her to take the treatment which wouldn’t be a cure but might give her two or more years more of good quality of life. She seemed to be leaning that way, too. She wasn’t lucky, but she was a little lucky in that her first treatment made her sick but they were able to treat those symptoms and take her off the drug with limited, lingering effects.
We started planning final visits. My sisters and all their kids were out the Christmas before, expecting the possibility that it would be the last opportunity for a Christmas and New Year’s Day with her. They all came again in the summer. Mom worried she’d feel sick and that her illness would pervade and lead to a somber gathering, but she felt well enough or felt well enough to seem well enough that we had a wonderful visit. This is the visit that included the Yahtzee game where Mom scored a few points shy of the max possible in a game whose magic felt symbolic of our union, as you might imagine. (Sometimes real life resembles roll-your-eyes fiction.)
Mom gave these intensely sad goodbyes to things and then let them go. Places, first: a last Seattle trip took place in the fall, a last Florida visit in the spring. (My sisters’ homes) Mom’s basement steps were absent a handrail. We looked into putting one in. Mom was still walking pretty well but was just unsteady enough that I worried about her on those steps, but she didn’t want to give up washing clothes. I asked her not to go down alone at least until we got a handrail installed. But next time I came she had passed this chore on to her husband. She said she was done going into the basement.
Another weekend I was over, she asked me to move a chair up to her bedroom. She was already limiting trips up and down the steps in the house and knew she’d soon be done going down those stairs as well and would want to receive visitors from her bedroom. She worried her husband would, understandably, put off taking the chair up feeling like the action was moving us toward where we were going anyway. I was able to isolate these tasks. I could tell myself I was just taking a chair up to a bedroom. I almost took on the persona of a hired furniture mover to accomplish this. My next time over we spent all afternoon up in that room. We discussed spirituality, we looked at old pictures. She had me read a passage from a spiritual trilogy she’d been reading. It was a fictional account of the devil describing how he/she/it talks people out of a relationship with God. Starting with using atheism as a tool and progressing up using people’s religion against them. The essential point being that a relationship with God is the ultimate goal, religion being the tool. So the devil would keep people stuck at the tool stage. This being a Catholic book, the sort of top tier religion, in this devil’s mind, was Catholicism. So the interviewer’s last question was about how the devil managed to keep even Catholics from God. So the devil, who from the dialogue one got the sense had to wipe his horny brow, answers as though these Catholics are his greatest challenge. But gives the same answer about keeping them stuck in the tool stage.
So realizing my mother is weeks from death and spiritually preparing herself for a journey she would rather delay, is afraid of but is also partly excited for, I understand she’s just shared a passage with me because it meant a lot to her and while I mostly liked it, that bit about the Catholics being “a tough nut to crack,” which the devil actually said, in this fictional account, gave me a pretty significant eye roll moment I didn’t think I could leave out of my comments about the passage Mom was waiting for. I did think about it. But I told her the full truth. I told her that I liked it and the idea reminded me of Joseph Campbell but that the part about the devil treating Catholicism as nearly an invincibility shield against temptation seemed a bit much. She grinned. “Yeah, that got a little embarrassing.” We had several nice laughs about that.
When I left that day, I hugged her goodbye. As I was leaving her bedroom, she said, “Greg, this was so pleasant. This is just what I imagined it would be.” I looked forward to a repeat of that long afternoon but the next time I stopped over she spent most of the time asleep. I told her goodbye and she apologized for being so tired. I told her not to worry and get her rest and I would be back the next day. That weekend my one sister was flying in. Both my sisters had flown in since the family visit over the summer and visited with Mom sick but well enough to enjoy visiting. Really she never got too sick to enjoy visiting. They wanted to be there for the end. My other sister was planning to fly in early the next week but a hospice worker told me to have her come now.
Sunday morning Mom woke up wanting hugs. I went in to greet her and I asked her if I could get her anything. She said, “A hug.” I hugged her and asked her if I could get her anything else. She said, “I still need that hug.” I hugged her again. My sister came in for hugs and then she wanted her husband. We called him up. She said after repeat rounds of hugs, “I think I’m going to die today,” with a serene singsong intonation.
I told Mom I was leaving to pick her other daughter up from the airport. I followed up to see Mom’s face light up when she saw her. She was reasonably alert and coherent through the morning but slept through the afternoon and into the evening. I told my sisters mornings were best for catching her most alert. She spoke that next morning and even ate a little. The hospice nurse told us it could be that day or the next. By midmorning she had already slipped into that twilight mode, a combination of the morphine controlling her pain and the progression of her illness. That afternoon my sisters and I were all in the room with her. We’d all already told her goodbye, thanked her for being our mom, and given her permission to leave us. She’d given little indication of consciousness for some time. We had a portable CD player by her bed with her collection of Elvis Presley hymns. I played her favorite “In the Garden.” The three of us laid our hands on Mom, and Mom’s eyebrows lifted. They lifted and fell and lifted but the impression was that they kept lifting. She lightly moaned, a sound that didn’t seem pained and might have been her trying to speak, but she was done with words and we didn’t need any words. I put the hymn on repeat. I’m sure we were all crying and telling her goodbye and that we loved her and telling her it was okay for her to go, but my main memory is of her eyebrows, that illusion of them perpetually lifting.
We all went down to the family room, all of us except her husband who rarely left her side, for a break. Final moments aren’t exceptionally important. Mom felt us all with her and whether she died one moment or the next she was leaving this world with all the love in her life, which is really how it always happens. (Really death isn’t a happening at all, that’s a limitation of language.) Although I told my sisters that would have been perfect timing, had the end of her life coincided with one of those twenty-some repeats of her favorite hymn.
I found in Mom’s journal, from when she had lung cancer way back when her grandchildren were just babies, where she wrote that she hoped she was able to die as bravely and with as much dignity as her father. I hope she didn’t feel burdened by that hope. I told her many times I didn’t want her to feel like she had to be brave for us, but I don’t know that that would have stopped her. That evening, her labored breathing ceased, the quiet waking my one sister, who called me and my other sister up. Her husband said a prayer over her and we all cried and told her we loved her in case she was still there to hear us. It was very peaceful and a lovely memory. We were so well prepared. She prepared us so well, our mother.