I came in like a zombie an hour after my mom’s brain cancer diagnosis in 2002. One of the young directors at Chandler House Assisted Living gave me a coke, remembering my mom from the community ribbon cutting ceremony and said somehow they would “make it work” for her to join their sweet community. The director was familiar with this type of brain tumor and said that she knew exactly what to do. That made one of us.
The road to that moment is a blur: phone calls, ER visits, abnormal behavior, chemotherapy, suitcases, plane flights, 10 hour road trips. A fog of non-emotion settled in as I made daily to-do lists of insurance phone calls, medicine administration, doctor visits, family updates, and preschool soccer. This isn’t supposed to be happening. At all. Not to a lady in her 50s. Not to the grandmother of my four young children. Not to a widow of less than 2 years.
A year later I walk into her rearranged room like as if life’s pause button can be released and activities can resume now. The room, hallway, and lobby are all filled with the friends of my mom and dad-—couples and singles from their Sunday School class and brave colleagues from their workplaces.
All of them knew that I was on my way from Michigan and eventually I came to realize that God had brought each of them there, not just for mom’s benefit, but also for mine. They had joked throughout my teen years about the accuracy of their group’s name—”The Alpha Class.” They had adopted this name as young adults but now had a decade or three of experience. “Maybe we should change our name to the ‘Omega’ class.” But Alpha Class they would always be, regardless of the passage of time. How appropriate that they had come before me this night.
I arrive, anxious to speak to each one of them. One by one they greet me quickly and usher me on so as not to distract me from the main focus for us all. My mom is dying. Something divine has brought each person to this unexpected appointment. Some folks came, hugged, and left, but many stay with no idea what will happen as the evening progresses. I too am obliviously unclear that these are my mom’s last hours.
The room empties briefly while I speak to my mom. I am uncertain if she can hear me or not. All I know is that she has been in the room for several days and has stopped eating. She drinks very little. Armed with head knowledge from the hospice that these are the reverse milestones of the barely living, there is still no typical timeline for the dying. I am unaffected by these updates. Denial serves me well, but I am encouraged by the nurse to call my sister, three hours away.
“Mom’s not doing well. They told me to call you.”
“Should we come?”
“I have no idea.”
“We need to know if we should come or not.”
“It will be okay if you don’t come, but come if you want to,” is all I can manage. My brain is floppy and muddled.
I kneel by her side. “Hey Mom. I made it. I love you. Sis is on her way.”
I have no idea if these words have landed, but I am now keenly aware that all of our better memories have been made. Now there is emotional work to do—for both of us. My task now is to speak for those who are not here, remembering and telling my own perception of who she was to them. Somehow in this, I hope to express my own thoughts and feelings for her, but it seems too enormous to convey.
Her body rests on the special leather recliner her brother had shipped for her to her last home. It has been placed in the sitting room which can accommodate more visitors than her dorm sized bedroom. As I begin to speak to her, she turns to me and attempts to speak, slowly. With every ounce of her strength she can only get out a repeated syllable: “Thhh…thhhhh” I am certain she wants to thank someone. Cheerful and thankful were the backbone of her existence. Always gracious, even as her body visibly weakened, her soul developed exponentially. I began thinking of all the people that I could imagine she would want to thank. I started verbalizing a stream of consciousness list, but somewhere this chatter turned into a prayer thanking God for each person, recognizing her impact on each one of them. It was a long, Spirit-led conversation where I was interceding for her as Spirit filled in the blanks for me.
I easily organized my thoughts into a type of extended family tree, recognizing each staff person currently caring for her and the residents who surrounded her, filling her days with unexpected friendships. I attempted to recall each member of our family, each church member she has interacted with, each student she has taught, each teacher she has partnered. I tried to remember large groups of people so that no one would be left out. With all that was in me, I wanted to avoid leaving her frustrated or concerned. I am convinced she became peaceful and satisfied with her well-lived life, shortened as it was to an inexplicable 61 years. I strived to paint the picture of her years, both from my life and perspective and from the stories of her youth I had heard from her family of origin. Years of family history poured out of me like so many buckets of life-giving water. Gratitude for my own legacy overwhelmed me as I thanked her for her selfless commitment to excellence in her personal and professional life. As words continue, my body is somehow transformed to stay contentedly bent, kneeling, purposeful for an indefinite amount of time. I feel like I am energized, caught between realms, full of life as we face death together bravely, pouring into her as our moments together draw to a close.
An original cancer diagnosis with a measly three months to live had somehow turned into 3 years. I still feel robbed, though, as the doctor had explained the updated “three to five years” diagnosis, my mind and heart erroneously reasoned the chemo and radiation would get her back to normal, then she will have three to five restored years just like she was. In my heart’s calendar, the three to five years had not begun yet, even as I knelt at her side. My brain forgot to factor in the possibility of decline, of days filled with treatment and recovery from such treatment, as well as a brief period of remission. Then repeat the whole process only this time with a fast-forward decline. This was not the “three to five” I had imagined. Not in the slightest.
My mother’s trim, active body and sharp, focused, productive mind had morphed into a completely different person. I still loved her as is, but it was a struggle keeping up with this rapid, sometimes immediate transformation, to say the least. I knew and needed the mom I was accustomed to. My newly married sister needed her too. Both of our husbands needed her wisdom DESPERATELY. My four young children needed their Nana—the one from the late 1990s. This 2000-2003 Nana was going to take some getting used to.
As I continued speaking to her, I heard myself recall family members and times together—each aunt and uncle, each niece and nephew, every cousin, sibling, and family friend. I spoke about her 2 sons-in-law, her 2 grandsons and her 2 granddaughters– how much they love her and ask about her. I mention friends of hers and friends of mine from throughout the years that she has helped in one way or another, friends that she has prayed for and how those prayers live on. She began to lose the restlessness and rested peacefully, listening.
I don’t think I ever said “Amen.”
The friends gradually return to join us in the sitting room, husbands pacing out in the hallway. The fellow teacher and church friends keep the chatter going and we are all visiting, sometimes including Mom in the conversation, “Remember that Carole?” We sing a hymn together. Then we talk some more. Then we sing again.
Great is Thy faithfulness O God my Father
There is no shadow of turning with Thee
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not.
As Thou has been, Thou forever wilt be.
I am also just now remembering that as I walked into the building I heard some hymns being played on the piano. How poignant that I was ushered into the hours awaiting on strains of praise.
There’s a fabric of connection between us woven together by thousands of priceless threads. Our life together unfolds in in my mind in just a matter of moments; an experience felt more than explained:
She’s asking me on the way home from church who cut my baby sister’s eyelashes off?
She’s reading me books.
She’s crocheting an afghan.
She’s sewing our Easter dresses.
She’s lecturing me about boys.
She’s slamming her imaginary brakes on the station wagon and double hand slapping the dash as I learn to drive.
She’s laughing in the kitchen and rolling her eyes at some sassy comment I have made.
She’s directing us as we clean-up for company, Carpenters playing on the reel to reel.
She’s crafting or painting or fixing something.
She’s on the phone with a friend laughing and saying, “Oh, law.”
She’s at the tiny mirror in her tiny yellow bathroom trying to tease out and fix the “hair hole” on the back of her head.
She’s lovingly presenting me with encouragement effectively disguised as unsolicited “help.”
She’s singing once again with her assembled choir members, now in spirit only,
“All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.”
After a long time of fellowship with attention floating easily all around the room from friend to friend, memories flowing, ladies chattering, muffled easy laughter escaping from time to time–the melody of friendship–someone asks if she is still breathing. We all lean in to determine. After a long minute, she puffs out another breath. There is relief in the air, but I know what I must do. I return to her ear and speak to her the words my friend the hospice nurse has shared with me.
“It’s okay to let go, Mom. We’re going to be okay. Sis and I both have good husbands and friends to take care of us. You have worked so hard, now it is time for you to rest. You can go whenever you are ready. We are going to always remember you at your best. Your legacy is secure. Now go hug Jesus and Daddy for me.”
It didn’t happen immediately. Far be it from me to tell my mom what to do. But a few puffs later, we watched and waited until it was clear that there would be no more.
I practically raced out of the room, down the hall, and outside the front door to pace and wait for my sister who was driving from KY, due to arrive within the hour. Simultaneously I was amused and irritated by the cheery pumpkin display on this crisp mid-October evening, indicating that life goes on for most around me. It seemed unfathomable. I was much more agitated waiting out front for my sister to arrive than I had ever been inside the room at my mom’s deathbed. Or deathchair as it were. I’m unsure if I was agitated for me to tell her, or for her response. I wanted to make it okay for her. I wanted her to be glad she came and not sorry. Ten years later I am convinced that somehow it must have been best for both my mom and my sis that they were rescued from being together in those last moments. There’s just no other explanation.
My sis and brother-in-law listened to the radio and drove further and further from their home but closer and closer to her hometown. She shared later that mysteriously she knew the moment of mom’s departure had come. She had been made aware and she was okay knowing that Mom was gone. She had somehow heard mom’s words saying “I’m okay, and you’re going to be okay.”
I miss my mother every day. I long for who she would have been for us had we been given more time together. I am certainly relieved that the lifetime of memories and her vibrant personality, easy mannerisms and the things she used to say are just as easy to draw upon, maybe even easier than her final moments and the years of crisis and decline in the hills of East Tennessee. Though very sacred to me, her last moments are just that—moments in a life well lived.
…She had planted seeds of love inside my heart. There, at the end of it all, I saw that she was watering that love with every bit of will she had left. That was all that mattered. To be real and to love.
Inspired by a post from Liz Clark, a fellow Dreamer and Builder