My husband meets me in the hallway, having arrived earlier to bring mom a batch of new clothes. He wraps me in his arms and whispers in my ear, “She knows you were coming — we spoke just awhile ago; but Kerrie, she can’t speak any more.” I push through the door and stop at the foot of her bed. Her eyes rise to meet mine, above the breathing mask that covers her mouth. We lock our gaze for mere seconds before she closes them again. As soon as I see her, I know. This is the day you are leaving me. This is the day that you are dying. And I must let you go.
In the four and a half hours that followed this realization, I split in two: one of me went about the business of all that was required: being brought up to speed by the staff, confirming her wishes to them, the plans for getting my daughter home from school, asking my brother who had just flown back home, to get on a plane and return to Nashville. The other me went into a corner, squatted down to the floor and fell apart, awed at the competency and togetherness of this other self.
I kissed my husband goodbye and settled in. The experience I had with my father’s death five years prior had made me stronger and more prepared. His death was the first I had witnessed as well as my first big loss. It swept me up in a swirling mass of exposed emotion and disbelief. Having just returned from the cancer center in Tampa, we knew his diagnosis was dire, yet he had swam in the pool like always Friday morning. Saturday afternoon he would be bed-ridden with round the clock hospice care guiding us gently (expertly, saintly) through his death on Sunday. I was a mess of equal parts shock and awe and denial and confusion, followed by searing pain and uncontrollable crying jags that left me physically wasted.
The staff came in to check on mom every 15 minutes, brisk and task oriented and seemingly ambivalent to their dying patient and her daughter with silent tears falling continuously. The last one to stop in identified herself as a hospice nurse and I knew finally, my ally had arrived.
“What can I do?” she asked gently.
“Please stop the stream of attendants. There is nothing they have to do here. I would like to be alone with my mother.”
“Of course,” she replied.
Then, as I looked down at my mother’s hands in mine I thought to ask her to take my phone and snap some pictures, a photo I’ve always wanted — just our hands. “I’ve got my mother’s hands,” I say to her. She obliges my request and then hands me a call button for “when you need me to come back.” The door clicks solidly shut.
I lean in and tell her: I am here, Momma, just like I’ve always promised. You will not be alone, I will be right here holding your hands. You are free to go, I will be fine, we will all be fine. We love you so much and you were a great mother. A fantastic mother. Thank you for all that you have done, all that you are, all that you gave us. Our lifetime together was as beautiful as you. You made it beautiful.
I sing to her, I stroke her hair. I tell her secrets and share memories with her, the favorite ones that had become the fabric of our lives together, like a worn out patchwork quilt softened by the telling, one story leading to another, all known by heart.
I call her sister and put the phone up to her ear so that she could hear her goodbye. I call as many as I can think of so that she can hear their voices one last time.
I thank her for the lessons she gave me — of non-judgement, inclusion and kindness. Resourcefulness and creativity. Valuing life and giving back generously. Noticing others. Good books and laughter. How to be an empathetic listener. How to make amazing perogies and a hearty bolognese that simmers all day, and the comfort that comes from having something delicious on when you come home. If love were a scent, it would be your cooking, I tell her. She taught me how to fire clay in a kiln and use a cookie press. The art of striking up a conversation with a stranger. When to voice a complaint tactfully. And most important, the power of forgiveness and how it can keep a marriage strong.
The night before, she had talked about her parents. She said they were with her and had visited her often. She asked me to take care of them and to “give my dad some wine and a place to smoke.” I promised her I would take good care of them. I don’t remember her parents, they both died when I was a baby. But growing up, she could never talk about them without her eyes misting over. She loved them, was cherished by them and told me you never really get over losing your parents.
In the end she left as quietly and gently as a whisper. Just a breath that went in and never came back out.
I remember feeling untethered for several months after she was gone. A childlike sense of “wait — how can I be here without you?” And while it took some time, I came to look upon it all like the grandest of adventures. Something I have been gifted that is now, in my turn, my obligation to give my daughter. I will relish the ride in hopes that she too will one day look back on it all with this much love.
I held onto my secrets for years. Decades, actually. And there are many reasons why. Reasons that anyone who has endured it — lived it — will understand. But only those who have endured it — lived it — will.
I’m writing this for everyone else.
I love you, but I’ve got to let you go.
Each time our paths cross I open my heart with renewed hope that it will be different somehow. And each time I walk away feeling empty.
My dear (____________), I realize now that at some point, I gave away my power to you. I was rebuilding my life, creating it piece by piece, and in all of its uncertainty and tender roots, I shyly let a chosen few in to tread softly and take a peek. I wanted to share my trepidation and fear and doubt and exhilaration and sheer anticipation with you. So I gave you permission to validate me. In no small way I longed for it. But it never came.