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The Story Of My Mother’s Death, Or, Saturday Morning at 8:36am

This is the story of my mother’s death.

It’s very hard to know where to begin. She was 86. For her 80th birthday party, we had invited extended family and friends, she asked that guests wear name tags. She knew she wouldn’t remember everyone. When my daughter and I took a trip to Sweden–Mom was 78–she was already forgetting. She’d come out of her room to ask her husband what day it was, then come out again 15 minutes later, to ask him, again.

I guess if the deaths of people we love happen inside us as well as to them, her death began for me then. I realized that Mom wasn’t just her usual chatty, oh-it-doesn’t-matter self, that her forgetting meant something else.

Her death, for her, I can’t say when it began. I suppose when she was born.

Her death as an event, for her children and the people who cared for her, that began on one Wednesday, became irreversible on a Sunday, and finally came to pass on a second Wednesday. It took a week.

I’m sorting out the abstract first. How did it happen in time? Because once death rolled forward of its own accord and we entered what we came to call the “death bubble,”  there was no time in there.

At some point this weird thing grew up and bloomed in my front yard, from a plant that had never flowered before. Probably our rainy winter.

On that first Wednesday night, at dinner, Mom had an episode of what was described to me as “shaking.”  Due to advanced Alzheimer’s, no other severe health issues, she’d been placed into hospice care a couple of months before. As a result, we did not take her to the doctor, or to the hospital, we do not know the medical details of why she shook.

We were not preparing for her death but we were prepared. We had all said to ourselves, “It is OK if she goes.”

By the Friday after her shaking, when on my usual visit I found her lying in a recliner, she could barely eat. Mom loved food. I tried to feed her lunch, she had pretty much lost the ability to swallow. The last thing she said to me, ever on this earth, was “The red one.” She meant she wanted cranberry juice, not noodles. Sit with that for a minute.

She seemed to be looking off into the distance.

When I called on Saturday, they told me she was not really waking up, and was not eating. I think I went to visit but as we were just then entering the death bubble I can’t remember. By Sunday morning I knew I needed to tell my siblings and my mother’s sister. By Sunday night my youngest sister had flown up from Los Angeles expecting to spend one night and while we did not know this was the end we were assembled.

Between Sunday night and very early Wednesday morning the following things happened (I do not remember in what order):

We had the caregivers put a mattress on the floor of Mom’s room. One of us slept there every night.

Mom stopped talking and eating.

My sister decided to stay another night.

We told the caregivers to dress Mom in her nightgown instead of her clothes.

My sister and my aunt and I took Mom out into the garden in her wheelchair. Her eyes were closed the whole time, but we sat with her face in the sun.

Mom stared into the eyes of her children, each one I think, and just looked. Although her face barely moved, I know from some small movement of her skin across her cheek that she smiled at me.

My brother visited her.

My sister’s plane was cancelled, she stayed another night.

The carers brought us meals. They brought us wine and made us laugh. I wanted cupcakes so badly we figured Mom’s spirit had entered me or maybe I was simply calling up my internal Mom and she was hungry.

The hospice nurse came. She told us Mom had 24-48 hours. It was a tiny leaden surprise.

Mom stopped drinking. We used little sticks with small square pink sponges on them to wet her mouth.

My brother visited.

I slept at home each night. My sisters took turns sleeping at my house or in Mom’s room.

The carers cut the back of Mom’s gown. They would change her. They would turn her side to side. Eventually they stopped.

Hospice explained how the nurse at Mom’s place could use morphine if Mom seemed to register pain.

I was compelled to play Joan Baez’s I Shall Be Relieved, it was the afternoon, light was low, I sobbed.

The hospice nurse told us what would happen as Mom got closer. She explained what vital signs would do, the elevation of pulse rate and decline in oxygen.

Mom’s eyes were closed. Her mouth was open.

Tuesday night my middle sister and I went home to sleep. At 3:30am my youngest sister called and told us Mom’s pulse rate was very high, her oxygen low. We came back.

I had bought Mom a queen bed with a Tempurpedic mattress, back when we moved her to this place where she lived. All three sisters lay on this bed now next to our mother and put our arms around her and listened to her breath. Breath became labored. Breath rattled. Breath stopped. “Oh Mom!” I said.

Other sisters said other things.

We stayed in the death bubble until my brother could come down. One by one we left. My sister’s husband came, he stayed until Mom’s body was collected.

And so the processes of paper and ashes and burgundy lilies begins.

Because I don’t want you to worry I will tell you, I am OK. I am sad, I cry, but it isn’t excruciating. I am a different person now that I have no mother on this earth, but I don’t yet know exactly how that will be. We tell birth stories, this is the story of my mother’s death. If we have to go she left well. I miss the feel of her silky hair and the smell of the laundry soap on her clothes but she lived to be happy, my mom, and her body couldn’t give her that any more, and she left.

I always said to her when I left her after a visit, “Love you mom. Bye, See you soon.” And at a certain point that became untrue. I don’t find such a thing as goodbye at death. I am OK.

These are her flowers.

Have a wonderful weekend.

64 Responses

  1. Aunt Nancy always did know how to do things well. She lived a happy life, and she generously shared her magic. Thank you for telling her story with such beauty and grace…just as she did.

  2. I always make sure the last thing i say to my mother, each and every time i leave her or hang up the phone, is “I love you.”

    Sending all my love.

  3. Oh, I’m kind of hysterical right now, but I’m not worried for you. I am learning from you. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this. Also: “Her death, for her, I can’t say when it began. I suppose when she was born.” got the sob-ball rolling. What a beautiful, simple truth. I think of you often Lisa and I offer you whatever energy you might need from here. For what it’s worth, it sounds like a beautiful WASP departure. Or should I say entry to the great expanse.

  4. Such a poignant post Lisa. I can tell you that you were a very fortunate daughter to have a mother you so loved.

  5. I don’t often read things that make me cry but this did. So full of gracious emotion. She was a lucky woman to have you all.

  6. My Dad’s death was similar. Something happened, he couldn’t swallow, we did what he wanted: stepped back and let him go.
    No tubes, no pills, just a loving presence. You did what you were supposed to do, you were there, you were with your siblings, you have one another.
    I know it was hard to share this, but it’s nice to know you were there for her passage.

  7. Dear Lisa: I know this sadness. I don’t know if it gets any better (I’m not even a year out from my mother’s death), but I can tell you that you learn to live with it.It hides in the collar of your shirts and pops out when you least expect it. My daughter and son will text me frequently with something along the lines of, “Oh, I saw the most hideous dog today. I’m sure grandma would have adopted it immediately.” And she would have. She had a series of what we in the family called “hobo” dogs, the mutts no one wanted that she’d scoop up and treated like royalty. These little snippets don’t make me unhappy. They make me smile. Our mothers don’t sound alike (it sounds that your mother had exquisite taste, while my dear mother, um, did not–the calico couches are the stuff of legend), but they shared a spirit, a punch, if you will. And you know, maybe that “red one” meant a nice glass of Napa Valley cab. You never know. Hugs!

  8. I know this death bubble and the piercing, loving stare of a parent nearing the end of life. Thank you so much for this profound reminder; I never want to forget it.

  9. Achingly beautiful. I write this with tears in my eyes, a lump in my throat, and regret in my soul.

  10. Lisa, I am touched by the idea of a “death bubble”. It is there for all of us willing to contemplate such life events. Like a black whole once in there is no exit. I have thought of you often and admire your grace.


  11. I want to hug you with gratitude for such a spare and sober recounting, for sharing something both personal and instructive. You’re remarkable. Thank you.

  12. This really captures the feelings of unreality and momentousness that occur when you are witnessing someone you love on their deathbed. Thank you for sharing it.

  13. Oh, Lisa….what a beautiful description of your mother’s death. And you’re right, we tell birth stories, but not death stories. And the experience of witnessing a death where the person you loved has left long ago andwhere they are not living a life they would have wanted, is so, so different than one where those are not applicable statements. (I’ve experienced both types…I’m sure you must have, too.).

    Sending you much light and love and peace.


  14. Once again, beautifully written Lisa. This brought back memories of saying final goodbyes to my parents and also my late husband. I can only say that in my experience, the memories eventually become solace – some even funny. Like when Dad was asked the cognitive questions (name, year, etc) – one of the questions was “Who is the President?” Dad looked at the doctor like he was stupid and said decisively: ROOSEVELT!

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am wishing you the peace you need to get through this sad time.

  15. Mourning is a very private process. After my mother’s death, it took some time for my heart to heal and to get used to her absence. Now that the pain is gone, I can be reminded of her and be happy. I feel that she will always be near. It is a comfort.

  16. Hello Lisa, You are so right that death can begin with signs of separation, signs that something is not as it used to be. It must be the most difficult for the victim him- or herself, the first sense of detachment that says they are no longer in complete control. Yet it seems that for many the thread that attaches them to this world is still there, however slender. Your and the rest of her family’s presence must have meant the world to her during her last few days.

    Again my condolences,

  17. Thank you dear Lisa for sharing your intimate experience of your mom with us today. I am so sorry for your loss. I experienced something very similar when my mom passed with dementia. You will go through many stages with grief. I saw a connection with your last memory of her wanting red, and the interesting plant in your yard. I think the plant is an agave or “century plant”. If it is…did you know that they have one last bloom and then they die. The bloom on your plant is beautiful, I’m sure just like your mom was. Sending you a virtual hug and positive thoughts.

  18. Being with your mother ,all of you together, seems beautiful and precious to me

  19. Lisa, this is an exquisite piece–exquisite both in the sense of beautiful execution and in the sense of acuteness and intensity. Thank you for writing it, and for sharing it.

  20. The death bubble describes it so well. I just went through this with a 93 year old aunt who was like my mother, since my mother died years ago. The stories are important. Helping ease those we love out of the world is just as important as bringing new life in.

  21. I wish you and your family the blessings of love & peace during this time. May family and friends provide comfort; may God continually bless.

  22. Such a poignant loving tribute. My Dad’s time is getting closer and your writing has helped me in many different ways.

  23. You have described such a poignant time for you and your family with such attention to detail, you’ve painted such a beautiful yet complex picture of such a difficult event.
    I understand so much of what you have shared here…
    Condolences to you as you weave your memories into a rich tapestry that will sustain you through the days, weeks and years to come.

  24. Tears in my eyes and sadness in my heart. I remember how my sisters and I gathered around my mother as she lay dying on her bed, She had a glioblastoma. Yes, I remember the sounds, the stillness the letting go.
    My heart goes out to you.

  25. Lisa, thank you for this. These death stories are important. I lived in the “death bubble” with each of my parents, each in hospice, each took ten days, each story is beautiful and horrifying. Like you, I felt a gradual loss as my parents aged and lost part of themselves, though not from Alzheimer’s. My strongest grief took place while sitting with each of them, waiting through the process of death. Loss is gradual, grief sneaks up on you in the strangest ways, but love is eternal. Be well.

  26. Lisa, although your mother’s body is no longer with you, the comfort of her love for you is never far away.

  27. I have no words and too many words, but not the right words. My mother passed in 2002 in a very similar fashion. I laid next to her all night that last night and in the early morning, before they came to take her away, I dressed her in a clean nightie because that’s what she would have wanted. Find solace Lisa, in the love you shared.

  28. You so aptly and lovingly describe illness and end of life. The love you shared will be with you forever. My thoughts are with you.

  29. I’m sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. I hope you and your family find comfort and peace in each other.

  30. I never got to say goodbye to my dad and now it seems the time is getting closer for my mother. I wish I could ease this final journey for her. Thank you for sharing this most personal of experiences with us. I wish you peace and hope that in time the pain will ease and you will have beautiful memories of your mother to sustain you.

  31. My Mother and I were close, more so after my father died, I was 10, my Mom 35. We were friends, but we were Mom and daughter also,and we stayed close for all the years in between when she died at 85. I was 60, now I am 80, and the feelings for my Mother are still there.There will never be another person in the world, who will ever take the place of a Mother,the person who gives you all the Love to become the person you are today. So, today, at age 80, I know your feelings, and I do feel your sadness. It never goes away, but time makes it softer. I an so sorry for your loss. but Love will never end…

  32. I am so sorry for your loss Lisa. I found that immediately after losing my mother I went through stages of losing not only the sick woman who died, but my mommy, then my teenage mom, then the woman I discovered who was so wise after I graduated from college….and so on. Your mother was many different women to you over the years and you will slowly mourn the loss of all of them. There are no shortcuts to the grieving process. Sending you heartfelt thoughts as you navigate this painful loss.

  33. Oh Lisa, this is beautiful – spare, elegant, but intensely meaningful. You’ve done as the poet Sidney advised, “Look into your heart, and write.”

    The image of you and your sisters gathered around your mother on her bed as she lay dying reminded me so much of the younger you and your siblings swarming around her on her chair or bed as she read you a story – and even around me, as your babysitter, when I did the same on the family sofa. All those blonde heads, big blue eyes, and rapt faces, waiting for Mommy’s magic…

    As another poet, T S Eliot, wrote, “In my end is my beginning.” In your own beginning, your mother read you stories, and at her end, she told you a story – one that you have now given to all of us.

    Thank you, dearest Lisa, for trusting us with Nancy’s story – and your own.

  34. Lisa,
    Your words fall on many, many loving hearts and are held tenderly. Blessings on you and yours.

  35. You have written so beautifully of the end of your mother’s life. I hope you can embrace your own thoughts such that you create a real, solid and personal narrative of your relationship with her that encompasses acceptance and appreciation of what you had. It’s a journey, in my experience.

  36. You have found your words. Thank you for this—I recall an elderly relative repeatedly telling his wife’s death story—a comfort for him and as I look back now, a narrative that is helpful now for those of us now in the elderly category. Sincere condolences

  37. Wonderful words Lisa – thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings – poignant seems to be a fitting description of this beautiful piece of prose……

  38. Dear Lisa,

    So so sorry for you at this very sad time. You were a wonderful daughter with many happy memories of your mum.

  39. It’s a profound loss and I hope the sadness becomes less difficult to live with.
    This was beautifully written and it seems your lovely Mother had a good life and a good death as well. She was clearly loved! Sending hugs to you Lisa.

  40. Your words carry such love and truth. I care for my own 86 year old mother with dementia and understand her time will come at some point. I only hope I can face it with some of your grace. Yes, the grieving starts with the decline before the eventual outcome. It is sadness over the what is down the road and an acknowledgement of my own mortality.
    May the memories of happier times bring you solace.

  41. Hospice nurses, at least most of them, are angels. They helped me through both parents’ deaths gently and with compassion and gave my family room for the initial grief. The rest comes slowly and in its own time and way.

  42. So heartfelt, emotional and beautifully written. Thank you so very much for sharing. Suz from Vancouver

  43. Dear Lisa

    Thank you for the courage to share your experience. Thank you for your ability to articulate it so well. It reminds us all of the brevity of life and to live each day to the fullest. That was the lesson I took from losing my own mother when she was just 56 and I was 36, after watching her life dwindle and fade for 20 years as she was trapped in a tortured mind and a failing body. Yes, it is like a death bubble, and time stands still while you’re in it, even for weeks, months, years after, the sense of the bubble stays with you. Blessings Xxxx

  44. I’m so glad that you wrote this all down, for your sake most of all. I have very little memory of exactly what transpired when my mom died a similar death to your mom’s, 3 1/2 years ago. I can’t put the pieces and timeline back together at all. What i do know and continue to know is what you said “I’m a different person now that I don’t have a mother on this earth.”
    Beautiful and eloquent post as always, but this one, particularly so. Thank you for sharing such an intimate, yet mostly universal experience with us.

  45. Thank you, Lisa. This piece is beautifully written, graceful and lean. I’ve yet to find myself in your shoes but know this day shall come eventually. Thank you for sharing such a personal story; it’s truly a gift to all of us. Peace and comfort to you and yours.

  46. Lisa,

    I am crying after reading this beautiful post. You are incredible, and I am sorry you have lost your Mother.


  47. So beautifully written. It conjures up memories of my mother’s death over 20 years ago, fresh again. The one consolation is that, with time, the happier memories of your years with your mother, your young mother, then your middle-aged mother, the wonderful times you might have shared seem to be the ones that float to the surface. I have a purse made by my mother (timeless ultrasuede) and a few pieces of clothing (fine scarves, timeless again) which give me great comfort and enjoyment to wear. The painful memories once again soothed by the passage of time, and transformed by a magical alchemy into something bittersweet.

  48. I am sorry for your loss, Lisa, and so appreciative of your beautiful words. Thank you.

  49. A friend once told me that, when someone close to you has died, it is important for you to tell the story of how that happened. She was so right, and I found that repeating the story seemed to lessen my pain, or at least bring me along further into the journey of accepting what had happened. When my own mother died, I had the wonderful opportunity to write to my brother (not her son) and later to expand that letter into a magazine article, which now (16 years later) provides me with perspective and insight and a welcome reminder of a difficult relationship that I nevertheless treasure. I am certain that your beautiful account of your mother’s passing will continue to inform your life and your relationships in a very positive way. My condolences to you.

  50. Your beautiful, spare words brought me to tears. Although different details, I was brought right back to my mom’s death 2 1/2 years ago, in the good way the right words can describe an experience. So thank you for that, and may your mom always be with you.

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