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.