Dear friends of Daughter on Duty, Retired.
My mother died at 1:10 this morning. April 21, exactly two months from the June 21 anniversary of her beloved’s death and six weeks before her 102nd birthday.
It was a difficult week with many theories about the cause of her abdominal pain and agitation. In the end, it didn’t really matter what it was. What mattered is that it became more evident with each passing hour that she was transitioning both in body and spirit. Hospice came several times, adjusting the cocktail of meds to keep her comfortable.
Rebecca spent a restless and wakeful Thursday night with her, following my afternoon and evening. I was daughter on duty last night. One last turn of duty as it turned out.
My night was peaceful, but I couldn’t sleep. I started a third Facebook status update, sitting in the recliner in the dark corner of her room, but it got too long. I decided it was a blog post. Here is what I was writing when my 281st post over the past nearly six years became epilogue.
Rebecca is at home, hopefully sleeping. Hopefully Jo Ann arrived safely from Virginia and is up the hill in the guest bed, sleeping. I am at the Manor and have given up on sleeping.
Mama is sleeping with the rattle in her chest that hospice tells us sounds worse to us than it feels to her. I’m on high alert every time she stops making the sound I wish she would stop making because I want her to be more comfortable, because I’m afraid it will wake her up, because it sounds frighteningly like the end and I’m not ready, because I’m afraid she is taking her last breath and I will miss it, because I’m afraid I’m too far away. Because I’m afraid.
I sit in the chair next to her bed after pushing her call button at ten minutes til tomorrow to make sure the med tech brings her three comfort medications on time—including the one to stop the rattle—my head not quite in her lap but close, my hand on hers. “I’m right here, Mommy, I’m right here.” Maybe she knows, maybe not. But I know.
Her hands are cool and clammy, but for the first time ever—before the temperatures rise in July—she wants only the barest of covers and no heated rice bags. Not that she says that, she just doesn’t ask for nor expect them. She hasn’t asked for much of anything today, except to indicate yes or no to our questions. No to more covers. Yes to the leg and foot massages I offer that I could not get anywhere near right 24 hours ago but now are accepted however I give them.
All her routines are gone. No frequent requests for drops in her eyes. No rice bags too hot or not warm enough. She hasn’t eaten anything for 36 hours, nor wanted anything; though she did tell me a few hours ago she’d ordered two egg rolls. No bathroom requests. No requests for water.
Later today three of her four grandchildren and two of her four great-grandchildren will come. The others will be here in spirit. We’ll say goodbye to a life well lived. Maybe then she will feel free to let go. Or not.
The “I love yous” and “thank yous” have been said many times in both directions; barely whispers from her today and yesterday, but crystal clear in intention. The entire hospice team came by yesterday morning before she finally went to sleep after 36 hours spent mostly awake in pain and agitation. Friends came by to hold her hand while she slept. Her heart daughter came after she woke up seven hours later. Rebecca and I have been here; she knows the family is coming.
I’ve played for her the ukulele she gave me for my birthday two years ago and I’m finally learning, that she asked me to play for her two weeks ago but I didn’t know how well enough. I played Appalachian Spring. Mary Oliver has been read. Last week I finished reading to her the book of women born before suffrage, of which she was a contributor. We have told her she has done good work here on this earth, that we will be fine, that we are fine. “It’s okay to go.”
She has named people we are to tell she loves them. We have told her to tell Daddy we love him. She has told us he loved us so much. We have said “we know.” She has told us she loves us. We have said, “we know.”
We have done all that needs to be done when you are saying goodbye to the one who gave you life. We are complete. Nothing left undone except all the things that never could be done.
Wait a second. There’s no sound from the bed.
I got up then and went to her side. She was so still. “Mommy,” I said softly. “Mommy!” I said a little louder. No return to shuddered breath. No flutter of anything. Her brow was unfurled, soft, unworried, finally. “Mommy!” I sobbed. “Mommy, mommy!” Oh, no. Oh, no.
I howled into her shoulder, kissed her face. Called my sisters to come. I crawled around the double bed to the far side, Daddy’s side and gathered her into my arms, it no longer mattering that I might be hurting her fragile body. Sobbing again, I rocked her and sang in a voice crackly with tears: “Lullaby and goodnight, with roses bedight…lay thee down now and rest, may thy slumber be blessed.”
Mama left this earth on the day of the annual Earth Day work day at the Seminary Hill Natural Area she loved so much, the existence for which she is responsible; her legacy to this city and the earth. We joined the group later in the morning, each of us wearing one of Mama’s signature hats that kept the bright light from her damaged eyes, and my sister—in beautiful words of extravagant gratitude—told the gathered crew she was gone. She told them one of the last requests Mama made of us was that we find out how many were in the crew this year and let her know.
We’re sorry the family she knew was coming were not in time, but perhaps she just needed to know we would be together and didn’t need to see and be seen. Her work is done, the mantle is ours alone.
To be with her for the end is a gift I’ve prayed to be granted since, in 2013, I was challenged to write the end of the story. The fiction and reality were remarkably similar. My heart is full. I know Rebecca wanted to be here too. I feel her loss keenly.
My nagging questions over these past five plus years have been 1) will the relief that it’s over be so great that I can’t grieve? 2) will I ever be able to hold her essence in my memory untainted by how hard these years have been? and 3) how long will it take?
As I held the empty shell of her in my arms and whispered in her ear that I love her, I knew already the answers: no and yes and no time at all.