Mama is dying.
I’m sitting in her bedroom next to her hospital bed, the metal rail cold against my leg. The oxygen tube is bothering her and Vicky, her caregiver, is adjusting it as I write. “That better, Martha?” Mama moans.
Mama normally reads a page from her devotional every night with Vicky. When I was here in October, I got to be in on their evening ritual, my favorite part being–I’m not gonna lie–the ice cream and cake Vicky brings Mama afterwards. During that visit, Mama had beaten me by more than 100 points in Scrabble. She usually plays–and wins–Words with Friends on her iPad by the hour.
Tonight Vicky read the devotional. Mama can no longer swallow ice cream and cake. And she hasn’t asked for her iPad all day.
I flew here three days ago to be with Mama until she dies. My brother Chuck is here, too, tag teaming with me to give her Morphine and Haloperidol around the clock. We are also holding her hand, telling her she is loved, wiping our tears, and giving her Ensure and apple juice as often as she will drink it.
Jeopardy is blaring loudly so that she can hear it, the theme song becoming ingrained in my nervous system and setting me on edge as episode after episode self-starts from YouTube. While it’s been years since she’s been able to call out the answers like the contestant she once was, it is still a favorite. I’m hoping the sound of it will give her a sense of normalcy in this “new normal” of bed-rest and boredom.
“Hey, Mama. It’s Eve. I’m here.” Mama smiled a little blankly, her lips cracked and dry, her eyes unfocused. I found Blistex in my purse and rubbed it across her mouth. She pressed her lips together as she has always done when putting on lipstick. I teared up. So much of her life has changed, especially in the last 11 months, and even more so in the last week. It was good to see her doing something familiar, the way she had always done it. She was still, such a girl.
I found manicure scissors in her bathroom drawer and trimmed the thin piece of skin that flapped in and out of her mouth with each labored breath. Her breath was foul.
“Why are your hands so cold?” she asked me, her words garbled so that I could barely understand. Being Warm, Being Fed, and Getting Sleep was the Triumvirate of her mother-care, and she was still committed to doing those things for me, even when she couldn’t do them for herself.
At the end of my last visit, I was sleeping in Mama’s room the night before I was to leave to go back home on an early morning flight. During the night, I heard her get up. I thought she was going to the bathroom, but instead, saw her turn toward the kitchen. “Mama, what are you doing? It’s 3 o-clock in the morning.”
“Well, I got to thinking about your early flight. And I thought I’d get an Ensure, and a banana and granola bar for you to take with you.” Mama wasn’t steady enough anymore to walk alone into the kitchen to get herself a snack in the middle of the night, much less get one for me. But she wanted to risk it. I am 60. The Triumvirate is still working.
Mama is 92. While she had figured her own taxes again this year as she always had, she had also broken her femur in January and had a stint in a rehab center nearby. She recovered well enough to use her walker again and return home. But she never lived independently again as she had before. Daytime caregivers were found and new routines were established. My brother, Jack, who lives nearby, began spending every night in the next bed, guarding against our fear that she might get up in the night alone and fall again. I was afraid that this would be her last year and began flying in from Atlanta every other month to help out.
We noticed she talked less and moaned more and moved slower, but when asked about pain, she claimed she didn’t have any. In October, she was dragging her left foot slightly when she walked. I mentioned it to her because I wanted to understand what was going on. But instead of owning it, she deliberately picked her left foot up in an exaggerated Tennessee Walking Horse maneuver, as if to say, “Dragging? Who’s dragging?”
Mama is a study in irony. She has always gone out of her way to trouble herself for her children but insisted that she didn’t want to be any trouble for us. At times this has been endearing, but there have been times when her not wanting to be any trouble has caused us a lot of trouble.
There was the time just this year when she insisted on driving herself to a party rather than accept the ride offered by a family member because she didn’t want to be any trouble. She ended up getting lost, driving her car into a bank of plowed snow in the dark, and calling a wrecker before she finally arrived, very late and with everyone worried sick. Family members had scoured the roads into town for any sign of her.
Or the time she visited my brother, Chuck, years ago and rearranged the living room furniture without asking first while he and Stacy were at work. After explaining they’d liked the way they had it arranged, and please don’t do that again, they moved it back. But the next day when they were out, she tried it a different way. In her defense, she said, “I can move it back if you want me to, but I knew you’d want to see it first to decide if you liked it.”
And there was the time she visited me. For her return trip to New Jersey, I had put her on the shuttle from Chattanooga to the Atlanta airport, dropping her off at 8 p.m. as she had requested for what I assumed would be a midnight flight from Atlanta to Trenton. When Jack called the next morning and asked me when her flight was due to arrive, I thought my heart would explode. “It’s 8 a.m., Jack! She was due in at 2!”
“Calm down. I’ll find out about flights arriving from Atlanta and let you know.”
It felt like Freaky Friday, like we’d had a role reversal sometime during the night. Mama was the 89-year-old irresponsible teenager, out all night doing God only knew what, and I was the worried parent, waiting for a good word, any word, the next morning. Impatient when I hadn’t heard anything by 10:30, I called him back.
“I’ve got Tibby in a wheelchair and am pushing her to baggage claim. She’s fine but a little tired. Seems she spent the whole night playing Words with Friends in the Atlanta airport, waiting for her 8 a.m. flight.”
I was livid and told her so. “I knew you’d want to get up early and drive me to Atlanta if I told you when my flight was,” she explained. “I didn’t want to be any trouble.”
“You not wanting to be any trouble was a heck of a lot of trouble!” I lamented. “I was beside myself with worry this morning. I’d much rather drive you to Atlanta in the middle of the night than worry at the crack of dawn about where you’ve been all night—or if you are even still alive. You’ve gotta trust me, Mama. Trust that I love you and want to take care of you. You’ve gotta let me in.” The next time she wanted to visit, I demanded to see her itinerary first.
After her recent cancer diagnosis, I called to tell her I was coming the next week. True to her not-wanting-to-be-any-trouble form, she said, “I’m dying. Did Jack already tell you? But don’t come. There’s nothing for you to do.”
“Mama, I’m coming. I want to come. You’re not going to do this alone.”
“You can get my pearls then.”
“Chuck’s coming, too. He’ll be there soon.”
“No, he’s not. I’ve got help here.”
“Well, we’re coming whether you like it or not. We’re your children. This is what families do.”
We talked briefly about travel logistics, and just before we hung up, she said in a very small voice, “Thank you for loving me.”
I could hardly believe my ears. Mama felt my love, and she told me about it? It was the first time I’d ever heard any words like these from her. I felt like I had finally picked the lock on a double walled vault. I heard the last pin set and the door to my mother’s heart creaked open. I was in.
The truth is, we delight to take care of those we love. Mama knew it. She did it for us, after all. She never minded the trouble of countless birthday parties, sometimes two for me in one year; building theater sets for Boy Scout plays she wrote and directed; helping me build a puppet theater for a school project; sewing matching curtains and bedding for me and my college roommates; upholstering an antique rocker with a manual stapler the last time she visited because the electric one was broken—at age 90.
I could go on and on.
These are the kinds of things that all mothers do. But my mother seemed to do more than other mothers. In the 60’s we wore dresses to school and whenever I wore a new dress (sometimes once or twice a week), my friends would gawk in wonder that Mama had stayed up most of the night before just to finish it. When I had a swimming party, she baked a swimming pool cake, complete with high and low diving boards, waves in the deep end, life saver floats, and ladders into the pool. I always had a Halloween costume that she had elaborately sewn, and of course, it always trumped everyone else’s. My mother-bar was set so high, I had to go into therapy just to get through my child rearing years.
Now it’s been our turn. She’s our mother, and it’s been our privilege and honor to go to the trouble of loving her. Yes, she has been some trouble. Everyone is. Just as she delighted to trouble herself for us, we’ve delighted to trouble ourselves for her. Her glaring weakness may be that she didn’t see the joy in it for us. The joy she was for us. She only saw the trouble she was becoming, and she tried to hide it from us as long as she could.
Near the end of her life, she had to submit to needing help. How it must have rankled in her to no longer be able to do anything for us, much less for herself. “Earning her keep” had always been her mantra, but in the end, she had to be helped with every sip, every shift in position, every bodily function, just like an infant. Life is hard enough as it is. And with death, it just gets harder. It cannot be managed alone.
Dying forces families to choose whether or not to love. Dying strips away the façade of independence and self reliance, the “I don’t need you” message that we send out when we’re afraid we’re not wanted or needed. Dying strips away the busyness and what is irrelevant about living, of bills and ill-wills and bitterness-es that feel righteous. For my brothers and me, there was no response to our mother at the end of her life that made sense to us but to love.
Mama was determined to live as long as she could in her own home, doing her own thing, on her own terms. She denied and maybe even lied about her pain in order to live the way she wanted to. But in the end, even my larger-than-life mother couldn’t avoid the inevitable.
Mama labored to die. It took all her concentration and energy. Eventually, she couldn’t attend to the people in the room, the new great-granddaughter brought to meet her last week, the cards and visits from so many. It was too much. And it was too hard. She had more important work to do that demanded her undivided attention. And much like a young mother in labor, giving birth to life, Mama labored, giving birth to death. Mama died exactly two weeks after her diagnosis. It was barely enough time to say goodbye.
But because of her faith in Jesus, death wasn’t the end for her. It was simply a gateway into new life in a new body, full of “joy inexpressible and full of glory.” There came a time when her will to live was relinquished to the blessed relief of a deeper will, the will of God himself, and her agreement with him to bring her on home when it was time.
I’m thankful that mama’s dying moved us from Words with Friends all day on her iPad and silences at mealtimes during my visits, to holding hands, coos and kisses on a damp forehead, and I love you’s while she twitched and moaned and labored. Dying brought my mother and I together in a way living never had.
It was a blessed mercy that death came so quickly. And it was a blessed mercy that it took seven long days and nights after I arrived to accomplish. How powerful death was to orient our two pretending, autonomous selves to reality, to the truth that the only thing that matters in this life…on this planet…with one another…is to love.
How I would love to see her face in heaven as she connects with the truths that she doesn’t have to “earn her keep,” that she is indeed Precious and Valued as she’d always hoped she was (see poem at bottom), and that the trouble she was for us here was simply a disguised opportunity to connect with her, to love her and be troubled for her, because she troubled herself for us. Jesus had done it for us first. And like him, Mama had done it for us, too. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
What pure delight it was for me to give love back to her in the end.
And to have her receive it.
After she got her diagnosis and got settled in to her hospital bed at home, she said to Jack, “I’m ready to die. I want to go ahead and get this over with.”
“Are you in pain?” he asked.
“No, I’m just bored.”
Mama was the most energetic, inventive, and determined person I’ve ever known. We struggle to imagine her contented simply to sit around and sing in heaven, though of course that would be enough for a few thousand years as long as she can change the wallpaper. Chuck said the first thing he imagined her doing when she got there was to rearrange the furniture.
But I like to think of her kicking off her shoes, putting up her feet, and laughing, delighted to learn that, as we’d already discovered with one another, her ticket into eternity was always–and only–about love.
Nobody has ever earned their keep.
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Precious and Valued
Precious and valued–how can it be?
Precious and valued–how can He see
What I see as hopeless, unchangeable–me–
As made in His image, designed just to be
An accurate reflection of His deity?
I’m guilty and bloody from murdering His Son
Yet counted an heir with the ineffable One.
I’m precious and valued–how can it be?
I’m precious and valued–by Royal Decree!
No longer blinded, He opens my eyes.
No longer chained and in bondage to lies.
His Spirit quickens, my spirit replies:
Purge me with hyssop–not whitewash, just blood
Can cover and bond my sick soul to my Lord.
Oh precious Propitioner, move me to be
Turned from my pillage and transfixed by Thee.
written by Mama in 1989 after a time of great suffering
Quotations are from
I Peter 1:8 NASB
I John 3:16 NIV
Romans 8:38-39 NIV