Opening my essential oils, I poured frankincense and rubbed it into my mother’s hands. How much longer did I have to feel them warm when touched? I cupped my hands around her face and drew my fingers through her hair to surround her with the calming scent.
On Saturday, she was still able to do this herself, slowly drawing her hands up to her face to smell the musky fragrance in numerous short sniffs. “Mmm…mmm….mmm…” Soft murmurs of contentment emitted from her throat. Small pleasures so important in these moments. I had lifted the blankets from her legs, a long scar etched vertically across each knee. Her legs were now permanently contracted as post-polio played out its ravages on limbs that could no longer support her weight. I rubbed drops of lemongrass into her bulbous knees and atrophied calves. The perfume filled the room and drove out the stale nursing home odors. I ran my thumbs down her arches, gently kneaded the ball of each foot, and pulled my thumb and finger up each toe. She smiled. “Mmmmm…..” Such precious time left, to make my mother smile.
But that was two days ago.
The nurse switched on the light as she entered the room, abrupt and intrusive, forcing me to surface from sleep.
“Here Barbara,” she whispered, leaning over my mother. “Here’s some medicine for you.”
She slipped the syringe under Mom’s tongue and administered the morphine, her gentleness countering my defensiveness to guard my mother’s comfort.
Our two air mattresses took up the rest of that small room. Air mattresses were for sleep overs and camping. Not nursing homes. Well, I guess now, for nursing homes. Bridget stirred next to me. Dee turned over in the other corner of the room. I could see Mom, the head of her hospital bed elevated so she would not choke on the build up of fluid she could not expel. She was listing to the left, no longer able to right herself.
“Ohhhh Mom……” I whispered. My stomach tightened.
With every breath her body surged up and down, her lungs struggling to expand against gravity. I got up to have the nurse help me re-position her as we’d done repeatedly the past 3 days. The congestion in her chest gurgled as loud as the humidifier on the oxygen tank next to her. Once again, her skin was too warm.
“Can you get a temperature for me? And O2 sats?”
I waited for information I knew was coming.
The nurse looked at me with understanding eyes. “Her temperature is 103. And her O2 is…….56.”
How long can the brain function with oxygen that low? How long will a body fight to live? Okay. She is not aware of this. But I am.
With those numbers my sisters jumped up. One ran warm water in a basin and the other grabbed washcloths, while I removed the blankets. We worked in silence in actions that had now become routine. Dipping the wash cloths in. Wringing the water out. Laying them on my mother’s arms and legs.
“Is this fever due to an infection?” I’d asked the head nurse.
“No honey. This is what happens when organs start to shut down. Not for everyone. Just for some. Our job now is to make her comfortable.” When a nurse puts her arms around you, it gives a hug whole new meaning. She eases the pain of the living, and the dying. Morphine in human form.
For the next hour, we worked to bring down Mom’s temperature. We stroked her face, kissed her and whispered in her ears.
“Mom. You don’t have to stay you know. We’re here. You can go. Whenever you’re ready. We’ll be okay. I love you, Mom. You don’t have to stay.”
We took turns lying next to her, putting arms around her, re-configuring her pillows and moistening her lips. I bent down to listen to her heart. The time was coming when I would no longer be able to hear life beating in her chest. Women, taking care of a woman. Touching this one who was the source of all three of us, and once carried us into life. It was our turn to carry her now, and see her birthed through death, into new life.
“Hey, look at her eyes. They’re different,” said Bridget. “Something’s changed.”
For all of Monday and into Tuesday, Mom’s eyes had been mere slits, barely open in a coma-like state. Now, they were wide open. Wide open. Looking straight up. I could see the full beauty of her green eyes again. Fixed. On what?
Suddenly her mouth filled with the fluid she had long been fighting to cough up. We suctioned it out and cleaned her face. Recognition hit us.
“This is it,” said Bridget. “Don’t miss this.”
Then, as the muscles relaxed and death began to descend, with no ability to take in air, the weight of the atmosphere bore down on her tired lungs. All the congestion she had been drowning in, came pouring out. Free of it. Finally. We wiped it away. I suctioned her mouth again, knowing what was next.
We stood there. Silent. Watching. One huge gasp. Exhale. Wait. Another huge gasp. Exhale.
It was finished.
“Go Mom!” Our sister voices filled the room! “Yay! Yay, yay, yay! Go Mom. Go, go, go! Good-bye Mom! I love you! I love you Mom! Good-bye Mom! You’re done with this old body! You don’t need it anymore! You’re free. Fly away Mom! Fly away! Fly away!”
Immediately, her body changed. The wrinkles left her face. The furrows left her brow. The color left her skin. The warmth left her hands, and the light left her eyes. Mom was gone. Only her shell remained.
It was strange to feel elation in such a moment. It was not what I’d expected to feel. The animation that the spirit gives the body is a compelling force. To see the void left when the spirit withdraws is startling. Surprising. I kept looking up to the ceiling, then back to the bed, wondering what my mother was seeing from her new vantage point above as her daughters danced around a body in which she no longer dwelt. So why should I stare down at her form? I looked up. I reached up. And smiled.
Good-bye Mom. I love you. I’ll see you soon.
October 10,2017 saw the passing of the woman who raised me. I will never again in this life, call someone "mother". If this had been my husband or my child, I'm sure I would have felt differently, but she had lived for 87 years and was ready to go. Through Christ, we triumph over death. If we stand fast in our faith, we can peer into the infinite and have nothing to fear. Witnessing her death was a brush with divinity. It was a sacred moment to behold the departure of a human soul, and its glorious arrival in eternity.
"For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O grave, is your sting?” - 1 Corinthians 15: 53-55
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