From my birthday forward, I woke each morning wondering if that would be the day Mom would repeat her request to me to "help her die." I also wondered if it had been the right thing to require an exhausted, dying woman to voice such an audacious question a second time before I followed through. But there was no one to consult without making the person a potential accomplice to a crime.
The natural end, Mom’s doctor had told me, would come quietly. She would fall into a coma and although her breathing would be raspy and sound painful to me, it would not be so for Mom. She would remain in the coma for a couple of days, and when her breathing quieted, she would die soon after.
One morning in the middle of April, Mom sat up with more energy than usual and announced, “This is a red letter day. I don’t have a twinge of pain and I don't feel tired at all. I’ll think I’ll celebrate with a bourbon and water.”
Oh yeah, let’s have one of those right over here - a bourbon and water for the little lady who throws up tapioca pudding. But hey, she was dying and I was cleaning up worse than bourbon every day, so why not if that’s what she wanted. She nursed that drink all day with tiny sips. I added ice now and again. And she finished the whole thing easier than tapioca pudding ever went down.
About a week or so later, Mom had what appeared to be a similarly ill-considered whim: filet mignon, charred and rare, with asparagus and roasted new potatoes. How could I refuse. And again she surprised me, finishing the entire meal and happy to have done so.
On a lazy Saturday evening at the end of April, with the household chores in order and the shopping done, Mom and Joe and I picked out what we guessed might be a mildly entertaining movie on television, Dances With Wolves. Joe and I slouched on the floor with our backs against the sofa where Mom lay.
Within a few minutes, Joe noticed that Mom had fallen asleep. She was snoring, but the quality of it was different from the past and I realized this was the coma Mom’s doctor had told me to expect.
With no experience at a death watch, I had nothing to go on but instinct and what that consisted of mostly for the next two days, was to not leave Mom alone in her final hours. I sat next to her by day and slept on the floor by the sofa at night where I could hold her hand. She squeezed back occasionally the first night. Then she didn’t anymore.
Her friend Barbara came by to sit with Mom and Joe and me for a while on Sunday, and I slept on the floor again that night. By morning her breathing had eased. Barbara visited again for about an hour. Joe was changing beds and doing laundry. I sat on a little stool holding Mom’s hand.
I thought about the other end, the beginning of Mom’s life. Her mother had died of blood poisoning after surgeons left behind a sponge when Mom was born by Caesarian section in 1916. She was raised by a succession of her father’s several wives or shipped off to an aunt across town when a wife did not want a kid around.
High school was not required in her day, but she knew she would need the skills to support herself. To pay for classes in typing, stenography and bookkeeping, her aunt forced Mom to sell the gold beads that were her only memento of the mother she never knew.
It would have made sense for Mom to marry into a big, loud, messy, loving family to make up for the emotional deprivations of her childhood. Instead, she fell in love with another essential orphan, my father, whose father had disappeared when he was a toddler and whose mother had abandoned him to her sister when she wanted to remarry.
These two damaged people who had known nothing of a loving, safe home life growing up and had no knowledge of how families work, tried the best they could to invent one. The degree to which they succeeded or not with their two children was unimportant that day as I sat with Mom. I'd stopped blaming her long before for the parenting mistakes I once believed she'd made.
I thought too about my earliest memories of Mom, when Dad was in the Army Air Corps during World War II. I remembered how proud I felt to pick out his faraway location on Mom’s big, round globe. The Philippines and New Guinea are still the first places my eyes seek out when I come across a map of the world.
Whenever we returned from shopping in those days, in downtown Portland, Mom bought two, little, square cakes – I can still picture them - in a bakery near the bus stop and we ate them together when we got home, sitting on stools at the breadboard in the kitchen. That had been a half century ago, but it seemed like only yesterday as I sat with Mom in her living room on the last day of her life.
As Mom’s breathing slowed, I knew she was near the end. I wanted Joe there with us, but he was off in the laundry building across the way. I thought to go get him, but I couldn’t leave Mom to die alone. I strained to hear his step on the walk but that distracted me from Mom. I looked at the door, willing Joe to be there, then brushed him from my mind to leave it free for Mom. I laughed when I realized it was beginning to feel like a comedy tennis match with me glancing at the door hoping for Joe, then back again at Mom, at the door, Mom, the door…
Then Joe walked in and a minute or two later, Mom took her last breath. It was 1:20PM on 27 April 1992.
It happened so quietly, this death. It had an easy, everyday quality to it. Ordinary, you could say. But it wasn’t ordinary. It was my Mom. And a minute ago, she’d been there just having a nap it seemed. And then she wasn’t there and it wasn’t just a nap. And I couldn’t figure what had changed. What went away? What part of Mom wasn’t there anymore? And why didn’t she just open her eyes and ask for a bourbon and water.
...to be continued...
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 1
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 2
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 3
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 4
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 5
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 6
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 7
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 9
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 10
A mother's final, best lesson: Part 11
A mother's final, best lesson: Postscript