I never thought my mom bore a huge resemblance to my grandmother—my mom’s mom—but in death she looked just like her. I wasn’t there when my grandmother died, but she did have an open casket, I suppose as that was the way at the time and also so her Catholic friends could see she was going to rest with a rosary chain clasped between her hands. When my mom passed, the transformation happened in minutes. She was still my mom, but there was now a resemblance there I hadn’t seen before.
My grandmother was the first person I knew who passed only when it seemed that she was ready. My brother and I were up in Green Bay with our parents so we could be by her bedside. I was 10 or 11 at the time, my brother four years younger. It was a weird age to see someone close to you pass. We knew she was nearing the end, and after a couple of hours our parents made the decision for Mike and me to head home with our dad, and for our mom to stay in Green Bay with her mom and her brother. I walked to her bedside one last time before we left. “Goodbye, grandma,” I said, and she opened her eyes, looked at me for a moment, and closed them again.
The drive from the hospital down to Two Rivers was short—just 45 minutes—but between the time we left and reached home our grandmother had passed. Our mom was there when she died, and our parents later spoke of their belief that she had waited for the grandchildren to leave before she let go.
~ ~ ~
It’s been a weird few days. I think we were ready for mom to go as early as Wednesday night, but instead she made it to today. The last real conversations we had with her were on Sunday, which we now know was her rally day. With the exception of a single sentence on Wednesday, Tuesday and Wednesday were limited to three words: No, OK, and wow. By Thursday we were down to just the barest of expressions and facial movements.
The sentence on Wednesday was something. It had been clear she had been trying to say something for a while but couldn’t get the words out. I leaned down by her ear, and, finally, there it was: “I missed nothing.” Some of those I mentioned this to saw it as a statement of satisfaction of life, but for me there was ambiguity. I suspect it was actually something more practical: Communication had been tough for days, and part of me thinks this was her way of letting us know she had heard the conversations with the oncologist she liked, the oncologist she didn’t, the doctors, the people from hospice. I took it that she understood the conversation Mike and I had with her that we were out of options, that there was nothing that we could do, that we were sorry. And that she understood.
My mom’s friend Jean stayed with her Wednesday night while Mike and I went to a hotel in a futile attempt to get some rest. After discussion on Thursday, we decided to leave her by herself that night. This was both practical—Jean hurt her arm staying at the hospital, and Mike and I were no longer in any real condition to pull such a stunt—but also out of deference to mom. Many people, including some from hospice, had told us that those in the process of dying often wait to be alone before they let go, possibly out of not wanting to damage loved ones by making them see someone close to them pass. While we struggled with whether we were abandoning her, we wanted to give her that opportunity if that was what she wanted.
She had different plans, of course, and was still with us when we arrived this morning. Jean and I were the first to arrive, around 9:30 or so. Mike arrived a short while later. For an hour we sat and talked to her, much as we had for days. Eventually our words ran out, and for a long while we just sat with her in silence.
And then, a short time before 11:00, she came alive in a way we hadn’t seen in days. With a huge gasp of air she opened her eyes, slightly but clearly arching her back and raising her arms as she did so. It was like she was willing herself out of whatever declining body she was trapped in to be with us for a few more minutes. “This is it,” said Jean, and the three of us gathered by her bed and talked to her, telling her all the usual things: That we loved her, that we didn’t want this for her, that she was a great mom and friend. We then took turns talking to her individually, first Mike, then me, then Jean.
I spent about ten minutes saying goodbye to her. She couldn’t speak, but instead communicated with her eyes, movements of her mouth, and, most of all, her always-expressive eyebrows. At one point I said I wished I could read her mind, and she raised her eyebrows for a long time as if to say, yes, that would be quite useful right now. I told her that I hated this disease that was taking her, that I knew she didn’t want this, that she wasn’t ready, that none of us were. I told her there was a whole manufacturing company in Manitowoc that loved her like family. I told her while we had been separated for a while, it wasn’t her fault, and I was glad we were together now. I told her my brother and I had each other, that we loved each other, and would take care of each other. And I told her I loved her.
She quieted down after our conversations and became more calm, much as she had been when we had arrived in the morning. Mike headed out to take care of some errands and be with his family. Jean and I stuck around and a bit after 12:30 I noticed a change in my mom’s breathing. I stood up to stand by her and look at her. Jean came beside her as well. At this point the social worker came in and started chatting. The timing of the staff over the past few days had been impeccably bad, and it looked like they were going to finish off that way as well. I gently encouraged the social worker to leave, and then turned my focus back to mom.
Her breathing didn’t slow, but instead became more gentle. It went on that way for five minutes or so, and then there was another change. She started closing her mouth briefly between breaths, and then a few minutes later appeared to be more swallowing air than breathing it. I continued to look at her, and she at me. I gently stroked the side of her head with my thumb, not speaking, as there really wasn’t anything else to say.
And then she took a breath a bit deeper than those before it. The exhale that followed it was complete, deep, and full of purpose and commitment. With it she firmly closed her mouth and eyes, and at 12:50:04 on Friday, April 17, embraced oblivion.